Mercifully, The Martian wastes little time on exposition, instead literally throwing us into the eye of the storm as a group of international astronauts are forced to evacuate their base on Mars due to severe weather conditions.
They depart for Earth and unwittingly leave behind their crew mate, the botanist Mark Watney (Damon), who is presumed dead. When it becomes clear that he’s very much alive, an international team of scientists back at NASA attempt to bring him home.
Meanwhile, Watney has to grapple with the prospect of a rescue in not less than four years and the grim reality of only enough food supplies for 40 days.
Someone else’s film
In the latter part of the 20th Century, Ridley Scott gave us two seminal science fiction films. Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) are the gold standard for immersive, visually resplendent, cerebral, science fiction. Many believe that Scott should have stopped there. When he did return to the genre, it was decades later with the much maligned Prometheus (2011), a prequel of sorts to Alien. The critical reception was unfavourable with many citing Damon Lindelof’s script as the culprit.
The Martian, essentially a 2.0 for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), is based on the bestselling novel by Andy Weir and has several key departures from Scott’s previous work.
Firstly, it was not developed for or by Scott. The director came in at a late stage when the writing was all but completed. He took on the project based on the strength of the script.
Secondly, this is Scott’s first ‘hard’ science fiction in that, unlike his previous offerings that feature androids and aliens, it extrapolates current technologies to explore the near future – much like 2001: A Space Odyssey or, arguably, Interstellar (the latter film shares not only Jessica Chastain but perversely Matt Damon as an astronaut castaway).
More innerworldly that outer
If there’s something missing from Ridley Scott’s fourth foray into science fiction it is a lack of reverence for space exploration and the infinite potential of applying this technology to, one day, Mars and beyond. Ultimately it’s a survival picture that prioritises practicality over poetry.
Perhaps, in following up on Prometheus, a film that clumsily extolls the mystery of life’s origin and offers lofty answers to the identity of God (essentially with more questions), Scott wanted to concern himself with the earthbound (or Marsbound in this case) virtues of the human ability to adapt, innovate and endure by application of science and mathematics. In this he succeeds and gives us a thrilling space-set climax to boot.
MacGyver on Mars
The Martian is well-realised and the performances are engaging. Nevertheless, there’s a yawning hole where its sense of wonder should be. The awards-laden Gravity, whose success 20th Century Fox is no doubt looking to emulate here, was similarly a ‘hard science fiction’ movie concerned with human survival – but that film managed to reach beyond practical, physical concerns with some (albeit over-baked) meta-narrative about the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Here, Damon is little more than a Mars MacGyver – just witness him ‘science the shit’ out of everything – and while such a tale of human ingenuity is perfectly entertaining, it smacks of navel gazing when set on Mars. This is Mars after all. The over-used 70s disco only compounds this – my toes curled as Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ played out over the credits.