Are the 2010s the decade that made space travel cool again? Gravity swept the Academy Awards back in 2013, Interstellar reminded us of the potential wonders of the universe in a way that no one had arguably done since Kubrick – Marvel even got in on the action with Guardians of the Galaxy. This may be down to advancements in technology, the ability to represent the universal expanse on film, or perhaps things going wrong at home has turned mankind’s gaze towards the heavens once more. Sir Ridley Scott’s The Martian, like Apollo 13 before it, shows what happens when things go wrong out among the stars.
Unlike Apollo 13, The Martian takes place largely on terra firma – albeit terra firma 140 million miles away. Left behind during an emergency evacuation and presumed dead, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), crew botanist for the Aries III mission to Mars, must find a way to survive. This isn’t, of course, the first time in recent years we’ve seen Damon marooned on an alien planet – once, as they say, may be regarded as a misfortune; twice, of course, smacks of carelessness. Mark’s resources are limited to plastic sheeting and duct tape, a few freeze-dried potatoes, and whatever he can salvage from the Mars habitat, the rovers, etc. As the ever-pithy Mark puts it, he’s gonna have to “science the s**t out of this.”
Back on Earth, NASA is caught up in the hubbub surrounding Mark’s apparent death. When satellite photos reveal that Mark is, in fact, alive, they’re left with an impossible decision: whether or not to tell Mark’s colleagues. Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) initially wants to use the publicity to help ensure the programme’s future; patrician NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is just concerned with getting the rest of the crew back in one piece. Meanwhile, somewhere between Mars and Earth, the crew of the Hermes, including guilt-ridden Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the resolutely upbeat Rick (Michael Pena), continue the long voyage home, unaware of Mark’s survival.
While the comparison to Interstellar is furthered by Chastain’s involvement – and both provide Damon with airlock issues – Scott’s film is the tighter, ultimately more satisfying experience. While Interstellar ruminates on grand themes, like the power of love to transcend time and space, losing itself amidst wormholes and plot holes alike, The Martian is all about the business of survival. Even at a run-time of 2¼ hours, and with three interlocking parallel narratives, the film never sags, kept aloft by the series of triumphs and catastrophes experienced by both Mark and those trying to rescue him. Still, despite the astronaut’s increasing peril and isolation, The Martian is in many regards an incredibly positive film.
It’s certainly science positive: Mark might occasionally blow himself up but he also manages to grow crops on a barren world – he’s more or less a Macgyver on Mars, though to a lesser extent than the novel (the making of rocket fuel might lend itself to prose but that’s a lot of exposition to get up on the screen). It helps immeasurably that Damon proves himself once again as the most likable star on this planet or any other – well, outside of, perhaps, Tom Hanks, whose film, Castaway, this is basically the cosmic equivalent of, minus Wilson. It never dwells too much on the dusty surface of its ochre setting – shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan – but folds its beauty into the narrative of a man alone on another world.
Wielding a belligerent sense of humour as a shield against the loneliness, Mark stands resolute in the face of injury, starvation, depressurization, and the countless other ways that death could occur at any moment. When his frustration does break out, Scott cuts to outside the protection of the Hab as Mark silently rages within; a reminder that in space no one can hear you swear your t**s off. Despite of, or indeed partly because of, the high stakes, The Martian is also surprisingly funny: Drew Goddard’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel mines humour out of people under pressure, such as Vincent’s offhand musing on the different ways “Are you f***ing kidding me?” can be delivered.
The quality of the ensemble is faintly astounding – Kristen Wiig empathic PR; Sean Bean’s embattled flight director, who gets a brilliantly sheepish Lord of the Rings shout-out; Kate Mara’s chirpy computer geek; a manic, cheeky Donald Glover – but they are, for the most part, one or two-note characters. Captain Lewis’ love of disco to the detriment of all other music, and much to the stranded Watney’s chagrin, is most notable in that it accounts for the eclectic soundtrack: Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” gets nicely ironic use; Bowie’s “Starman”, too, more poignantly (“Life on Mars” would presumably have been a touch too on-the-nose). It’s a far cry from the thematically-driven desperation of Gravity.
The Martian is not only a stupendous blockbuster, but a hopeful testament to human ingenuity, endurance, and cooperation, combining strong performances with gorgeous twilight cinematography from Dariusz Wolski, an score from Harry Gregson-Williams that compliments the desolate grandeur of the Mars landscape, and a an effective suspense-surprise dynamic while never taking itself over-seriously. More grounded and far less self-serious than much of the genre, the film ends where it began, up among the stars; a rallying cry for us to continue to “bravely go”, no matter what setbacks may befall us, in the hope that we too may one day have cause to say, “In your face, Neil Armstrong.”