The Martian (2015)

During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead
after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has
survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet.
With only meagre supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and
spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara

“Mr Scott, we have these spacesuits left over from Prometheus. Want me to toss them? Also, whilst we’re on the subject, we paid for a good extra five minutes of “alien planet storm” last time, what shall we do with that?”

So The Martian was the project Ridley Scott decided he would undertake before Prometheus 2. Eyebrows were raised at the time and despite Prometheus being the only film I watched three times in the cinema on its year of release and a further half a dozen times since then, I was quite vocal about my displeasure at the seemingly slaphanded nonchalance he had given the Alien franchise at the time.

Like a recently removed aerial from the stomach, however, time tends to heal many things, and even given its many flaws, Prometheus is still a very enjoyable piece of sci-fi. Here, the risk of upsetting the canon is removed and the possibility of underwhelming an expectant audience is somewhat abated. Not gone altogether, you understand, but significantly reduced. We still expected great things from the great man, after all. No more running away from things in a straight line, though, eh Ridley?

My immediate reaction, which was ‘like Cast Away with different coloured sand’ is perfectly fair, I feel. The story is the much the same. A man, alone and forced to fend for himself under what seems like impossible circumstances, tries to survive whilst everything around him (sand, mostly) can’t wait for him to drop dead. Lucky that he was a botanist though, right?

And like Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, Scott chooses not to spend all of his time with his star, flitting back and forth, a la Apollo 13, to those safely back on earth doing everything within their power to get him home, as well as those travelling back to earth, after accidentally leaving him on Mars for dead. This gives us a chance to appreciate the character arcs of a good half a dozen other people involved, none of which had the same impact as Ed Harris in the latter or even Helen Hunt in the former.

This should come as no great surprise, as this is really all about Matt Damon, playing the part of Mark Watney, the titular Martian. A wise-cracking space-botanist that clearly doesn’t mind spending too much time on his own. Why the chap doesn’t have a sweetheart at home for us to blubber over, I’ll never know, and if Scott really wanted to tug at the heartstrings, it does rather beg the question as to why this opportunity was overlooked. If Kristen Wiig really wants to try some serious acting, Scott could have cast her in the role, instead of the one she ended up with; generally confused pencil-skirt with largely pointless questions.

Drew Goddard’s script is nifty, I won’t lie, and you will regularly smile at the humour, in spite of the very real dangers at every turn. Watney is unfathomably positive, but never so enthusiastic as to make you want to unplug his radio or his air supply. Likeable and unfeasibly handy, the does stretch credibility a little too far and by the final act, you will genuinely have tried hard to stifle an incredulous snort, as my next door neighbour in the theatre failed to do, when he tries to make his final senseless leap for safety.

We should not judge too harshly, maybe, as this is far from rooted in science fact and Sandra Bullock and George Clooney can sit quite comfortably in their seats, knowing that this will do little to ripple the waters of authenticity that they had created with Gravity.

I wanted to come away from this with a feeling that I had been through the same turmoil, had felt the same feelings as Watney. I wanted to feel his loneliness, his fear at what would should have been almost certain death. We were afforded some beautiful imagery of a barren wasteland of a planet and the platitudes about being the best man on it, the first man to step foot here and there, were all very well, but I didn’t feel any of the things I had come to experience. You might argue that this was a little too glib. Too cocky. Sure, Watney’s approach was admirable, but I wanted more that just an American that refused to give up. I’ve seen those. Lots of them. I mean, Hollywood loves them. When Sandra Bullock came home, when Tom Hanks finally got away from that Island, or even landed back on earth in Apollo 13, I felt the same relief. Here, the end felt like it was never in doubt and as such, came as no great surprise or reward.

Scott has created yet another entertaining piece of sci-fi that really fails to thrill in the traditional sense. On first viewing, I enjoyed this far more than my first glance at Prometheus, which means I expect this will warm to me more in time, but after an hour of leaving the cinema this is, albeit clever, well-performed by all, and very pretty to look at, it still maybe lacks the heart we are all looking for in our stories. Should have given him a girlfriend, Ridley. That would have killed it.

Final note – Go Mackenzie Davis! Love, love, love her. 🙂

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