Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean
Genre: Drama/ Sci-Fi
During a manned mission to mars, a sudden storm forces the crew to evacuate, but after astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is struck by debris they are forced to leave him behind, presumed dead. However Watney miraculously survives, but is left alone on the Mars with only meagre supplies. He is forced to use his skills as a botanist to survive on a planet where nothing grows and find a way to contact earth. Meanwhile on earth those at NASA work tirelessly to figure out a way to rescue him and bring him home before his supplies run out.
The likes of Gravity and Interstellar have been recent films set in space that have been huge financial and critical successes, but while both those films certainly have admirable qualities, I would most certainly argue that The Martian works better than either of those films as a piece of pure cinematic entertainment. Despite the potentially bum-numbing running time of 141 minutes, from its wonderfully put together opening sequence, Ridley Scott’s latest is a superbly entertaining and deeply engrossing film from start to finish that maintains a good balance of human drama, humour, baffling science and stunning, immersive visuals that should be expected from any good blockbuster.
The film wastes no time in setting the scene as the opening sequence throws us straight into the main plot and Damon’s protagonist finding himself miraculously alive, but stranded and alone on the red planet. Of course the initial premise to The Martian is nothing new and quite generic, but yet it is never anything less than thoroughly engaging.
Of course, with a protagonist that spends so much screen time alone during the narrative it is a challenge for both the actor, screenwriter and director to maintain the viewer’s engagement, but they succeed on all counts. Thought the science is sometimes a little baffling to the average viewer, Mark Watney’s explanation of what he is doing to survive is covered by him continuously talking to a video log. This is not only extremely feasible as a character this isolated would need someone or something to share some chinwag with, even if that were a computer screen, but it is often delivered with great humour to stop it from being too boring and dry. Our protagonist’s situation is of course bleak and so the use of humour in Drew Goddard’s script is never overdone to detract from the sense of peril, but it only adds to our engagement with the narrative and routing for Mark Watney to survive this situation.
Of course a great leading performance is crucial, and Matt Damon is excellent as Mark Watney; using his usual likeable screen charisma to excel in the role, Damon’s delivery of the script’s lighter dialogue is just as convincing as the far more serious moments, making sure The Martian is often great entertainment, but the sense of overriding peril is always very real too. The use of music too, adds an extra layer of both emotional involvement and entertainment.
The visuals and set design are stunning; Scott’s panning wide screen shots of Mars’ barren landscape and Dariusz Wolski’s stunning cinematography capture perfectly the incredible isolation that Watney feels. I will of course avoid the spoilers involved with going into too much detail, but a sequence in the film’s final third is staged with incredible aplomb and produces the utmost tension.
Of course though this film is called The Martian, half of the narrative takes place away from Mars and with the crew that left Watney behind as they are on their journey back to earth or NASA staff actually on earth, and Scott puts together one of the best ensembles of the year. The Martian contains a cast list full to the brim of big recognisable names, but on the whole each character gets their own moments to shine and it never feels likes overkill or casting big names for the sake of it. Particular standouts of those back on earth are Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean (especially the jumpers) and Benedict Wong.
Admittedly though those that play the crew that leave Watney behind are all excellent, they do not get enough screen time to truly flesh out their relationship with Watney and the emotional feelings of leaving him behind and their discovery that he is in fact alive.
The Martian does also certainly take a few narrative liberties; there are far more knowledgeable people than myself to question the science, but the average viewer has to just go with baffling explanations and assume they are correct. Likewise a lot of plot points are perhaps a little too neat and tidy, especially how certain nations are instantly happy to work together to just rescue one American astronaut.
However these few problems are forgivable as The Martian is first and foremost a piece of escapist entertainment that never attempts to be preachy or a lecture in science, and this is why it is a very well weighted balance of drama, humour and science, making it one of the year’s bet blockbusters and cinematic experiences.
A film that has everything a good true blockbuster should; The Martian may have a few flaws, but with a well weighted balance of human drama, peril and humour helped by a vast array of great performances it undoubtedly delivers as a superb piece of pure popcorn entertainment.