Ridley Scott is back, and has this time turned his head to a less fantastical sort of sci-fi. The Martian, very faithfully based on the bestseller by Andy Weir, is extremely grounded in a plausible not-so-distant-future where manned missions to Mars are not only possible, but in their third iteration. Tragedy occurs 8 days into the Ares III mission, as a sand storm hits the astronauts who are dutifully collecting rock samples from the surface. Commander Lewis (Chastain) orders the mission scrubbed and upon evac, geologist Mark Watney (Damon) is struck by flying debris and thought dead by his comrades when his bio-monitor goes dead.
After much heartache and deliberation in the short amount of time afforded to them, the crew decide to depart the planet before their shuttle irrevocably tips due to the wind. Little do they know, but Watney has survived.
The film follows Watney as he chooses to attempt to survive until the next manned mission to Mars, the Ares IV, reaches him. He immediately sets about attempting to grow food and make enough water to survive, using his not-inconsiderable botany and engineering knowhow. His struggles on the red planet are beautifully, simplistically shown – a real love letter to the science nerd and the power of mathematics and reasoning to help an intelligent man to survive in a place where nothing should.
Scott, working from a script by able scribe Drew Goddard (itself almost following the source material to a tee), focuses on the folks at NASA back on Earth just as much as he does Watney. Arguably, the people back on our little blue orb who realise Watney is still alive and their struggle to save him is just as fascinating as the man’s lone struggle hundreds of millions of miles away.
NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Bridges), Director of Mars Missions Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Bean) and PR guru Annie Montrose (Wiig) have a series of fascinating discussions and decisions to make regarding the continued efforts to save Watney. Watching Henderson fight with Kapoor to inform the Ares III crew that their teammate is still alive makes for as interesting a scene as any one of the survival situations that Watney finds himself in – and Scott knows it. The moral and ethical conundrums combined with the problem-solving approach to a problem no one has ever encountered before are a thrill to watch.
Unfortunately, this does lead to a sort-of imbalance between the scenes on Mars and the scenes on Earth; anyone who has read the book will know that Mark’s struggles on the red planet are given precedence over the other portions of the story (admittedly, not by much). The bad scrapes he finds himself in and the minutiae of his life on Mars are much more expanded upon in the novel, to the point that as a book-reader it’s jarring to see how brief his time on Mars feels in the film. Admittedly, there is a lot of ground to cover, as a portion of the film is also devoted to the Ares III crew post-Mars evacuation, but the full weight of the astronaut’s time stranded doesn’t really hit home as much as it should.
The runtime of The Martian is still a good two hours and twenty minutes, so it’s a tall order to ask for additional scenes – had they included more of Watney’s time on Mars they would’ve had to cut equally interesting material from elsewhere, which book readers would be complaining about just as much. So it’s a Catch-22, in the end. The fact remains that this film is as good an adaptation as we are likely to get, and it was quite the coup. Whole swathes of dialogue are lifted from the book, and that’s a rare thing (and a testament to Weir’s characterisation and dialogue skills).
The cast assembled here is simply spellbinding; definitely one of the great ensemble casts of the last 15 years. Jeff Bridges does great work, bringing more personality and humanity to his character than exists in the book, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (filling in for Irrfan Khan, whose presence would have been a fine addition – he couldn’t do the film at the last minute due to a Bollywood scheduling conflict) does his great, likable shtick as the audience’s point of reference for where we’re at with saving Mark. Wiig continues to impress in more serious roles (although still carries her trademark wit around with her) and Donald Glover steals his scenes as socially awkward astrodynamicist Rich Purnell, who proves key to the story. Sean Bean brings pathos to the proceedings as the man truly on the side of the Ares III crew, and Benedict Wong cements his place as a familiar character actor you’re always happy to see. Every single member of the cast is a pleasure to watch.
This also extends to the Ares III crew, who get big props for actually feeling not just like crewmates but actual, lived-in, loyal friends. Chastain, Peña, Mara, Stan and Hennie also get extra props for literally becoming the real life incarnations of their characters from the book; nothing has been lost in translation, thanks to the script, Scott’s direction and their acting. One or two grace notes toward the end, plot-wise, may have been changed, but they’re only changes that work. Their characters’ relationships to each other are so believable that a crucial decision made at the start of the third act feels indefatigably real.
Finally, Matt Damon once again proves himself as the all-American everyman. There’s something about the man so inherently watchable that we could probably watch two hours of him trapped in a dustbin, let alone somewhere as visually exciting as Mars. He perfectly encapsulates Mark Watney’s sense of humour, dutifully imported from the book (and one of the best parts about it), whilst also tempering it with the character’s more solemn moments of despair – and absolutely nailing it. A perfect choice, and from what can be told – the only choice. You put someone like Robert Downey Jr up there and Watney becomes too glib, or someone like Brad Pitt and he becomes too unrelatable.
The shoot, located in the red deserts of Jordan with some CGI embellishment here and there, presents Mars as an alien landscape erring on the side of familiarity. Audiences are drawn into the feelings that Watney experiences as he surveys his surroundings – that there are elements to other planets in the universe so much like elements of our own. Yet this thrum of existential dread runs through Watney’s veins – that he is completely, utterly alone on an entire planet. Damon sells this feeling with a faraway look, and Scott and his cohorts cap it off with an eerie part of the score that kicks up every time Damon sets foot outside of his ‘Hab’.
Ultimately, Ridley Scott has captured the essence of the novel, as Weir constantly tempered the abject terror of loneliness and threat of death on Mars with the moments of triumph for Watney and those trying to rescue him back home. When Harry Gregson-Williams’ score quietly kicks up, accompanying the first sign of growth for Watney’s potatoes, it’s one of the most subtle, yet uplifting moments in the entire film. Scott here has pulled together a film that is one of his best in years, a complete package. You’d be a fool to miss it.
Review by Dan Woburn