Tales of humans over-reaching and generally messing up are the norm now. If we’re not triggering the apocalypse or tampering with that which should not be tampered, we’re finding some other way to make a hash of things.
It’s therefore reassuring to have a film like The Martian come along every once in a while, showing the capacity of mankind to face overwhelming odds with can-do spirit and a quip to hand.
Even so, from the outset Ridley Scott seemed like an odd choice for the film. Ever since his classical heyday, his more recent films like Body Of Lies, Prometheus and The Counselor share the distinction of polarising viewers.
While people disagree on how good they are, one unifying factor is that he rarely makes us laugh. His films are sombre, serious affairs, with the comedic elements in Prometheus in particular feeling awkward. Here, paired Buffy screenwriter Drew Goddard, he has helmed his first truly funny film.
But that’s far from all there is to The Martian. Seeing astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars while Mission Control frets about how to bring him back and his crew mates proceed home unawares, we bear witness to humanity’s survival instinct at the most calm, methodical and mathematical that you’ll ever see it.
While the likes of Apollo 13 and Castaway (both clear touchstones for this) were all about escape, Watney is more focused on endurance, making full use of the surroundings to prolong his own existence for as long as necessary.
As far as leads go, Damon is almost as much of a safe bet as it’s possible to get. Given the opportunity to showcase his charisma and presence via a series of video-diary entries, he makes it nigh-on impossible not to cheer him on as he comes up with all manner of creative solutions to his unique conundrum (growing potatoes with the assistance of fertiliser made from his own faecal matter being a particular ‘highlight’), all the while accompanied by the disco soundtrack that he reluctantly works along to.
Yet even he can’t carry an entire movie by himself. Back on Earth, we bear witness to a four-way sparring battle as Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean cross verbal swords over how to manage the situation. Of the four, Daniels is arguably most memorable as NASA head Teddy Sanders, forced by default into a quasi-antagonistic role as the man in charge of balancing the mission to rescue Mark with the need to safeguard the rest of the crew.
Coupled with a number of scene-stealing cameos – particularly Donald ‘Childish Gambino’ Glover as wunderkid Rich Purnell – and you have a dynamic that is just as engaging as the events in space.
In among all this, however, it’s the crew of the Ares 3 who are the most short-changed. While all have their banter and character quirks, only Chastain is truly fleshed out as the guilt-ridden mission leader Melissa Lewis – it would have been nice to have seen more of their dynamic and camaraderie before they were separated.
Some may also find Watney a tad too cheerful for someone stranded by himself millions of miles away from home, but then others might appreciate the gallows humour on show. Ultimately, it all depends on whether you’d find this kind of attitude believable in such a situation. If you do (like we did), it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Combined with the kind of breathtaking cinematography that gave the director his name, and a sense of diluted optimism running through it, and you have a film that sails through its lengthy run time. Like many of Ridley Scott’s recent films, will likely polarise, but it has definitely won us over.