Space…The Final Frontier. A phrase (cribbed from a famous TV sci-fi franchise, I’ll let you guess which one) that sums up the excitement and energy that was behind the space race of the 50’s and 60’s. NASA was well-funded, respected and every kid wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up. However in present day all that enthusiasm is all but gone, with NASA a shadow of its former glory, more known for headlining news of budget cuts and inappropriate shirts than of space travel. So maybe The Martian is just what we need to fuel excitement in travelling to worlds beyond our own, because when Mark Watney (Matt Damon) decides to “Science the Sh*t” out of the movie, he does it in such an entertaining way that, I’m sure, will inspire another generation to want to be one of the next intrepid space explorers.
The Martian is based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir. Initially self-published by Weir, the story is a meticulously researched piece that is in equal parts a tale of determination, hope and survival. When a freak storm forces the emergency evacuation of a NASA science crew on Mars, a piece of flying debris crashes into astronaut Mark Watney and carries him away from the rest of the group. With the astronauts believing that Watney is dead, they reluctantly leave him behind. However, Watney is very much alive and now he needs to survive four years on Mars with only a month’s worth of supplies until the next manned mission to Mars can rescue him. This is a story of optimism and ingenuity, told through the eyes of Watney, his fellow astronauts mourning for their fallen crew mate and the team at NASA who at first try to deal with the public relations nightmare of the death of an astronaut, and then focus all their resources on getting Watney back once they find out he’s still alive.
The book itself is a delight to read. I couldn’t put it down from the moment I picked it up and despite the technical (and accurate) jargon strewn through its pages, I found the story easily accessible, a chronicle of a man with a strong will to live, and the efforts that men and women will go through to save their own. All this could have easily been lost during the translation from book to film, but thankfully screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Ridley Scott manage to keep the essence of what made the source material so great and add a beautiful mix of CGI and practical imagery to flesh out the world of The Martian.
Damon is perfect as the witty, irreverent yet clever Mark Watney. With his trademark smile and every man demeanour, the actor is totally believable as an astronaut faced with insurmountable odds, macgyvering solutions to the onslaught of obstacles that Mars throws at him, all the while managing to grin and joke in the video bogs Watney keeps to document his ordeal. Where a bulk of the movie focuses on his lone sojourn, Damon has the unenviable task of entertaining audiences on his own, and manages to do this whilst also eliciting laughs from the audience. No easy feat.
The scenes not set on Mars, focus on the returning crew in their spacecraft, Hermes, and the NASA team back on Earth, with mixed results. While the astronauts in space, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain); Pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), physician Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan); computer specialist Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) and chemist Vogel (Aksel Hennie), have an impressive pedigree of actors portraying them, I felt that most of their scenes slowed the proceedings. As much as I appreciated the attempt to show how the crew was dealing with their decision to abandon their crew-mate, I really just wanted to get back to Mars to see more of Watney.
The scenes with NASA fared better. Led by Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the sequences highlighted the idea of collaboration, as various teams from around the world put aside their differences and worked diligently to shorten the time to get back to Mars and to increase the chances of survival of Mars’ sole inhabitant. The audience shares the lows faced by the earthbound engineers as well as the exhilaration when their efforts succeed, all the while having the clock tick in their race against time
And of course, in a film called The Martian, I have to mention the red planet. Desolate, silent, deadly but at the same time beautiful. The cinematography is amazing, managing to turn the surface of Mars into a gorgeous landscape, with its multitude orange and red hues. The understated score by Harry Gregson-Williams, accentuates the feeling of solitude, raising up only in the moments of triumph, and then receding once again into the background.
The Martian is a great return to form by Ridley Scott. It’s a great story of man’s fortitude in the face of adversity and also paints NASA in a positive light. Hopefully this will kick-start more interest in NASA’s extra-terrestrial endeavours. As an aside, I felt that the book showed more of Watney’s technical skill and also explained his slapped together solutions better than the film did.
If you get a chance, make sure to put Andy Weir’s novel on your reading list. You won’t regret it.
I give The Martian an 8.5 out of 10.