NASA has always been proud of it’s heritage – and in particular it’s record of never having lost an astronaut to the vast expanses of space. For a company unrivalled in their risk to human life it’s a pretty impressive statistic and it is probably no great surprise to hear that they have lent their full co-operation to British director Ridley Scott for his adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel The Martian.
Primarily the story of astronaut Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) survival after he is presumed dead and accidentally left behind on Mars, NASA were heavily involved in production – acting as chief advisor to Scott and adding numerous layers of authenticity to proceedings. Actual NASA designs were used to influence the creation of most of The Martian’s space equipment, with the Mars Rover and Habitation Module in particular owing much of it’s inception to the American Space agency.
Timely, too was the recent ground-breaking news-story regarding the discovery of water on the red planet itself – no real benefit to Damon’s marooned botanist of course but an added dose of publicity which seems suspiciously timed to coincide with the film’s release, and undoubtedly, will act as a shot-in-the-arm for the studio’s all-important opening weekend.
Ironically, The Martian is far beyond having to rely on cheap marketing ploys to create interest as this is a movie that contains so many positives it is hard to list them all in a single review.
Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, World War Z) manages to strike the perfect blend in adapting Weirs source novel as he produces what is an entirely compact, filmable script that loses nothing in terms of depth or emotional appeal. Goddard excels with a tightly-paced narrative that wrings every ounce of tension and intrigue from the plot and ensures that there is never a nail-biting sequence far away. The things we take for granted as the most mundane on our planet; eating, drinking, breathing – the very basic fundamentals of our existence – are literally life and death challenges for Watney which only adds to the palpable sense of survival that is expertly mined by both Goddard’s work and Scott’s masterful direction.
Indeed the tight, claustrophobic atmosphere at times evokes images of Scott’s classic foray into the sci-fi genre with his seminal Alien film. This is yet another masterpiece in space atmospherics from the septuagenarian director and is another success to place into his already highly impressive canon.
The under-lying theme of The Martian is adeptly described by it’s main character shortly after realising his plight as Watney summons the strength and resolve to tell us “I’m not gonna die here”.
Expressed through the use of video log (throughout used as a neat narrative device to explain the more technical aspects of Watney’s survival attempts) this is a rallying cry to both himself and the audience presenting us with the basic thematic foundation of the film. What is clear from the outset is that this is a movie which shines the spotlight on the indomitable power of the human spirit to triumph over adversity.
It is a story we have seen many times before but with the difference here that this account takes place on another world.
The Mars setting and vast expanses of the fabricated red planet give Scott the opportunity to implement numerous sweeping vistas that will leave a certain level of awe amongst the watching audience. There is a beauty to this alien world that is perfectly encapsulated by the smart cinematography on-hand throughout Watney’s survival mission. Aswell as adding a certain visual flair the barren landscapes also manage to add to the sense of isolation and desperation around the stranded astronauts struggles allowing a neat double-edge to proceedings.
Whilst the majority of the film’s focus sits on Watney there is also a good chunk of run-time spent with the NASA organisation itself back on Earth as they attempt to rescue their man and ensure that their proud safety record continues. It is this contrast between Watney’s isolation and NASA’s collaboration that again highlights the excellence of Goddard’s script – throughout there is a fine balancing act which only ever adds to the story rather than distract from it.
Perhaps the strongest weapon in The Martian’s arsenal is the somewhat surprising use of black humour which undoubtedly marks the film out as something different to what we have seen before in this particular genre. Much like Weir’s source material before it, we are treated here to an inordinate amount of gallows-like humour as Damon gives a convincing account of a man who is clearly living by the maxim that if “he doesn’t laugh he will cry”. There are moments of dry wit and amusement – both on Mars and Earth - which not only compound Damon’s surroundings and situation but also act as nice little bonuses in a film that is already stacked full of positive elements.
That isn’t to say that The Martian slips into comedic parody because primarily this is a precise, human drama with buckets of intelligence and a welcome change from the usual standard fare that Hollywood seems to churn out ad infinitum. Scott has constructed a cerebral, smart piece which is a welcome change from the ‘switch-your-brain-off’ pop-corn movies that make up the majority of multiplex offerings nowadays.
For those who enjoy a narrative that requires a little grey matter engagement then this will be right up your street as The Martian refuses to join the movie industry’s somewhat patronising propensity to ‘dumb-down’.
As is to be expected with a movie that hinges so much of what it offers around one major character, The Martian is heavily reliant on Matt Damon’s ability to dominate the screen-time and – perhaps more importantly – to connect with the audience on an emotional level.
Thankfully, amongst the science, the stunning visuals, the black humour and the exciting tension, Damon sit’s as the figurative and almost-literal heart of the whole piece. His performance and appeal to the audience is integral – if you don’t care about his Mark Watney then the film will fail on every level. Luckily, Damon more than passes this particular emotional test with flying colours and it would be a very cold heart that doesn’t wish to see him rewarded for all his efforts and his basic ability to survive by being reunited with this planet that we all know as home.
The actor is on fine-form here and whilst this may not be the lavish, in-your-face type of role that will bait an oscar nomination it is still a very subtle, under-stated performance that will only garner positive reviews. It takes a special kind of actor to carry a film of this magnitude and had this been released in the previous decade then it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Tom Hanks in the lead role.
Instead, Damon channels the ‘everyman’ persona that Hanks has built most of his career upon with a superb mixture of humour, charm and resolve. With only brief glimpses of the fear and frustration that the stranded astronaut would surely be feeling it is an overall positive mood that is conveyed by Damon which ensures that the film never really creeps into the depressive, maudling mind-set that it could quite so easily have done. Instead, this is a film to become immersed in without ever really feeling your emotions moving into any sort of dark territory.
Whereas the other great space movie of the last few years, 2013’s Oscar-winning Gravity, was at times a bleak vacuum of cold emotion – there is never the same feeling here. Despite the film at times flirting dangerously with an overly-sentimental, optimistic outlook on the human race (the shoe-horning of the Chinese space programme seems a particular un-needed element) this is a rare drama that contains many feel-good moments - an extremely hard balancing act to achieve - and much of this is accomplished by the lively, jaunty script and the grounded performance of it’s leading man.
Handy acting support is given from Jessica Chastain as Watney’s Module Commander, right through to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s NASA Head of Mars Missions. However, despite what is a considerable amount of quality amongst the supporting players it is Jeff Daniels - at his scene-stealing best in his role as NASA director Teddy Sanders - who is the stand-out act here. With what appears an almost carbon-copy of his emmy-awarding winning portrayal of The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy, Daniels brings his confident, astute best to a role that could quite easily of been nothing more than an after-thought in anyone else’s hands.
In an effortless, matter-of-fact performance Daniels excels in delivering an intelligent, authoritarian character who is entirely comfortable with both his thoughts and actions. The laconic gravitas that he creates should be applauded and it all goes towards making what is easily the most memorable performance behind that of Damon.
Despite the levity of the movie and the sometimes comedic central performance by it’s main star it would be a total discredit to The Martian to describe it as anything other than immersive. The past hour or so in particular shifts into a tense, absorbing account of NASA’s – and subsequently the worlds – attempts to bring Watney home safely.
Echoing the excellently ratcheted tension of Apollo 13, The Martian becomes a superbly crafted piece that will have audiences biting nails and sitting on the edge of those comfy cinema seats with a nerve-shredding finale that expertly increases the tension without ever really slipping into the realms of unbelievability.
Scott can take great credit here for what is an excellently pieced-together movie, offering up an intriguing, optimistic beginning, an immersive middle and a truly thrilling and captivating conclusion. There aren’t many movies that offer all three in the modern era and when you consider that in equal measure The Martian also packs heart and humour into the mix then it is quite easy to see why this is one of 2015’s most enjoyable movies.
Now if only NASA had discovered that water a little sooner…