Life on Mars: A review of The Martian

The Martian (2015)

The Martian (2015)

Where Castaway meets Saving Private Ryan.

When botanist Mark Watney is presumed dead and left behind, whilst on a mission to Mars, he must find ways to survive on the desolate planet, planting crops and finding a way to collect water.

Like Gravity and Interstellar before it, The Martian is a Sci-Fi film that dispenses with huge action set pieces, aliens or any of the classic staples of the genre, and is instead about normal people facing extraordinary odds in the face of the forces of nature. Well, not so much Interstellar, but the resemblance is there to be made.

Based off the trailer and buzz, my hopes were high, and it’s fair to say that I liked it a lot, and whilst I understand why it’s getting only four stars across the board, I think it can be classed as a great success.

Ridley Scott has made a film that looks and feels beautiful, rousingly rewarding knowledge and making a case for hard-working and intelligence. Not many big budget films will have you wanting to join NASA or become a botanist, but The Martian makes it feel like it’s something to be admired, which it is.

Not only is the main character a smart and resourceful man, but all of the other characters back on Earth, who are diligently trying to bring him safely home, are presented as normal people who use their skills to do amazing things. There’s no sneery view of the people who work here, no one single boffin who’s a loner until he gets discovered by the ‘army sergeant’ to make something of himself. Everyone in this film is the geek, and it’s awesome.

The cast is frankly stellar, Damon, Chastain, Wigg, Ejiofor, Glover, Bean, Mara, Stan, Pena and Daniels are all excellent. From the crew who accidentally left him behind, to the people working out every problem on Earth, each are engaging screen presences, some who you wouldn’t expect to see in these films, some who bring magnetism to small roles.

Yet, though we have all of these fantastic supporting characters, it’s all down to Damon and his single Castaway role, all that’s missing is a volleyball. He is, unsurprisingly, terrific. When he plays pain, he plays it hard. When it’s emotional, he emotes hard. What’s really amazing is the way he keeps a sense of humour and playfulness, quipping to a Go-Pro (The new Wilson) and speaking to the audience with a sense of wry and knowing exuberance.

This can also be seen in the director, who, after a string of relative failures, has managed to provide a film that’s sad and scary at times, but done with relish and joy, keeping things light, even in the darkest of times. Yes, even though there is a palpable tension and fear to being stuck in utter isolation, and you do wonder how it must feel to be that alone, you do find yourself smiling more than anything. The chosen music choices are a blend of disco hits that juxtapose the desolate emptiness of the red planet, keeping the film grounded and playful.

What it doesn’t do is make a too finer existential point about life and man’s place in the universe. Whilst, occasionally we get narration and wide sweeping shots of landscape, it always feels genuine and never grating, and the fine balance between lightheartedness and 2001 style pondering is played throughout to great effect.

There are, however, a few bum notes that stop the film from being perfect. It’s too long, and even though in some films it doesn’t matter, here it does really feel like a long film, though I was never bored. Other than that, the third act did begin to break credibility. For a while the film stretched it, but always felt real and realistic, but towards the end, as we get to the climax, things felt too overdone, and kinda silly.

In the end, though, what will be remembered is a few things. The cinematography, which is sweeping and stunning, reeling you in with realistic vistas of vast red deserts and swirling storms. The music, which is both haunting and exciting, not too overpowering or melodramatic. The cast, especially Matt Damon in his most charismatic and quietly heart-rending role for many years, and the direction, which by the man who gave us two of the very best films of the genre, has managed to craft an affectionate tribute to Sci-Fi, to these exceptional women and men, and to himself.

Really, that’s more than we were hoping for, and I’m happy to see it doing well.

Rating: B+  8/10

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