Things are beginning to look up for Ridley Scott. After a series of critically panned movies and lacklustre box office performance it was high time that he restated his command of modern cinema. The fact that many think he has not been on the top of his game since Black Hawk Down becomes more of a statement with each passing film. So it was a pleasure to see the reception to his latest film. The Martian has had a very favourable response from critics and has just had a very successful opening week. But is it any good?
In the near future manned missions to Mars is a reality. While on a thirty day mission on the red planet the crew of the Ares III run into some trouble. With the threat of a major storm heading their way the commander Lewis (Jessica Chatstain) decides to abort the mission. The storm hits as the crew is departing resulting in Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) having an accident and being left behind on the planet, presumed dead by his colleagues. Watney awakes after the storm with a piece of the comms antenna stuck in him and no other life form on the same planet as him. Patching himself up, he then starts to take stock of the situation. He is alone on a desolate world with limited food, water and resources. He is living in a habitat that was designed to last no more than thirty days and he has no way to contact NASA to let them know he is alive. The next scheduled flight to Mars is some four years away so Watney has to find some way to live until then.
Based on the novel of the same name, the film is structured in such a way to allow the audience to get a real feel for the main character. We spend extended periods of time with Watney as he firstly comes to terms with his situation and then as he fights against the odds to survive on the red planet. Since this is a film that has technology surrounding it the problem of how to convey the story is easily overcome. Watney speaks directly to the camera in the form of journal entries as he would normally do during the mission. This allows the viewer to enter the mindset of the character without resorting to voice overs. It’s the kind of thing that you imagine being taught to astronauts in case they get into this situation. Find ways to keep going. Anything that works.
As you would imagine the entries get personal at times, but it also focuses the mind of the character on the task at hand. Even though no one is talking back it is a form of reasoning and the use of verbal communication is important in keeping Watney sane. In fact, any distraction will do. This leads him to listen to the selection of disco music on the commanders laptop even though it drives him nuts. It’s a connection to home.
The film deals with the human spirit and the urge that we have to explore and discover. In the harsh enviroment Watney is faced with test after test. Failure of anyone is potentially fatal. What he does is to apply his knowledge and skill to each problem and always looks for ways to improve his chances. One friend noted that it was MacGyver on Mars which isn’t too far from the truth except it is using realistic science to solve the problems and there isn’t a mullet hairdo in sight.
Damon pulls off the role of the stranded spaceman very well. He comes across as an intelligent and passionate man who, although in a perilous situation, has the understanding to realise that his survival is down to him alone. He seems personable and funny. There is a vein of humour running through the film which is used well to alleviate the sometimes overbearing tension.
The rest of the film is set on Earth and in space as NASA and the crew of the Ares III make efforts to save Watney. It is an impressive ensemble cast that works well together. It is an effective contrast to the action on Mars. Whereas Watney is working on his own, on Earth it is a cast of thousands working on the rescue attempt with ever tightening deadlines for launch dates. Most of the actors get a limited time on the screen, but it is enough for audiences to get a flavour of their character and understand how they fit into the overall story. Donald Glover is a stand out as always and Jeff Daniels is very effective in his role as the director of NASA. He is channeling a bit of his character from The Newsroom, which is no bad thing. He has gravitas and impeccable timing for the odd moments when he gets to make a humourous remark.
The film is a visual treat. I saw the film in 3D and it looked fantastic. The 3D gives depth to the scenes and emphasises the vastness of the terrain. With a red tinged colour palette (of course) the film takes on a warm and inviting feel which lulls you into a false sense of security in the harsh environment. It is very beautiful and an impressive piece of film making.
Overall a terrific film that marks a welcome return to form for Ridley Scott. Highly recommended.