Matt Damon, as stranded astronaut Mark Watney tells a tale of human determination and ingenuity, while delivering a performance the likes of which he hasn’t given since Good Will Hunting and The Rainmaker.
When a storm forces his crew to leave Mars, Watney, having been struck by part of the Ares III lander, is pesumed dead, and ends up alone on the Red Planet. Realising that he has a choice between a slow death by starvation or finding a way to survive, he chooses the latter, falling back on his extensive knowledge of science (he’s a botanist,) to cultivate his own potatoes, using plastic sheeting, and water produced by burning hydrogen, to cultivate the otherwise barren Martian soil.
Great. A feel good Science Fiction film that actually relies on hard science to facilitate its plot. Brilliant you think, for this first part of the film is strangely captivating, perhaps because in talking directly to the audience, Damon’s performance is much more intimate than would be the case if this were just another action flick that happens to be set in space. Admittedly Damon’s acting is helped along by CGI that has finally come of age, for the Mars it creates and presents on the screen is vibrant and compelling. From the pink skies to the dust devils, to the huge storms that swamp the tiny habitat where Watney is living, you are left with no doubts that this is an alien world; one that is utterly hostile to human life.
Full credit should be given to Ridley Scott for endeavouring to make a film that’s educational as well as entertaining.
Nevertheless Watney lives. Growing his own potatoes, and finding a way to communicate to NASA that he’s still alive, he strives to survive. While the hexadecimals quickly give way to a hacked computer when it comes to talking, the system Watney uses to speak is breathtaking in its simplicity, and full credit should be given to Ridley Scott for endeavouring to make a film that’s educational as well as entertaining.
Even the tiresome, perhaps-too-frequent jaunts back to Earth, where NASA is struggling to cope with the knowledge that they’ve left one of their own behind, don’t manage to ruin the overall experience of the film. Here we meet an interesting array of characters, from Jeff Daniels’s pragmatic Director Sanders, Chiwetel Ejofor’s Vincent Kapoor, along with a somewhat craggy Sean Bean giving us the loyal Mitch Henderson, to the not quite with it astrophysicist Rich Parnell, played by Donald Glover. The Ares III sections of the film have a great cast too, including Jessica Chastain and Sebastian Stan along with Ant-Man’s Michael Pena, as entertaining here as he was in Marvel’s most recent outing. With all that said though, this is Damon’s film through and through, with everything else being an almost unwanted distraction. If his performance isn’t recognised in next year’s Oscars, be prepared for many justified complaints about the Academy’s snobbishness.
So what is the flaw in this film? Simply put, it’s China. The man who wrote the book on which The Martian is based, did in fact write the Chinese into his story, and in that Ridley Scott is completely faithful. This however does not stop it from being the point where the film looses its originality and ends up becoming the standard issue action flick that it managed to avoid in the first half of the picture. From the point where the Chinese become involved, offering to lend a booster to help send the Ares III crew back to Mars, everything starts to feel contrived, and this film, which had the potential to be a classic, begins to outstay its welcome. So, Mitch has to tell the crew they can go back for Watney even at the cost of his job. Cliché. Watney has to blast himself into space with nothing more than a tarpaulin for a roof. Cliché. Oh and two of the other astronauts have to fall in love, get married and have a baby on their return to Earth. Cliché.
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That, in essesence, is the problem with this film. It can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a film where one lone man advances the cause of science more than any other film has done since science-fiction first came into being, or is just another happy ending blockbuster action flick whose only difference is that it’s Jessica Chastain who gets to take the lead in rescuing Watney rather than one of her male counterparts? As such, whilst it certainly has its merits and warrants a viewing, The Martian’s triumph will always be a little tarnished.
By Gareth Wood