Followers of Ridley Scott’s work will know that the British director has been stuck in something of a dry patch over the last decade. Four collaborations with Russel Crowe yielded exactly one good film (American Gangster) and aside from that, Scott’s movies have ranged from forgettable (Kingdom Of Heaven, Body Of Lies) to utterly dire (Prometheus, The Counselor).
So, when we say The Martian is the best film Ridley Scott has produced in years, it may sound like we’re damning it with faint praise. Allow us to be clear, The Martian is an absolutely stunning movie that takes what, on the surface is a rather simple plot -Robinson Crusoe in space – and then proceeds to fill it out and polish every aspect of it until it shines with a diamond-tipped gleam.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, a botanist and astronaut that finds himself stranded on Mars when a storm causes him to become impaled on a radio antennae and his NASA colleagues leave him for dead. Watney manages to struggle inside a base station constructed for the mission to Mars and literally staple his wound shut.
As he recovers, the realisation dawns on him that even if he manages to survive the elements of the Red Planet, his food supply will run out well before the next NASA Mars mission – even if it’s heavily rationed. The only way he’ll survive is if he works out how to grow food on a planet where no organic life has managed to exist before now. Armed with some potatoes, his own excrement and a makeshift hydrogen burner (to produce water) he sets about turning one of the rooms in his base into a greenhouse.
Watney’s terraforming project isn’t the only challenge he faces. Over the course of his time on Mars, the stranded astronaut has to deal with unpredictable and violent weather patterns, a rover module that only has enough battery life to offer 35km on the odometer before it has to be recharged and the fact that communication with NASA is more than a little problematic. In his own words, he’s going to have to “science the sh*t” out of this situation to survive.
Meanwhile an eagle-eyed NASA satellite monitor back on earth spies Watney’s movements and tells her superiors (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels). They in turn set about trying to establish communication with Watney and formulate a plan to bring him home. They also try to control the PR nightmare erupting around the notion that NASA could’ve left one of its employees marooned on Mars and argue internally over whether to tell Watney’s colleagues – who are on their way back to earth – about his predicament.
As is the case with a lot of Ridley Scott’s work, The Martian is a sumptuous visual feast. The Jordanian desert – which the lion’s share of Damon’s outdoor scene were filmed in – may not convince astronomy scholars that it’s Mars, but Scott hasn’t lost his knack in making the otherworldly look utterly believable. Furthermore he draws great performances out of his cast – particularly Damon, who plays Watney as a clearly intelligent and capable bloke with a sardonic streak as dry as the planet he’s trapped on.
The screenplay is another highlight; adapted by Drew Goddard (who penned numerous Buffy and Angel episodes, as well as Cloverfield and The Cabin In The Woods) from the novel by Andy Weir, the dialogue doesn’t skimp on technical jargon and science fact. However, it’s anything but dry punctuated by enough humour to alleviate the overall pallor of despair that hangs over Watney and the ordeals he finds himself facing.
It’s great to see Scott turning in a very decent science fiction film, recalling his fine work in this genre decades earlier with Alien and Blade Runner. While it’s a much breezier affair than either, The Martian is solidly entertaining throughout. It also saves its best moments for last – the build up to and execution of Watney’s attempts to finally leave his interstellar desert island are worth the price of admission alone.
Verdict: A tense, entertaining sci fi adventure and Ridley Scott’s best film in years 81%