Thirty five plus years after making us scream with Alien, Ridley Scott dons his space helmet for a third time (after getting decidedly lost in space with 2012s misconceived Prometheus) . Fortunately he’s on much surer ground here; and despite his reputation suffering in recent years, he’s staged an epic comeback on the Red Planet.
Based on the novel by Andy Weir, The Martian plays like a kind of cross between Apollo 13 and Castaway. After being presumed killed during a deadly dust storm on Mars, Astro-botanist Mark Watney gets marooned after his crew are forced to abandon the planet and hightail it back to Earth. With limited supplies and a rescue mission impossibly far in the future, he has the choice of either accepting his fate- or using his ingenuity and ‘working the problem‘. Or, in proper scientific vernacular, “sciencing the **** out of if”. Meanwhile, a frantic team in mission control (motivated partly by human solidarity and partly by PR damage control); and Watney’s guilt ridden compatriots aboard The Ares spaceship try every trick in the book to get him home.
The Martian (unlike Prometheus) takes a much more pragmatic and positive view of science. But in some ways its even message is simpler than that. In the end of the day, its about humans overcoming adversity; the will to survive; and the age old coda of ‘never leaving a man behind‘. In that respect, is shares some space-survival DNA with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (although its light years away from Nolan’s intensely heavy Interstellar). The simple premise, with its slow pace, laid-back sensibilitly and lengthy running time, might seem like a recipe for boredom. And it could have been, if it weren’t for the film's trump card…
...The Martian has a sense of humour.
It's irreverently, almost insubordinately funny. It isn’t full of corny jokes, one liners or slapstick; it’s a naturalistic, human-banter style humour and it works perfectly in the film. After years of dour historical epics and existential quasi-religious musings- the old geezer finally let's his hair down. The Martian is the funniest non-comedy script of the year- perhaps even ahead of Joss Whedon’s Avengers Age of Ultron.
Performances are a delight from a surprisingly enormous cast. Matt Damon kills it in his funniest and most likeable role to date; Michael Pena (as usual) is jovial and naturally funny; Jeff Daniels is also a hoot as the 'swine with a heart' (“I’m Teddy. I’m the chairman of NASA”); and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean provide determination and compassion; while Jessica Chastain adds steely resolve. It’s a film about one man, but it’s unequivocally a team effort.
One thing you can always count on from Ridley Scott is a good looking movie, and The Martian could be among his best yet. Cinematographer Dariusz Adam Wolski (who also worked on the similarly gorgeous Prometheus) serves up depictions of the planet Mars- with its canyons, mountains, craters, gorges and sunrises- that are just staggeringly beautiful. Filmed partially in Jordan (the go-to Mars location on Earth) and augmented with some phenomenal CGI, The Red Planet has never looked more awesome. So too are the space scenes that are the best-looking since Gravity; showcased particularly during the film’s gripping climax. It’s a looker all right. And the score by Harry Gregson-Williams is a work of art too- understated and suitably otherworldly.
So The Martian is a fine and much needed return to form for Ridley Scott’s flagging resume; and its also the best Mars movie hands down. Funny, likeable, dramatic, inventive and with a delightful Matt Damon performance, strong supporting cast, stunning visuals, and a sparkly script. Welcome back Sir Ridley, we missed you.