On a manned mission to Mars, astro-botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is caught in a fierce space storm and left behind by his crew. Watney must survive on his wits while a team at NASA and beyond figure out how to get him home.
Towards the end of The Martian, Matt Damon’s stranded scientist, Mark Watney, in a moment of mini-triumph, shouts, “In your face, Neil Armstrong!” It’s indicative of the film’s irreverence — so rare in the usually sterile spacesuit genre. After a lugubrious run taking in Body Of Lies, Prometheus, The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods And Kings, Ridley Scott’s 23rd film as director is the most fun he’s had in ages: a mash-up of sci-fi, disaster movie and character study. Spinning off from Andy Weir’s everyone-was-reading-it-on-the-bus bestseller, as much as it is a Robinson-Crusoe-in-space, it’s also a jet-black comedy about laughing in the face of mortality.
Instantly joining E. T. and Bruce Dern’s Freeman Lowell (Silent Running) in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest space gardeners, Damon’s Watney is the actor at his most engaging, by turns flip and desperate. Following a lacerating storm, Watney is left to survive on his mad gardening skills, three years’ worth of potatoes and old episodes of Happy Days. Scott has a blast putting Damon/Watney through the mill. There is self-surgery. There is an experiment that goes horribly wrong. There is a coquettish selfie. When the Martian is on Mars, it rocks.
Away from Watney, the movie flits between the remaining Mars mission members making their way home and NASA — chiefly Jeff Daniels’ director, Kristen Wiig’s PR flunky, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mars expert and Sean Bean as the brilliantly named Mitch Henderson, possibly NASA’s most unlikely flight director — dealing with the fallout. There are crisis meetings, hastily assembled press conferences, eulogies, a hook-up with a Chinese space agency and botched attempts at rescue. Much like Apollo 13, the joy of The Martian is watching smart people work through unsolvable problems and succeeding, only to have bigger obstacles hove into view.
For all of Scott’s visual prowess and Damon’s human centre, the unsung hero might be screenwriter Drew Goddard, lacing the storytelling with wit, energy and an approach to the science that is graspable without being over-simplistic. He also solves the book’s interior-monologue problem. If this is a cosmic Cast Away, Watney’s Wilson is a vlog that is a receptacle for his inner thoughts, be he moaning about the disco soundtrack left behind by Jessica Chastain’s captain — the ’70s floor-fillers make for a refreshing soundtrack — or pondering colonising Mars as a space pirate. When he finally gets in touch with Mission Control through a jerry-rigged instant messaging system, typing in cinema has rarely been so joyous.
It isn’t perfect. The supporting cast feel under-served, the idea that Watney’s plight draws crowds of people in Trafalgar Square waiting for the outcome feels forced, and at 141 minutes, it’s a bit long. But, ultimately, it’s a film where the lead character realises he is going to die, then wilfully refuses to accept it. It’s an ennobling, uplifting thought, delivered with sass and bite. Or, as Watney puts it, “Fuck you, Mars.”
Anchored by another great turn from Matt Damon, The Martian mixes smarts, laughs, weird character bits and tension on a huge canvas. The result is Scott’s most purely enjoyable film for ages.