Review: The Martian – Cast away on another planet

Mark Reynolds

Hollywood’s latest space blockbuster is a spectacular but surprisingly down-to-earth tale of good-humoured endeavour against extreme odds.

Ridley Scott (Alien, Prometheus) directs Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, who is left behind, presumed dead, when a manned mission to Mars is aborted in the face of a fierce space storm.

As the defeated crew (led by Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis) begins the long journey home, Watney knows no other humans are likely to visit this part of the galaxy for the next four years—and he only has provisions for a month.

“In the face of overwhelming odds,” he deadpans to his video blog, “I'm left with only one option: I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

Luckily, he is beyond doubt the best botanist on the planet, and soon devises a way to cultivate a potato crop by mixing the local red dust with a handy stock of vacuum-packed poo from the habitation lab’s latrines.
 

“Visually magnificent”

After a long radio silence, contact is re-established when eagle-eyed Mars-watchers spot moving objects on the red planet. NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) has to make the call whether to launch a rescue plan, when losing the rest of the crew could lead to a suspension of the whole space programme

Will our cosmic Crusoe’s dogged resourcefulness keep him alive until help arrives?

[Spoiler alert:] Of course it will. But he and his crewmates will have to bend the rules, risk their lives and push their spacecraft to the limit if they’ve any chance of getting him home.

The film is based on a self-published debut novel by self-proclaimed “lifelong space nerd” Andy Weir. As he began serialising the book on his blog, Weir realised that he’d “accidentally spent my life researching for this story”. The science of the plot does occasionally sit too heavily.
 

The Martian
Image via NASA

In both the book and the film, the complicated calculus is undercut by sardonic observations and asides. However, the film’s classification as a comedy (presumably in order for it to scoop the 2016 Golden Globe in that category) overstates the humour. It relies a little too much on droll camaraderie and the supposedly wacky juxtaposition of disco music and deep space.

There’s also a fair bit of trumpet blowing for NASA, who demand script approval whenever their logo and (even fictional) operations are featured, but this rarely gets in the way of the action.

Visually magnificent, as might be expected on a Scott/Damon-sized budget, a combination of the red mountains and valleys of Jordan’s Wadi Rum, the sound stages of Hungary’s Korda Studios and some nifty CGI stand-in for Watney’s temporary abode.

The effects-laden, supersized 3D showings had audiences everywhere hooked to the silver screen; and this life on Mars pluckily survives the onward voyage into our homes.

 

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Feature image via Total Film