There's a special kind of dread that settles in the pit of your stomach when one of your favourite directors starts on a streak of films that don't quite connect. I love me some Ridley Scott. Both Blade Runner and Alien have had huge impacts on me and I'm a big fan of the majority of his back catalogue. However, the man's been off the boil for a while.
He lost me around the time of the Russell Crowe starring Robin Hood and his output since has been middling to poor, including the still-a-massive-disappointment Prometheus. However, with The Martian he's broken that streak. It was one of my favourite films of last year and reminded me just why I liked the man in the first place. Welcome back, Sir Ridders! Don't you ever scare me like that again.
During a manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is separated from his crew thanks to a massive planetary storm. The crew of the Aries III, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), presume him dead and are forced to abandon him and the mission, leaving Mars altogether. However, it transpires that Watney lived and now has the unenviable task of trying to survive on a desolate planet, millions of miles away from any help.
Based on Andy Weir's self-published novel, The Martian is a fantastic tale about, among other things, the indomitable human spirit. What makes The Martian work is a complete meshing of talents at the top of their games.
Ridley Scott has always been great at creating solid, palpable worlds no matter how fantastical the setting and he really brings the Red Planet to life. He's also brilliant at letting character moments breathe, not being one to eagerly cut away once a character is done talking. This plays nicely into Matt Damon's wheelhouse, with him being a subtler and more nuanced actor than people give him credit for. We spend a lot of time with Watney and most of that time is spent with the character talking directly to camera, recording his thought processes in video logs.
It takes a talented actor to keep that interesting and Damon is up to the task. He's the core of the film and a big part of why the whole thing is so damn good.
That's not to discount the rest of the cast. Jessica Chastain is on reliable good form and the whole Aries crew are nicely fleshed out, despite limited screen time. I especially liked Michael Peña , who brought his funny, likeable charms to the role of Martinez. On the ground, I liked the entire NASA crew.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Donald Glover were the standouts for me. The more I think about it, the more I realise that this is an ensemble piece that walks like a single character study. You've got great character actors doing their thing, but they never overshadow Watney and his plight. That's an impressive feat.
Drew Goddard's script is so tight you could bounce a coin off it. He's working from a decent blueprint in the form of the source novel, but he manages to balance the heavy science with appropriate levity. This is one funny film. Watney's sense of humour is one of the things that perseveres throughout. He's wry and sarcastic without being irritating and it's his humour and intelligence that make you root for him all the harder. His hatred of Commander Lewis' abandoned music library is also the gift that keeps on giving. There's a real love of science and exploration on display too. The film celebrates knowledge, ingenuity and resourcefulness. It's heartening to see characters get together and think their way out of problems and conundrums.
The Martian is a rare beast. It has big effects and stars, but it also has a big, beating heart to match. There's a real sense of humanity and goodwill that crucially doesn't feel manufactured or saccharine. It's inspiring and uplifting in a very genuine way. The film makes it seem like all of our problems down here on Earth can be solved by working together, a notion which I believe isn't too far from the truth. The Martian easily earns a full five stars and my highest recommendation.
Ben Browne, The Popcorn Bucket