Ridley Scott directs The Martian, an enthralling if unoriginal spacewreck tale akin to Cast Away with red sand. The 2015 motion picture is predictable to a fault, but Scott handles the elements well and maintains a propulsive pace throughout its 141 or so minutes. The screenplay by Drew Goddard is based on Andy Weir’s book of the same name and covers all the necessary bases.
Scott is no stranger to space narratives, with outings like Alien and Prometheus in his back pocket. The Martian tells its story in a relatively straightforward way, with the director putting together workable solutions to some rather horrifying problems. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who shot Prometheus for Scott, captures the arid vistas and warm resolutions with easygoing style.
The year is 2035 and the crew of the Ares III is on Mars. A dust storm erupts, causing them to abort the mission. In the process of evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney is hit by debris and lost. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), believing Mark dead, gives the order to leave before the storm causes further damage.
But Mark isn’t dead. He returns to the crew’s living quarters to find everyone gone and does his best not to give into despair. Watney eventually comes up with a plan to survive, marking the passage of time in Mars solar days. Back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) works with mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to bring their man back.
Scott flips the action between the NASA rescue effort and Mark’s endeavours to remain alive on Mars. Every so often, he revisits Commander Lewis and the rest of the crew aboard the Hermes as they learn about the situation with their fellow crew member. Eventually, they are pulled into the rescue effort as astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) comes up with a wild plan.
The most captivating scenes involve Damon spending time by himself on Mars. He presses himself to work, in part to increase his chances of survival and in part to maintain some semblance of sanity. He illustrates how close to the edge he is when he tries counting potatoes during a storm. Damon excels at pulling his attention in a million places at once.
He also excels at injecting humour, but it never feels like he’s cutting riffs from a comedy workshop. Damon has Watney behave realistically, cracking jokes that entertain his crew and making fun of Lewis for her love of disco music. When the time for his rescue draws near, emotion gets the better of him but Damon never flips the switch to histrionics.
The rest of the cast does their jobs well enough, but the characters are rather basic. Daniels is solid as the director of NASA and he absorbs all of the bad press, even though Kristen Wiig’s Annie Montrose is supposedly handling business as the director of media relations. Sean Bean is a highlight as the mission director, with a special nod to Lord of the Rings packed in for good measure.
Without question, The Martian is tasty stuff for big ticket audiences. There are no tearful moments of soul-searching, no entrancing odes to despair, no ferocious explosions of nothingness. There is music, light humour and a determination to treat the events as though they are actually happening. The venture of Watney on Mars is absorbed as part of history, as part of the American can-do spirit.
It’s also very scientific – or at least it seems to be. While some may have an interest in the how-to of The Martian, an element that Weir solidly presses in the novel, Scott keeps the science exciting and fun and nearly even glib. There are elements of cinematic style laced in to bolster the extremities, like with the potent Mars storms or the lack of gravitational differences.
The Martian isn’t the most interesting movie of the year, nor is it at all ground-breaking. It lacks the distressing wet of Scott’s Alien and Damon’s character’s level of danger never reaches existential misery because there’s too much disco. But perhaps that’s the point, with all the cheek and good luck to go with it. After all, The Martian’s not really about being lost after all. It’s about getting down.