There comes a point in “The Martian” where you have to start reminding yourself that it’s just a movie and that this stuff hasn’t really happened. The film will inevitably draw comparisons with “Interstellar” but it shares more of its dramatic DNA with 1995’s “Apollo 13”, such is the air of authenticity and plausibility Ridley Scott has achieved.
When a severe dust storm on the surface of Mars causes the Ares III mission to abort and return home, mission botanist Mark Watney is lost, presumed killed during the evacuation. However, Mark has survived and is alone on the surface of Mars. With rescue millions of miles and hundreds of days away, Mark must use everything at his disposal to try to survive until help can come.
The script, adapted from Andy Weir’s novel by Drew Goddard with the full cooperation and input of NASA is intelligent, playfully tense and unexpectedly funny as it takes us through Mark’s initial struggles to simply stay alive, the frantic efforts to figure out how to mount any kind of rescue and how to keep him alive until he can be reached.
The bulk of the film rests on Matt Damon’s screen presence and charisma and he rises magnificently to the challenge. He’s a world away from the treacherous douchebag astronaut of “Interstellar” and it’s all the more impressive given that much of the story is actually pretty light on actual acute danger, preferring to focus on the chronic challenges Watney faces and the ingenuity needed to overcome them. Fortunately for Watney, back on Earth, he has a starry NASA ensemble working desperately to figure out how to rescue him, including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean to name but a few. The crew who were forced to abandon Watney are no less star-studded with Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan coming along for the ride. Despite the wealth of talent in the ensemble, it’s still Damon who grabs and holds your attention throughout.
The story also brings out the best in Ridley Scott who, together with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, recaptures the stunning visual style of “Prometheus”, turning the Jordanian desert into a truly alien landscape.
Spectacular to look at and grippingly tense, “The Martian” is a science fiction survival story with a firm grip on real-life space science and a finale that delivers genuine edge-of-the-seat, white knuckle thrills (especially if, like me, you haven’t read the novel). It makes “Interstellar” look like the self-indulgent new age nonsense it is and, for a planet so haunted by the ghosts of previous lacklustre movie appearances: “Last Days On Mars”, “Mission To Mars” etc., this is a glorious cinematic redemption for one of our closest solar neighbours at a time when it’s just starting to reveal its secrets to us in real life. There may be liquid water on Mars but for Ridley Scott and Matt Damon, the champagne is on ice. “The Martian” is a triumph.