As the director of such classics as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, Ridley Scott will always be a filmmaking legend. That said, Sir Ridley has been through one helluva rough patch of late with both The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings failing to live up to the hype. Basically, with Prometheus 2 Alien: Paradise Lost looming on the horizon like a gargantuan mechanical albatross, the director really could do with a win right about now.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that he should return to the formidable depths of space for another ambitious tale of survival against inhospitable odds with The Martian. The result is a bold, breath-taking adventure that literally pins you to your seat whilst staying grounded in hopeful human territory. In short, it’s Scott’s best film in years.
Based on Andy Weir’s hugely popular novel – which has its own extraordinary story, rising from Amazon dark horse to New York Times best-seller – the story centres on Matt Damon’s accidental castaway Mark Watney, a garrulous space botanist on a manned mission to Mars who is accidentally left for dead by his crew when a sudden violent storm sparks a hasty evacuation.
Obviously, Watney lives – Scott didn’t pull Damon out of unofficial hiatus just make another cameo as a stranded astronaut – and having survived the storm finds himself marooned on the Red Planet. With his supplies dwindling and help at least four years away, Watney has to use his wit and expertise to quote “science the shit” out of his predicament in order to survive on a hostile planet until a rescue mission arrives.
Like Watney’s survival and rescue, The Martian as a film is fraught with monumental challenges, the most ominous being how to turn of story that is essentially about a man using his own faeces to grow potatoes into a compelling movie. With a hefty dose of sharp humour seems to be the answer.
Along with screenwriter Drew Goddard (Daredevil), Ridley strikes a delicate balance between entertainment and sciencey stuff by using Watney’s snarky video blogs – a neat way to externalise the novel’s internal narration – as commentary for his attempts to devise innovative solutions to produce food and water on a lifeless planet.
Scott cuts purposefully between the three main plot strands – Mars, the crew of the Ares III and NASA HQ on Earth – ensuring that, rather than diluting the sense of claustrophobia, it further emphasises Watney’s isolation by reminding us just how far from home he is. The director also knows when to deploy a montage to rattle things along, breezing over the heavy technical jargon instead of getting bogged down in endless exposition.
In fact, Scott’s direction is simply masterful throughout. While the vast, desolate Martian landscape is both isolating and awe-inspiring, it’s the way Scott deftly builds tension that is most impressive. This is best exemplified by the two set-pieces that bookend the film – the fierce storm that marks the start of Watney’s troubles and the daring mission to bring him back home. In both, the director slowly raises the suspense by drawing the camera tighter to the action and hinting at all the dangers that could spell disaster for the crew. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff and no one does it better.
Damon is brilliant in the lead role; his natural affable everyman persona fitting perfectly here to ensure Watney’s good humour is always endearing rather than grating. And while there’s no deep existential crisis, Watney never feels like a one-note character as Damon periodically allows fear and desperation to cut through his character’s determined bonhomie. The result is a well-rounded character who we feel hard-wired to root for even though we learn very little of his life beyond the mission.
One minor flaw with The Martian is it stumbles with its secondary characters. Though Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain and Jeff Daniels all make memorable impressions in their respective roles, the rest of the cast are much less defined. Whilst not every character needs to have a fully formed arc, the fact that it means talented performers such as Kate Mara and Chiwetel Ejiofor are lumbered with thin roles feels like a waste.
Yet it seems churlish to quibble when the film gets so much right. The Martian is Ridley Scott at his most inspired, his expert hand combining lung-bursting spectacle, a sharp wit and an enthralling lead performance from Matt Damon into something that will leave you as breathless as if you’d been dropped on the Martian surface without a suit. Suddenly, Alien: Paradise Lost can’t arrive soon enough.
Runtime: 141 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 30 September 2015;
Director: Ridley Scott; Writer: Drew Goddard, Andy Weir (novel);
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean
Click here to watch a trailer for The Martian