Sir Ridley Scott has faced a bit of a lull in his career over the past decade with most of his films not being huge critical or commercial successes, but when you’re the director such classics as Blade Runner, Alien and Gladiator (to name a few), you are sure to bounce back, and that’s just what Sir Ridley has done.
The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, tells the fictional account of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is presumed dead and left on Mars by his crewmates during a storm that forces them to abort their mission. The film tells the tale of Watney’s methods of survival, as well as NASA’s rescue
The film is truly transportive. Scott has made a film that really feels as though the crew went on location to Mars to shoot. The cinematography beautifully captures the barren landscape which feels so incredibly real. Despite being science-fiction, the set and costume design make this story and this world not feel so far into the future as the reality may be. This real feel is added to by the actors who, especially Damon, create characters that feel so real and inherently human that the audience really engages and empathises with them throughout the film.
Even before the film’s release, its name was mentioned alongside Interstellar’s due to Damon starring as a man alone on a foreign planet in both films, as well as co-starring with Jessica Chastain. As this space adventure comes less than a year after Christopher Nolan’s epic, there are moments of resemblance that may cause brief flashbacks to scenes from Interstellar. These moments are almost unavoidable as space films do all tend to have certain shots of similar things (i.e. their spacecrafts), and other moments, such as the blowing of an airlock, are purely coincidental. However, this may impact your opinion of The Martian (depending on your opinion of Nolan’s blockbuster), by conjuring up involuntary comparisons. The films are very different both in story and tone, but any pre-formed feelings you have of Interstellar, may momentarily overshadow your enjoyment of The Martian, in part even just due to the different scales of the stories.
Despite being essentially a story of survival and humanity, The Martian has a fun tone, containing many moments of humour, balancing out the tense moments of fear and desperation. Damon shines as the sarcastic, witty Watney, talking to the audience through video logs, and capturing Watney’s desperation for interaction through funny one-liners and comments on his situation. The humour makes Watney more openly likeable, a characteristic without which the film wouldn’t work, but Damon pulls off perfectly, creating a fun character that the audience is rooting for. The film’s upbeat tone also comes from the disco tunes left behind by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain). The songs form the film’s soundrack, keeping it upbeat and injecting meta-moments and irony, particularly through the use of songs such as David Bowie’s Starman.
As much as the film elicits laughs and smiles, it also makes you grip the edge of your seat and hold your breath in suspense. It gives you glimmers of hope and moments of fear as Watney’s situation fluctuates between small improvements and the life-threatening deterioration. Scott creates flickers of hope, only to snatch them away again almost immediately when the various attempts to save Watney, both by NASA and himself, prove unsuccessful. The moments of success, no matter how small, truly lift the audience’s spirits, so enthralled they are in this story that any small victory for the characters resonates deeply with them as well. The film’s finale keeps your eyes fixed on the screen and quickens your pulse as you wait in suspense and fear for the outcome of what seems to be Watney’s last hope. The emotions evoked are reminiscent of those felt during the Apollo 13 mission (and indeed in Ron Howard’s film of those events), and the underlying connection to this real life event only serves to reiterate the film’s real feel.
The film is not perfect. There could have been a little more time on Mars before the storm hit and the crew left in order to better establish Watney’s relationships with his fellow crewmembers and truly emphasise his loneliness when they are gone. Similarly, the film’s constant cutting between the events on Mars and Earth also sometimes distracts from Watney’s isolation, as it is not long after he wakes up alone that the film cuts to NASA and their response to the situation. One of the best scenes of the film is shortly after Watney wakes up, as he then has to perform some self-surgery to remove a piece of metal in his stomach. This speechless, intense scene highlights both Watney’s aloneness as well as his extremely dangerous situation. A prolonged period of this could have served to stress his desperation, but the cuts to NASA do suggest that the story is as much about other people’s efforts to bring Watney home as it is about his own.
The Martian is Ridley Scott back on top form. While it may not become one of the ultimate classics in Scott’s canon, it certainly provides enjoyable, gripping and memorable viewing, immersing the audience in an exciting story of survival.