The Martian - Review: A real space ace!

The Martian - Review: A real space ace!
10 out of 10

You remember playing that game in school about surviving on Mars? You’re given a list of 20-something items and as a team ranks them in order of importance to your survival. It usually just ends up in a load of arguing about what conditions would really be like compared to the same scenario on Earth (I still maintain the first aid kit was pointless if you can’t open your space suit). The problem is that problem truly is out of this world, and the reality of trying to survive on Mars comes with more unthought-of variables than all but the best of could possibly get their heads around. So it must really suck to be Matt Damon. For the 2nd time in as many years, he finds himself stranded on another planet in Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Well’s acclaimed novel, more commonly referred to as “Castaway on Mars”. The result is a big red success of film making and entertainment, and that may just be this fall’s must-see movie.

When a manned mission on Mars goes to hell, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon – The Bourne trilogy, Interstellar) is left behind and presumed dead. This begins his epic battle for survival across the lengthy wait for a rescue mission without anywhere near enough resources. Queue the science, the music, and no shortage of F-words.

While Interstellar was praised for its incorporation of realistic science into its premise, many felt this was at the cost of overall entertainment. The Martian is the perfect film for anyone so aggrieved last November as it incorporates so much pure fun and humour into its comparable space science adventures that you almost call it comedy. The trailers implied some lighter material but the end result is much riotous than most would expect, propelled Watney’s natural reactions to his predicaments using his sense of humour as a defence mechanism against hopelessness (surviving by laughing at yourself no matter what). The laughs come in thick and fast, and thanks to the more unorthodox source material, carry a good feeling of originality. From little gems like Watney realising he’s technically committing piracy or rocking the Fonzie pose for a serious photograph, it’s much better than most of the years intentional comedies. Drew Goddard’s (The Cabin in the Woods) script has excellently captured the tone of source novel, while injecting plenty of his own sharp wit to deliver a downright enjoyable movie. Yet it still manages to take itself serious when required, just very efficiently. When tragedy hits, we see (and feel) Watney’s pained reaction but the focus stays how he gets back up again in overall theme of survival and it’s that relentlessness that ultimately creates such an endearing hero, a hero botanist no less. The impossible science of feats like growing food and making extensive Martian road trips do not need a PHD to understand or appreciate as the film nicely boils them down to Mythbusters level basics and Watney’s euphoria in success is undeniably emphatic (“In your face Neil Armstrong!”).

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Now although Mars has a population of approximately Matt Damon, The Martian has no shortage of bodies elsewhere in an extensive expanded cast from rest of the mission crew, to the various NASA chiefs and technical staff. This is the part where you’d expect to hear that its overstuffed, and there isn’t enough screen time to go around.....  but you won’t, because The Martian actually excels at rolling characters in and out of its story when required. Especially on the Earth-based scenes, the emphasis is always on the events and the problems to be solved rather than specifically on the cast members involved, allowing them to become contributing passengers rather than driving engines. The NASA personal are kept to uncomplicated archetypes, but the crammed full of talent (and oddly, many superheroes) the likes Jeff Daniels Head of NASA or Kristen Wigg’s press/PR head, still come with their own sense of individuality. The shuttle crew are less successful in this capacity because the film tries to establish them more meaningfully in just as little time and with lengthy absences. 

Under the Martian’s dusty surface lurks many get structural gems. It rips a nice page from fellow space case Guardians of the Galaxy as the soundtrack is comprised entirely (much to Watney’s protest) of his crewmates cheesy disco collection. Then, there’s Mars herself. The baron visual landscapes are at times breathtaking as the sand swirls amongst the dark mountains or we follow Watney’s rover through the illustrious brown spectrum of the planet surface. The whole determined drive for survival against impossible odds combined with oddball quirks has a wonderful Doctor Who-like vibe to it. In fact, when Watney gives a speech about just solving problem after problem until you get home, many Whovians would want to flash to Peter Capaldi’s recent “it’s a thousand to one but forget the thousand and just concentrate the one” speech. Finally, The Martian achieves a genuine feeling of natural escalation as the events progress. There’s no mid-film peak around a key set piece. Each new obstacle Watney faces takes things into crazier, more unexpected but contextually believable territory, culminating in a brilliant and frantic rescue attempt.

Matt Damon has a lot of good acting performances to his name (not just Team America), and although it might not quite be his career's best, it’s hard to think of another film where he’s been so effortlessly charismatic and endearing at the lead. The film depends on investing in is survival, and he doesn’t just make you care, he make you believe in him. Elsewhere, Jeff Daniels (Speed) is almost in Newsroom mode (which is a good thing), and excels at opposing the popular without feeling like an overall antagonist. Kristen Wigg (Bridesmaids) is in her element in delivering subtle comic relief. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity) as impresses NASAs Mars Mission director, frequently being Watney’s advocate on the ground. Jessica Chastain (Interstellar) does well, as the Mission Commander, to convey her guilt and remorse over leaving Watney. Then on top of all that look out for Michael Peña (Ant Man), Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier), Donald Glover (Community), Mackenzie Davis (The F Word) and Sean Bean (who for the 3rd sci-fi film this year does not die!) to round off a star-studded and vastly talented cast.

The Martian marks not only the arrival of a terrific film but the welcome and joyous return of one Ridley Scott. After a few years of troubled projects, this reminds us of the iconic credits of his CV. It’s a film to be treasured no matter what facial expression science induces and one more of this year’s truly unique and special offerings. 3D viewing is recommended as it does enhance many visuals. NASA may have found liquid water on Mars but The Martian has found pure outstanding entertainment.

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