For a man whose filmography has transcended space and time so often, Ridley Scott is clearly afraid of the future. If all manner of space beasties aren’t trying to impregnate and destroy us, then humanoids are malfunctioning and murdering. Granted, the past isn’t much better in the eyes of Sir Ridley, but there’s a positivity at the heart of The Martian that has been hitherto absent in his futuristic visions to date. How much of that can be attributed to Scott is debatable; the script is courtesy of the director/co-writer of The Cabin In The Woods, after all. In this case, science is not a manifestation of our arrogance, but the key to our survival and progress. Thematically we’re on terra firma, but at least this positivity is married to a healthy dose of fun, another concept that’s relatively alien to Scott.”
The enjoyability of The Martian is the key to its success, and that’s due in large part to its leading man Matt Damon. He lends his easy everyman charm to the role of Mark Watney, one of a crew of six on a mission to Mars (Panic not; we’re far from De Palma’s nonsense here). A huge storm forces the crew to abandon their temporary base, but not before Watney is whisked away in the wind. Damon’s casting helps identify Watney as a likeable everyman better than the script does, as writer Drew Goddard (adapting Andy Reid’s bestseller) hits the ground running, affording little time to establish character at the start. Presumed dead, Watney is left behind; he awakes in the martian dust, alone and injured. He manages to get back to the base and perform a little DIY surgery (Always keep a stapler handy, kids!), but that’s merely the beginning of what is to be a prolonged ordeal.
At 141 minutes, The Martian is prolonged, but it’s Scott’s most enjoyable film in eons. Its sense of humour drives it along. As Watney is alone, he leaves video diary entries to chart his progress in creating a habitable living space for himself on the red planet. Watney’s ability to laugh at himself is matched only by his scientific prowess, and both are necessary to keep him alive. You’d find reasons to laugh too if you had to use your own body’s output as fertilizer. Damon is one of the few actors blessed with down-to-earth believability and inescapable movie star charm, and he puts this combination to good use here. For most of the film, Watney has no-one with whom he can interact, so his chipper demeanour keeps him sane and keeps the audience rooting for him.
Also fighting for Watney are the ground control team at NASA and his martian teammates, still in orbit aboard a space station. Scott has filled his film with reliable character actors, each leading gravitas to their roles. Again, this is necessary for the characters, as the plot mechanics are given priority. Jeff Daniels and Chiwitel Ejiofor are solid as yin and yang NASA head honchos, as are the crew aboard the orbiting space station, led by Jessica Chastain’s commander. From Michael Peña’s laid-back astronaut to Kristen Wiig’s pleasantly uncomedic turn as a NASA PR guru, there isn’t a bad turn among the cast. This is remarkable given how little they have to work with. For example, Chastain’s commander Lewis’ main character trait is a love of disco. Each actor gets about as much to work with (which feels wasted on the fine likes of Peña, Kate Mara or Sean Bean), though the disco thing does at least provide a few laughs, as Watney finds Lewis’ music collection among the abandoned effects in the Mars base. Despite ABBA’s insistence, Watney is determined not to meet his Waterloo.
Indeed, the use of disco music throughout The Martian says a lot about the register at which the film operates. Visually and narratively, it has a lot in common with the likes of Gravity and Interstellar (DoP Dariusz Wolski is the one person to come out of Scott’s last three films unscathed), but it doesn’t feel the need to be as self-important as either. It’s undeniably fun, and often refuses to get bleak, almost at the cost of real tension. It hops along at a giddy pace, with weeks, months and years zipping by. Will the likeable Watney’s chipper demeanour and newfound acceptance of the wisdom of Benny and Bjorn be enough to save him? Everyone in The Martian is determined to get him home, and they’ll be damned if they don’t! For all the scientific know-how on display, and the cinematography and effects emphasizing the gravity of the situation, this is an (overly) triumphant picture about people overcoming their limitations. Short of a character bellowing ‘Hooray for everything’, It’s a resolutely uncynical shout of defiant joy; naysayers need not apply.