Over the past few years, Ridley Scott has had a pretty bad track record as a director. The last truly excellent film he directed was the Directors Cut of Kingdom of Heaven and since then we’ve had disasters like Prometheus, The Counsellor and Robin Hood. However, with those films, the stories were the problem, not the direction. All it would take for Scott to get back on form would be a story to suit his directorial style and Andy Weir and Drew Goddard provided that story with The Martian, Scott’s best film in a decade.
The plot focuses on Mark Watney, an astronaught on a mission to Mars who accidentally gets left behind on the planet when the rest of his crew assume him dead after he gets hit with shrapnel whilst the crew is evacuating during a storm. When Watney discovers that he’s been left alone he needs to figure out a way to contact NASA so that they can pick him up but the bigger problem is that the next mission to Mars is only going to arrive in 4 years and he only had enough food to last him just over one. Intercut with this are scenes of the crew at NASA working out ways to ensure that they can send Watney enough food and allow him to reach the site of the next mission so he could be picked up. On paper this does sound like a really serious plot and, whilst for the most part it is, there’s a great streak of humour throughout the film. Drew Goddard’s script fully immerses you into the world of Mark Watney with every decision he makes being completely believable and his personality coming through really clear, showing why he doesn’t go insane or decide to kill himself on the planet. This humour also underlies one of the major reasons the film works so well, that being the optimism. The humour in the script helps to create a sense of hope, making you want to see Watney survive for as long as possible and this optimism goes back to the people on Earth. This is a film that states that it is our duty to help people in need no matter how far away they are. It says that providing help to people is what makes the human species worthwhile and the actions of the people at NASA and on the Hermes (the ship the rest of Watney’s crew are on), them doing everything within their power to help Watney regardless of the cost, makes this film a great reminder of the power of comradery and this makes every mistake made and everything that goes wrong hurt even more because of how invested you are in the characters and you don’t want to see them fail.
Another key reason why the film works is through its use of science. Like Andy Weir’s source material, the film uses a lot of technical language and uses the most up to date scientific knowledge to keep the story believable, letting you understand how someone like Watney can survive on Mars. This is a film that shows Watney mixing his excrement with Martian and some Earth soil to grow potatoes and assumes you’ll know how it all works. Whilst the language is simplified a bit from the book to keep it more accessible there is still enough of a scientific bent to make the film work in this way. Sure not all the science holds up, mainly with the discovery of liquid water on Mars the week of release, but it does work for the science known, whilst also showing that our understanding of the universe is expanding. The film also works as a great endorsement for NASA. Sure the film is about a man stuck on Mars but it also shows the wonders that being on Mars can present, the ability to see things no other human can see. It presents the main heroes as people able to use their intelligence to think around the problems Mars creates and using those as a new way to improve Watney’s chances of survival. I’ll say that if one person is convinced to join a scientific field after watching this film then the entire enterprise would have been more than worth it.
I will say that there are a few key changes from Andy Weir’s book, mainly near the end of the film and whilst I won’t go into detail, I will say that some of the changes were a little bit distracting for me as someone who loves the book but, in the context of the film, they all work really well.
A film like this though lives or dies on the cast. As good as Drew Goddard’s script is, if the wrong actor was chosen to play Watney then the film would have died. Thankfully, Ridley Scott got Matt Damon. Damon has the right level of charm to play Watney with a great humourous streak that makes him instantly likable and you fully understand why the people back on Earth would want to get him back. At the same time he also shows the difficulty of being stuck on Mars, with there being numerous points of anger when things go wrong and points where you wonder whether or not Watney will kill himself to avoid starving to death. This is a fine wire performance, go too far in any direction and Watney could become annoying but Damon handles it all perfectly, delivering one of the best performances of his career.
On Earth, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great choice for Vincent Kapoor (renamed from Venkat in the book, and if they decided to keep the character as Indian Irrfan Khan would have been a perfect choice), brilliantly showing the intelligence of the character and the desire to bring Watney back alive, along with a pragmatic streak that shows he knows the limitations of what’s going on. There are also points of similarity between the personalities of Watney and Kapoor, showing that Kapoor was the perfect person to bring back Watney. Also on Earth, Jeff Daniels is great as Teddy Sanders, being the pragmatist in the group but willing to do everything to save Watney, even if it comes at the expense of safety, along with worrying about the PR if things go wrong, something he has in common with Kristen Wiig as NASA’s head of media Annie Montrose and she’s good, even if the character isn’t used that much in the film. Great performances are also given by Sean Bean, adding a great deal of morality to the proceedings as Mitch Henderson, the person who wants the crew of the Hermes to know about Watney, Benedict Wong is great as Bruce Ng, the head of NASA’s jet propulsion lab, showing the commitment people have to rescuing Watney along with the pressure they feel due to the short timeframe they have to rescue Watney, Donald Glover puts a lot of life into Rich Purnell, showing the intelligence he has in coming up with a solution for Watney along with a quirky sense of humour that works for the character, and Mackenzie Davis, whilst not given much to do, is great as Mindy Park, particularly at the start of the film.
On the Hermes meanwhile, Jessica Chastain is brilliant as Commander Lewis. She expertly shows a strong attitude she has that lets you know why she is the Commander, along with a feeling of respect the crew has for her due to her willingness to avoid leaving people behind, with her being reluctant in evacuating without Watney when she assumes him dead. In the second half of the film, Chastain’s performance is elevated due to the guilt she feels over leaving Watney behind which works wonders for some of the changes made to the story. Michael Peña as Martinez continues his streak of excellent performances, providing a lot of the humour for the Hermes scenes and stealing every scene he’s in. Kate Mara does a good job as Johanssen, showing the concern she has for the crew, along with her intelligence and her more introverted nature, along with having good chemistry with Sebastian Stan (who’s also good as Beck) which works for their characters near the end of the film. Aksel Hennie also does a good job as Vogel, showing his love for his family and his concern for the crew effectively at the end of the film, along with the character’s knowledge of chemistry.
The technical aspects of the film are also excellent. As stated earlier, as poor as Ridley Scott’s films have been before this, he remains a top notch technical director and he’s on especially good form here. Along with DP Dariusz Wolski, the filming for Mars is excellent with the deep red of the Martian soil giving the whole thing an imposing yet beautiful nature, one that lets you understand why people want to go to Mars. The designs of all the equipment Watney uses, along with the tech on Earth, feel very realistic and I wouldn’t be surprised if NASA let Scott use some of their designs for the film. The music meanwhile really adds to the comedic tone of the film, in a similar way to Guardians of the Galaxy, due to the character of Lewis being a massive fan of 70s disco music and we get that music throughout the film, which makes funny scenes even funnier, in particularly great use of Hot Stuff and I Will Survive, along with great mood setting music, with the use of Starman being the standout.
Overall, The Martian is one of the best films of the year. It is a great show for the brilliance of NASA and is one of the most uplifting and optimistic films of the year. With the aid of Drew Goddard’s excellent script from Andy Weir’s brilliant source, and with the perfect casting of Matt Damon, Ridley Scott has finally broken out of his bad film rut and has directed a film that reminds you why we forgive the bad films Scott has made. If putting up with films like Prometheus and Robin Hood means we also get The Martian then that is a happy trade.
My Rating: 5/5