Over the last few years there seems to have been a trend in science-fiction films where postmodern cynicism has taken over the optimistic, modernist attitude. Yet, when it comes to something like space exploration, wonder and optimism should be the attitude of the day. After the bleak slog that was Interstellar or the crippling post-ironic Jurassic World, it’s refreshing to find a truly great science-fiction movie in Ridley Scott’s The Martian.
Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist on a manned mission to Mars who, through a freak accident, is presumed dead and left behind by the rest of his crew as they escape a storm on the planet’s surface. Watney, alive and well, is now marooned on Mars without enough food to last him until the next manned mission from Earth arrives. He must put all of his training and knowledge into action in order to survive and make contact with Earth while at the same time NASA scientists and Watney’s crew try to figure out a way to bring the stranded astronaut home.
The obvious comparison to a film like this is Castaway, but to call The Martian a sci-fi equivalent is reductive because this isn’t just a one man story about how modern man would equip himself in a primal, natural setting, but rather about how the best and brightest minds in humanity can solve any problem. It’s less ‘mans will to survive’ and more ‘knowledge is power’.
The Martian boasts an impressive cast of supporting characters who comprise half of the movie as the NASA scientists and spaceship crew trying to help bring Watney home. The film is remarkably straightforward in its plot. There is no antagonist or mind-bending plot twist, just a solid story that still manages to be incredibly compelling.
The film’s cast is on top form. Matt Damon gives an award-worthy performance as Watney, touching, heroic, funny and most importantly human. Jessica Chasten, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie comprise the crew of the Ares III mission to Mars, all of whom give brilliantly and efficiently convey who their characters are in the time they are on-screen. In the film’s opening scene there are a few minutes of banter between the Ares III crew as they all carry out their respective tasks before the storm forces them to abandon the mission and leave the planet. During this sequence each character perfectly gets across their personality in a tiny amount of time, establishing them so the film can move on to other things. It’s a true credit to the actors and Drew Goddard’s fantastic script that this scene is so effective and understated. On Earth we have equally solid performances from the likes of Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and Sean Bean who help to really sell the film.
If this review sounds overly positive it’s because The Martian is really that good. The cast is great, the direction is hopefully a return to form for Ridley Scott; the script is unbelievably tight, the cinematography is beautiful as are the costumes, sets and effects and the soundtrack is unexpectedly amazing (using disco songs as diegetic music to provide some of the films best moments). It’s something we haven’t seen in a long time, a refreshing sci-fi film that tells a straightforward story all while being breath-taking, moving and funny throughout. A must see sci-fi that is easily one of the best movies of the year.