After being plucked from the battlefields of WW2 Europe (Saving Private Ryan) and reawakened on a faraway ice world (Interstellar), Matt Damon is back and in need of rescue once again. Stranded on the red planet after a surface evacuation goes wrong, Mark Watney (Damon) must use all of his mechanical and botanical prowess to survive until help arrives. Back on Earth, NASA administrators struggle against the odds to concoct a rescue mission but whether they can save Watney remains to be seen.
Even the early trailers made it clear that director Ridley Scott is aiming for the wider audience with The Martian, perhaps looking to reaffirm himself following his less successful releases in recent years (2014’s less-than-loved Exodus: Gods and Kings, and 2013’s absolute mess The Counselor). Watney is full of foulmouthed gags, the cast is full of big-name stars, and the soundtrack is full of disco hits. This combination of elements pulls off some fun moments of excitement during the story of sci-fi survival though Scott can’t seem to nail a consistent tone across its over 2 hour run time.
Often shared with himself or a video diary, Watney’s comedic dialogue comes straight from the source material, Andy Weir’s 2011 novel. It’s entertaining in parts (ignoring that the best lines were revealed in the trailer) but drifts into feeling forced and hammy at points. On top of this, the never-ending stream of quips and jokes detract from the gravity of Watney’s plight. For a film that is essentially Castaway in space, there’s never that real sense of terrifying loneliness that you’d expect; and nothing close to a “Wilssssooooonnnnn!!!” moment of pure loss.
Damon leads with same strength and resilience as his character, forever pushing onwards against challenges like awkwardly reading out typed messages or endless video diaries. The rest of the cast, split between staff on Earth and Watney’s old crew returning from Mars, are a mixed bag with many overqualified members. Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig share a approximate total of 20 lines as NASA directors and Michael Pena, Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara are similarly over-cast with very little to work with on the Hermes vessel. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance takes centre stage as the show-stealer on Earth, outshining Jeff Daniels’ straight-faced commitment as NASA Head and Donald Glover’s overcooked turn as a kooky scientist (Oh look, he’s got a big chalkboard full of scribbling. He must be a very clever guy!).
Scott’s best work with The Martian is unarguably its visual magnificence and detailed production design. The deep orange colour-grade over vistas of Jordan’s high deserts create a spectacular stand-in for the Martian surface, tornados and wind storms sweeping the dusty cliffs. The near-futuristic space technology is equally as impressive; the Hermes vessel hurtling through space, the glow of Mission Control monitors, the bright white gleam of habitation modules, all are brilliantly realised.
Although its quest for technical realism may be slightly undone by its misrepresentation of astronauts and scientists, The Martian is more than likely to do what Ridley Scott intended and pull in solid box office numbers from the mainstream demographic. Despite inconsistent tone and odd pacing, sitting through all 141 minutes of interplanetary survival is no challenge whatsoever. The Martian has enough flaws to hold it back from greatness but more than enough entertaining thrills to secure its blockbuster worthiness.
★ ★ ★ ½
The Martian is on wide release in UK & US Cinemas now.