Film review: The Martian (12A)

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The Martian, a breezy “Robinson Crusoe in space”, is visually impressive but is brought back down to Earth by a lack of tension, writes Alistair Harkness

The Martian (12A)

Matt Damon in The Martian

Matt Damon in The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig

Rating: ***

After the portentousness of Prometheus, the pretentiousness of The Counsellor and pomposity of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott adopts a more playful tone for The Martian, a breezy space adventure based on Andy Weir’s best-selling novel of the same name about an American astronaut left for dead on Mars who has to “science the shit” out of his environment if he’s to have any chance of surviving long enough to be rescued. Essentially Robinson Crusoe in space, the film benefits greatly from Matt Damon, who brings a warmth and lightness of touch to the film’s hero, Mark Watney, a disco-hating botanist who wakes up on Mars having miraculously survived a devastating space storm that has forced his colleagues – led by Jessica Chastain – to abandon their years-spanning mission.

The polar opposite of his despairing-to-the-point-of-psychosis role in last year’s Interstellar, Damon’s character really is the “best of us”, a chipper pragmatist who responds to every sod’s law catastrophe with impressive resilience. Within days, for instance, he’s rigged up a tarpaulin-covered hydration room to create fresh water from burning hydrogen, and, after doing the math on his food supplies, calmly works out how to terra-form the planet with his own feacal matter so he can grow enough potatoes to keep him going. At the same time he’s recording himself on the multiple laptops and cameras rigged up around this Martian base camp, keeping himself sane by cracking jokes and detailing his myriad projects in the hope that the bods at NASA might be watching.

That seems unlikely given they’ve already publicly announced his death and are concentrating instead on bringing the rest of the team home safely. When a satellite controller notices anomalies in some of the images being picked up from Mars, however, a NASA team headed up by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor (as his second-in-command) and Kristen Wiig (a NASA PR expert) realise their mistake and set about figuring out how to bring Watney home.

It’s at this point, sadly, that the film starts to go a bit flat. Though Watney’s survival throws up multiple ethical and moral dilemmas, the biggest of which relates to whether or not to tell his returning colleagues that he’s still alive, almost nothing in the film seems properly insurmountable. Given that The Martian is set up as an extreme survival movie at one end and a race-against-the-clock rescue mission on the other, that leaves us in the curious position of watching something largely devoid of tension.

It’s an odd situation given Scott’s past form in this respect, though the film does provide a perfect playground for him in other respects, allowing him to indulge his gift for cinematic world-building and future-anticipating production design (though in this case, the coincidental discovery by NASA scientists of water on Mars earlier this week suggests the world of this movie and the reality of modern space exploration aren’t all that far apart). And make no mistake, the film really does impress on the visual front, which often sounds like a backhanded compliment for Scott, whose films – even the rubbish and mediocre ones – are better designed and shot than those of virtually any other filmmaker working at his level. There is something special about the Martian landscapes that lend themselves particularly well to his style of filmmaking. Using 3D, he conveys the vastness of this crimson-coloured outpost, giving a clear sense of its beauty and its inherently hostile nature that contrasts nicely with Damon’s cheerful rejection of the hopelessness of his situation. It’s just the rest of the human element that gets in the way of the movie’s quest for greatness.

Lacking the pared-down purity of Gravity and the emotional kick of Interstellar, to say nothing of the genre re-defining menace of Scott’s own Alien, the film becomes a little too goofy to really invest in the outcome. A running gag about disco music, for instance, actually results in an ABBA soundtracked montage (to Waterloo rather than SOS, weirdly enough), while back on Earth, everyone is so quirkily competent at solving each problem the rescue attempt poses that there’s no drama in its undertaking, even though we know from all concerned that it’s going to take years and might cost other people their lives (the Damon-inspired parallels with Saving Private Ryan here are blithely ignored). Indeed, when Watney at one point rips a hole in his space suit to use the escaping air as a jet propulsion system, it feels oddly symbolic of the film’s problems: by making everything too easy for the characters, Scott lets all the air out of the film.