The recent announcement from NASA scientists finally confirming the presence of running water on the surface of Mars – and thus the possibility of at least some primitive form of life existing on the surface of the presumed-dead red planet - isn’t exactly a case of life imitating art but it’s surely an example of life acting as a handy promotional tool for a brand new movie. Not that Ridley Scott’s astonishing The Martian – the director’s most assured and downright enjoyable movie in a decade or more – is going to need a big publicity push to get bums-on-seats. The Martian is this year’s Gravity – a story of human survival in impossible circumstances - but in terms of its scope, scale, high stakes and sheer visceral, visual power and beauty it leaves Alfonso Cuaron’s off-Earth adventure squirming in the space dust (if such a thing were to exist – and after the Mars/water revelation, surely anything’s possible?)
The Martian is sensitively adapted by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s unputdownable powerhouse page-turner. Astronaut/botanist Mark Watney is left behind when his expeditionary team is forced to leave Mars in a hurry following a devastating sandstorm during which he’s hit by flying debris and presumed dead. As the crew of the Ares 3 head for home and humanity comes to terms with the tragedy of another life lost in the name of space exploration, Mark Watney is far from dead. Gathering his wits he heads back to the team’s habitation unit and sets about ensuring his own survival until the next manned mission to Mars in four years’ time. He adapts and cannibalises his environment, plants potato crops in the dead Martian soil using his own waste as compost and spends his spare time watching tapes of Happy Days and listening to one of his fellow crew-members’ unending supply of 1970s disco classics.
The Martian is a breathtakingly bravura piece of film-making. Goddard has stripped away much of the book’s occasionally dense (if commendably well-researched) scientific detail without losing the thrust of its importance; we’re with Mark as he struggles to stay alive and the focus is squarely on his humanity, his humour and his extraordinary adaptability in the face of impossible adversity. The technical stuff – lighter and more readily-accessible than in the book - is subtly leavened by Mark’s relentless optimism and his determination to survive in a situation almost too terrible to imagine.
Once we’re used to seeing Mark – a brilliantly-nuanced everyman-in-space performance from the always-dependable Matt Damon – rising to the challenge of his situation, we come back down to Earth – literally - as NASA Director Jeff Daniels and his crack team of solid supporting players (the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig, Benedict Wong and Sean Bean) realise that Mark is alive and well and temporarily living on Mars. Their single-minded determination to find a way to bring their boy back is enough to restore anyone’s wavering faith in the innate worthiness of humanity. A failed rescue attempt leads to a timely alliance with the Chinese space agency who might just possess the technology and the hardware necessary for the only audacious scheme - involving Jessica Chastain and her crew aboard Ares 3 as it powers its way back to Earth – which stands even the remotest chance of saving the beleaguered botanist.
Even if you’ve read Weir’s novel, the film’s final act is almost unbearably exciting and whilst it skips some of the hardships Mark endures in the novel as he travels across the Martian surface there’s no let-up in the thrills and tension in a race-against-time climax which combines dazzling visuals and Scott’s deft, immersive and yet never-intrusive or overly fussy direction. And this really is Scott’s movie, reminding us what an extraordinary film-maker he can be when he’s working with sharp, intelligent raw material. Goddard’s nifty script is witty when it needs to be (the shafts of humour are very much in the style of Joss Whedon, Goddard’s old sparring partner on shows like Buffy and Angel) and never drifts into mawkish sentimentality, maintaining the steely matter-of-fact no-nonsense approach of Weir’s often-wry novel.
The Martian ultimately exceeds every reasonable expectation of even the staunchest fan of the book who might have expected at least some disappointment from the film version. Incredible visual effects (the Martian landscape is filmed in Peru but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location on the red planet), stunning production design, an A-list cast giving it their all from beginning to end and a veteran director back at the top of his game; The Martian must be a contender for Film of the Year and is surely a shoo-in for a handful of Gongs at next year’s Oscars. It’s a must-see Martian masterpiece.
THE MARTIAN / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: RIDLEY SCOTT / SCREENPLAY: DREW GODDARD / STARRING: MATT DAMON, JESSICA CHASTAIN, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, JEFF DANIELS, SEAN BEAN / RELEASEDATE: OUT NOW
Expecting Rating: 9 out of 10