Film Review: The Martian (USA, 2015)

The Martian is the much anticipated adaptation of Andy Weir’s acclaimed debut novel of the same name – a book which is as fascinating in its rise to notoriety as the content itself. Released in 2011 as a self-published, free-to-download ebook by the author (he released it chapter by chapter on his website before sticking it on the Kindle for 99c), it wasn’t long before the book’s popularity garnered a publishing deal. This saw it re-released in 2014 with an expedited script treatment by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Lost),  landing the first time author’s work in the hands of acclaimed science fiction filmmaker Ridley Scott (Aliens, Prometheus, Blade Runner). And now this week, the film finds its audience in cinemas around the world. 

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a scientist (Botanist to be exact) who gets left behind on Earth’s third mission to Mars – assumed dead – when a severe storm forces the crew to evacuate the planet. Living in a station only designed to be inhabited for 31 days, Watney must, as he puts it, “science the shit out of this”, and work out how to survive the some four years he expects it to take a rescue crew to reach him. So, basically, he has to grow food on a planet that doesn’t grow food, try to communicate with Earth without the ability to communicate and try not to die in the process.

Isolated from the rest of the characters, the film rests on Damon’s shoulders, and he couldn’t have been more perfectly cast. He carries the weight of the film and delivers a phenomenal performance that makes this the must-see film that producers were hoping for. He captures the snarky, surprisingly jovial character well, a trait they have adapted well to the screen. Though I haven’t read the book in its entirety, those who have tell me that it’s been very faithfully adapted. This includes the story’s love for the real hero in the saga: duct tape. The guy literally entrusts his life to it.

The rest of the cast are strong, though they’re all given one dimensional roles – this is Damon’s film after all.  Jessica Chastain is arguably the strongest on screen presence other than Damon, returning for yet another Space themed blockbuster (she was of course in Interstellar, as was (SPOILER) Damon) to great effect. Jeff Daniels plays the NASA boss well, while Donald Glover pops in for a small, perhaps underutilised role.  And then there’s Sean Bean, who delivers a fantastic Sean Bean performance. And look out for the entertaining Lord of the Rings reference with Boromir SITTING RIGHT THERE.

Director Ridley Scott has done a sound job of bringing this film to the screen. The scenes on Mars look phenomenal, and for the most part the 3D comes out shining. There is an atmosphere to films set in space that the 3D genuinely adds to, in a way that is largely lost and unnecessary in most films. The cinematography is beautiful too – every shot looks pristine – and its score by Harry Gregson-Williams is solid.

Naturally, comparisons have been made to Gravity – which are sound in some instances, especially given they share a lot of the same film technology  – though its stationary world sits it closer to the thematic environment of Castaway. Except in this case, the audience is Wilson. In the book, we read his journal – in the film, we watch him enter records into his video diary.

There are some weaknesses in the film which are hard to ignore – some of the shots of the actors in weightlessness came off looking poor, likely amplified by the 3D rendering. And there is one moment where, in spite of an entire movie filled with jargon, and a crazy yet conceivable amount of science, one of the astronauts exclaims “can you say that again, but in English!?”. It’s something that is either supposed to get a laugh, speak down to the audience, or both, and honestly should have found itself on the cutting room floor. And though there is far too much of a need for the American stereotype of the Mission Control celebrations (throw paper in the air and cheer, with a close up of the main characters giving a more reserved and cautious celebration before nodding at each other in congratulations), they thankfully shied away from focusing on the upset and concerned families, showcasing most public reaction through live news coverage.

Though the film suffers from some corny moments and that incessant need to show people in mission control jumping up and down and cheering every time anything of significance happens, this is what we’ve come to expect from a Hollywood Blockbuster. And they are minor gripes. Ultimately, in a film like this, we come for a ride – and though it’s not the never-ending graphically mind-blowing roller coaster that Gravity was, seeing Damon’s Mark Watney battle through his situation, with his  wit intact, takes you through similar emotions. You can’t help but root for the guy and join him for what is indeed a magnificence ride in its own right.

In duct tape we trust.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Martian is released in cinemas nationwide today, October 1st.