In space no-one can hear you… …farm??
That’s the theme for Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Scott makes his return to science-fiction with the hopes of putting the wrongs of Prometheus to rest once and for all. And what better way to do that than have a stranded astronaut botanist grow potatoes on Mars? Okay, there is slightly more to it than that…
The set up for The Martian is simple: a Mars dust storm forces a crew of astronauts to abort their mission and head back to Earth, hastily abandoning their botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in the process, believing him to be dead after he impales himself on an antenna. But Watney is alive and now alone, and must use all of his botanist powers to survive the harsh Mars environment until a rescue team can return to bring him home. The only problem is, Watney has no means of communicating with NASA to let them know he is in fact alive,and a rescue team would take four years to mount anyway - he only has enough food to survive for a year. A FUBAR scenario indeed.
The Martian isn’t as heavy going as it sounds. On the contrary, Ridley Scott has adopted an unusually playful tone – the film treads a fine line of humour and drama perfectly. Whilst not played entirely for laughs, there is playfulness peppered throughout, although The Martian most definitely didn’t warrant its Golden Globe nomination in the ‘Best Musical or Comedy’ category – what was Hollywood thinking?! Saying that, when your main protagonist is an astronaut who spouts out lines such as “Fuck you, Mars!”, “In your face Neil Armstrong!”, and “I’m going to science the shit out of it!” you are left with a feeling that Interstellar this ain’t.
To its credit though, The Martian does try to present a credible portrayal of space life. Now a whole new Hollywood genre – ‘Science-FACTion’? – the movie follows in the footsteps of Sunshine, Gravity and Interstellar by trying to be as accurate as possible when it comes to the science. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t quite work out. The humourous tone of the piece expunges all aspects of tension, and the film is just a little too perfect - the actors just look like, well, actors. And it’s quite obvious that everything from the vehicles to the software was made by a production designer and not an engineer. The lack of an orchestral score also dampens the opportunities to heighten any tension that Watney’s situation presents – Scott has instead opted for a disco songs soundtrack, which will make more sense upon viewing.
Matt Damon does a fair job in the lead role. He’s interesting to watch as the film explores the human aspect and psychology of being marooned in a strange place, displaying a range of emotions from giddiness to despair. But he doesn’t quite reach Tom Hanks Cast Away standards, and once again this could be deliberate due to the lightertone of The Martian.There’s also an extremely poor ‘skinny Matt Damon’ body-double used, as Watney’s weight inevitably starts to decrease. Surely Damon should’ve gone full blown ‘Christian Bale’ to warrant his Oscar nomination?
Watney’s crew are a varied bunch, led by Jessica Chastain. Back on Earth, Jeff Daniels is calling the shots for NASA, and we get to enjoy scenes that hark back to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 as mission control have to constantly solve problems only to be faced with a whole new set of challenges to solve.
The film does look glorious. You really feel as if you’re exploring Mars as Scott throws up orbital shots, wide sweeping vistas from the surface, aerial shots of Mars’ mountains, and raging duststorms (which are a slightly heightened version of reality). It may be Hollywood’s version of Mars but it seems to be a damn accurate portrayal.The Martian is extremely enjoyable to watch, but its light tone allows itself to stretch almost into farce. NASA managing to build a brand new rocket from scratch in less than 14 days, for example, is asking audiences to suspend disbelief a little too much, especially in light of the ‘real science’ being shown in other areas. And NASA’s lone Chinese employee suddenly remembers that his uncle has a private rocket. After a quick phone call to China asking to borrow the rocket (which the Chinese uncle agrees to) the Chinese government sends it into space immediately. Meanwhile, back on Mars, Matt Damon is harvesting his potatoes to the tunes of Abba.
It may sound bonkers, but it just works. An extremely enjoyable watch, as long as you don’t expect any deep existentialism or soul searching about our place in the universe. Watney explaining why he’s officially a Space Pirate is about as deep as it gets. Enjoy!