The Martian film review - castaway of the space age saved by good humour

Ridley Scott repairs his post-Prometheus reputation with a visually rich and striking picture - with some excellent source material to thank too.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian. (20th Century Fox)

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian. (20th Century Fox)

A manned mission to Mars goes awry for Matt Damon in this spectacular sci-fi blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott. Based upon the 2011 novel by Andy Weir and adapted for the screen by the writer of Cloverfield and The Cabin In The Woods, it’s comparable to Interstellar in that it takes some high-brow scientific concepts and makes them generally accessible while making sure the film is still hugely entertaining. Mind the gap as you cross over some plot holes though.

Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist, engineer and NASA astronaut who forms part of a manned mission to Mars. He’s cocky, sharp-tongued and quick-witted, which comes in handy when a freak storm on the surface of the Red Planet sends him flying off into the mist, abandoned by his crew at the last moment after concluding he was a lost cause.

With nothing but his wits to keep him alive - and what remains of the Mars team’s living quarters, alongside an inexplicably intact rover - Watney must adapt to life on Mars while trying to contact home; tricky when there’s nothing but a distant satellite to make contact with and when NASA has already given up hope.

Much of Watney’s survival is ground in theoretically-possible NASA thinking, and several boffins were consulted for the film. So when Watney learns to produce water from the burning of particular chemicals, the principle is spot on. Digging up a radioactive electricity converter for heat is spot on. Using Martian soil and his own, erm, bowel movements to grow potatoes using the ones sent up for Thanksgiving dinner? Theoretically, spot on.

Watney is portrayed as optimistic, rather than devoid of hope, and his efforts are captured by the multitude of cameras contained inside the living quarters and off- roader left behind by the crew. It’s a role Damon’s really suited to - funny, but hands-on too - and one he seems to have a lot of fun with.

There’s politics back on Earth as the NASA mission directors and public relations directors fuss over how to deal with the inevitable PR disaster that unfolds when it’s discovered that Watney is alive, but there’s an excellent tip of the hat to NASA’s brainboxes who set about working to bring Watney home under extreme pressure.

However, don’t expect it all to be explained - and I don’t mean the science. For instance, when Watney digs up the Pathfinder probe in the deserts of Mars, it’s never really alluded to beforehand that there is a fully-functioning replica on Earth with which he can communicate. But there is. And digging into this, it turns out there really is a replica of Pathfinder, down to the last piece of code, but you’d be hard-pressed to buy into that without prior knowledge.

There’s an essence of Prometheus to the film’s design - the two films share a director in Ridley Scott. His keen eye for detail shows in the costumes, the interior of the living quarters, even the interfaces of the computers and video cameras. Although the film reminds you of how time passes by, it’s interesting to see, towards the end, exactly how many video logs Watney leaves for a future explorer to find, should you know where to look.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ subtle, emergent score, twinged with little dabs of guitar over rocket-esque electronic rumblings, is subdued with a little technological edge - a bit like Watney’s situation. It’s a beautifully crafted film. 

Watney’s stress feels real, and Damon’s performance - and dedication to the more physically demanding scenes later on, when Watney’s rations begin to run low and he withers away - really captures the rough-and-tumble, never-know-what’s-next exasperation of the extraordinary situation that help is only a hundred million miles way. Give the plot holes a pass and it’s an extraordinary film.