Space has always been cinema’s final frontier. With a long successful history of exploring the outer regions of our galaxy, Hollywood has engaged, humbled and awe-struck audiences the world over. Considering the recent critical and commercial success within the sci-fi genre, one would rightly think Ridley Scott and Matt Damon‘s first collaboration is a play-it-safe studio-led machine heavily indebted to Alfonso Cuarón and Christopher Nolan‘s unique and distinctive contributions. However, in reality, The Martian is an altogether different beast. Combining the vast cinematic beauty of Interstellar (2014), the inescapably tense action of Gravity (2013) with the gun-ho cavalierness of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – and believe it or not, some robust science – there’s a lot to love here, and it’s less derivative than first thought.
Based on Andy Weir‘s 2011 novel of the same name (which Drew Goddard adapted for the screen), Botanist and mechanical engineer of NASA mission Ares 3, Mark Watney, is believed dead when an antenna impales him during a dust storm on Mars. The rest of his crew are forced to evacuate due to the escalating conditions, but hours later he regains consciousness and, returning to the safety of base camp, fully realises the reality of his situation. Facing over a 4 year wait till a manned-mission can retrieve him and only a month’s worth of rations remaining, our astronaut is left with only his scientific resourcefulness and resolve to ensure his survival and the slimmest chance of a safe return to earth.
A gigantic, star-studded cast has been assembled by Scott for this – in all honestly it feels less like an ensemble and more like an all-star thespian behemoth. Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peńa, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sean Bean and Askel Hennie all shine in their respective posts. This, along with the planet-switching narrative strands and unrelenting action sequences, cement the sheer scale of the film. The hostile red planet is stunningly captured (or more accurately, imagined) by long-time Scott collaborator DoP Dariusz Wolski. With exquisitely framed tracking shots and confident, poised long takes, one could be forgiven for thinking Mars is the lead subject of the film. The vast sand-scapes and hostile climate act as the enchanting focal point throughout, reminding the audience of its desolate, merciless nature and thus heightening the drama further.
Despite the ridiculously unfavourable odds faced by our stranded hero, a crowd-pleasing Disco soundtrack (creatively written in) combined with Watney’s ceaseless charismatic wit, establish a feel-good atmosphere that runs effortlessly throughout. Resultantly, you never feel your protagonist’s fate is ever really in question. When NASA HQ and the Ares 3 crew do realise their mistake, you always feel they’ve got what it takes to bring their man home. While the grand Kubrickesque cinematography and jaw-dropping set-pieces compete with the likes of Interstellar and Gravity for intoxication, it’s the lack of ambiguity surrounding Damon’s fate that feels slightly out-of-place. The bombastic, slick pacing and sharp humor prevent this from detracting much from your overall entertainment however. The peril’s almost besides the point. This isn’t so much a film about despair and the acceptance of our own mortality. On the contrary, this is a cinematic thrill ride purely intended to champion the strength of the human spirit, our hero’s relentless bravery and the rock ‘n’ roll brilliance of science.
Boston’s favourite son, Matt Damon, returns to the leading man arena with aplomb as the witty and admirable Astro-botanist Watney. Bringing a defiant yet humble humanity to the role, he’s perfectly cast as our intrepid, unrelenting Starman. It’s undoubtedly his strongest turn of recent memory, one that makes clear his deft touch would have been sorely missed had one of his less adept peers taken the role.
The real success here though lies with our director. After an admittedly underwhelming run of form for the last 5-10 years, it’s hugely gratifying to see Ridley Scott regain his stride in the genre which at one time he pioneered and subsequently launched his career. This isn’t regurgitating past glories though. Having found a more playful and energetic tone that balances the epic grandeur we’ve come to expect from his projects, you feel he’s engineered a more sophisticated and less heavy-handed approach that keeps you giddily on the edge of your seat. He effortlessly combines thrills, smarts, tension and laughs with maximum flair – reigniting a squandered belief his best years may not all be behind him.
As you leave the theatre with a big fat grin, you’ll be glad you took the ride. Fully elated, entertained and smugly proud of the human heart and mind. Ridley’s back – and with a smile to boot.