Please note there are spoilers contained in the following.
I’ve seen Ridley Scott’s new movie The Martian and here is my review.
I suppose I should preface this review by stating that this is exactly the kind of movie that appeals to me as it’s a very “nuts and bolts” depiction of near-future space travel that for the most part obeys the laws of physics.
This movie is based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir which is an entertaining page-turning thriller about how a lone astronaut could survive on Mars by using his knowledge of botany and chemistry and whatever resources were available.
The movie of course stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney who gets stranded on Mars after the Ares III mission is aborted. His five colleagues leave him behind believing him dead. When he recovers consciousness he discovers he’s has been abandoned and he has no way to communicate with Earth. As with the book he inventories his food supplies and starts to grow potatoes to have enough food to last the four years it could take to get a rescue mission to him.
Of course as the story progresses various problems are thrown an him, some of which are immediately life-threatening, and he has to deal with each of the problems as he goes.
The movie is largely faithful to the book with most of the main plot developments included. Some sequences were excised to keep the running time to two hours, for example some incidents in Watney’s journey across Mars were dropped from the book.
The movie does not stick with Matt Damon through the whole running time. It splits it’s time between Watney on Mars, the five other Ares crew members on the spacecraft Hermes returning to Earth – initially unaware that their fellow crew-member is still alive – and the NASA people back at Mission Control on Earth.
Obviously of the cast Matt Damon has the largest chunk of screen time. He has to make his video diary entries an engaging way for the audience to see how he is solving the problems. As with the book the character uses his sense of humour to survive. However Damon does get to do what I call “The Acting” at versions points such as when he re-establishes communication with Earth and when he finally makes it to the craft that could get him off Mars.
Out of the Hermes crew I would single out Jessica Chastain’s mission commander Lewis. I’ve been a fan of hers for the last few years and she shines here with a prominent role feeling guilt for leaving one of her crew behind and a determination to rescue him. Incidentally she was in Christopher Nolan’s science fiction movie Interstellar which also featured Matt Damon, although If I recall correctly they didn’t share any screen time.
Out of the NASA staff back on earth I want to mention a rumpled-looking Sean Bean in a supporting role as the Flight Director. It’s always nice to see Sean Bean in big Hollywood movies and sticking with his own northern English accent.
By the way there is a Lord of the Rings joke in the movie and it was only the next day that I realised that Bean, one of the Fellowship, was in that scene.
A recurring joke in the book concerns Watney being forced to use the entertainment files of his fellow astronauts. Lewis it turns out is a fan of the 1970s and has episodes of tv shows like Happy Days and lots of disco-era music. The movie takes this detail a humorous step further by having suitable disco-era music played as the movie’s sound track at suitable moments.
The depiction of Mars is pretty stunning. There a a few moments of Watney alone in the Martian landscape that are memorable. Also some of the aerial shots of his rover trips are glorious. Arguably the landscape of towering cliffs is not accurate to where NASA would send a mission but I guess it makes things more visually interesting than the flat floor of a crater.
I found the final act of the movie to be the most exciting. Much of it deals with the Hermes spacecraft approaching Mars to intercept Watney’s capsule. This section of the movie takes account of how real spacecraft would actually be manoeuvring and the audience gets a glimpse of how orbital mechanics would be used to adjust intercept speeds and distances. It’s done in an exciting way as the clock is ticking and each thing the crew does to get closer to Watney produces another problem that they must solve with their limited fuel. Finally we get a spacewalk sequence (not from the book) that must have been influenced by the movie Gravity but is no less exciting for it.
(The Martian continues the trend of recent science fiction movies that include a large dose of science fact. Gravity arguably isn’t science fiction at all and interstellar has a very fact based look at space travel.)
As much as I like Ridley Scott’s movies across all genres after seeing The Martian I can’t help but wish he had done nothing but science-fiction since Alien and Blade Runner. At least he’s rectifying things with this movie and the upcoming Alien prequel.
For the time being this is probably the best Ridley Scott space-based science-fiction movie since Alien. (Well ok, his only other space-based science-fiction movie between Alien and The Martian is Prometheus so there’s not a lot of competition.)
But it’s also one of Ridley Scott’s best movies of any genre. And it’s one of my favourite movies of the year. I look forward to buying it on Blu Ray.