Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Martian

Review by Jane Freebury

A mission on Mars is aborted during a wild storm. One crew member is left behind, presumed killed by flying debris, but the rest of the crew escape and begin their long journey home. At NASA they notice that equipment at the abandoned habitat is being moved around. It can mean only one thing. The man left for dead is still alive.

A rescue mission would probably arrive too late to save him. Stuff of legend? Enter distinguished director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down).

So how does the stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) feel about his predicament? Once he has operated on himself to remove a piece of equipment that lodged in his gut during the storm, he can focus. And once he's recognised the imminent perils of suffocation, dying of thirst, starvation, implosion, and going crazy—'Yeah, I'm fucked'— he's remarkably cheerful. He sets to with the math: there's no time to spare.

How many days does he have until a rescue—we're talking a four-year wait—and how many meals to go with it? Figuring out there's a pretty big shortfall, Watney plants a potato farm within the habitat, fertilising it with his own poo and watering it by burning rocket fuel. It's a cool ad for the benefits of survival training — and for knowing your science, which when one's life depends on it, is suddenly rivetting. Although we may not have expected it to be, sharing Watney's plight is fun.

His sense of humour helps. After all, what's not to like about being 'the first person alone on a planet', first to climb that hill, first to plant crops? First at everything?  Watney keeps his own company pretty well. He starts a video diary, sharing a joke with us and the screen, refusing to be overwhelmed by the situation. It’s some situation, you have to admit.

Damon as a stoic, sensible biologist is the perfect foil for the dramatic excesses a story like this can induce. The grandeur of the locations (many shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan) is stunning, but Scott has mostly gone against his instincts for glory this time.

Oddly, there doesn't seem to be a loved one at home to help keep him going, though parents get a mention. And whether he survives or not is in the hands of the team. We could have done with a lot less from the characters back at HQ,  when it's his fellow crew still travelling through space who rise to the occasion.

The Martian is a surprise from a director who likes to tackle the grand questions. When bombastic  past ventures from Scott like Prometheus and Kingdom of Heaven struggled with weak writing, his new film obviously benefits enormously from the novel of the same name by Andy Weir on which it is based. A great image isn't necessarily worth a thousand words.

This struggle for survival, day by day, when each tiny mishap could spell the end is far from grim or apocalyptic. The Martian turns out to be a refreshing surprise, not least for its jovial 1970s can-do pragmatism and often jaunty soundtrack. And Damon makes it real.

It’s taken me a little while to get to see this. I thought the solitary survival thing had been really well done by Sam Rockwell in Moon, and at sea with Tom Hanks in Cast Away and Robert Redford in All is Lost, so why rush to see another? Turns out it's worth it.

3.5 Stars