The Martian, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Andy Weir bestseller, would have been an easy pitch: it’s Cast Away in space, or – if you were dealing with an especially parsimonious suit – Gravity with one A-lister instead of two. Were the committee still wavering, Sir Ridley might have dug out some appropriate clips: from 2002’s Gerry, perhaps, where his star Matt Damon handled a comparable situation on Earth with unexpected good humour, or the not unrelated sequence from Chris Nolan’s blockbusting Interstellar.
And in the unlikely event that anybody should still be having doubts, perhaps related to adorning this project in expensive 3D, Scott could always point to his immersive work around the hostile alien landscape of 2012’s Prometheus, itself no box-office slouch. Like many of Scott’s recent films, his latest displays nothing less than a canny business sense. The good news is this one comprises a good investment for producers and punters alike.
Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA research scientist left for dead on Mars after being skewered by a satellite during a duststorm; with his colleagues retreating to the safety of Earth, he regains consciousness as the last astronaut standing in deadly territory lightyears from home. Where you and I might abandon hope, Watney literally pulls himself together in a grisly scene of self-surgery and cracks on, terraforming his new backyard and measuring out his days in potatoes while striving to find ways to reconnect with his employers, and waiting for the planet to revolve such that he might catch the next shuttle back.
Very quickly, The Martian differentiates itself from Gravity by refusing to allow its protagonist to get in a tizz about his predicament: the sun to that film’s moon, it could just as easily be called Levity. Gone is the despair, the dead child, the existential panic; in its place, a kind of hardy, jovial professionalism. (If Howard Hawks had made a space movie, this is what it might have looked and sounded like.)
Scott, a broadly unsentimental soul, has found an unlikely ally in screenwriter Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods), one of those California fanboys who probably wouldn’t recognise an emotion if it showed up on a Comic Con panel. Watney, rolling up his sleeves and cracking wise, just gets on with things – and the film is prepared to trade almost entirely on the pleasure of watching someone do that; it’s a victory for rational male practicality over the indifference and irrationality of the wider universe.
There’s the additional pleasure of watching a total pro such as Damon, still as boyish, and somehow as essential to a national sense of optimism, as he was circa Saving Private Ryan. As in the Bournes, he’s been cast to suggest an identity in flux, made subject here to more immediate extremes of temperature and atmosphere; we’re uncertain what effect this isolation experiment will have on such a solidly composed figure, but the actor’s capacity to convey a young American’s wide-eyed wonder at his newfound circumstances makes him an easy lab rat to root for.
This isn’t the entire picture, however. Back home, the Scott/Goddard conception of NASA – covering all bases: Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean (personifying the no-nonsense Northern sensibility at play here) – makes Interstellar’s VIP hideyhole look like amateur hour, and keeps the Earth scenes lively and engaging through to a final-act twist that reflects developments within the non-fictional business world. (Even George Osborne will be purring.)
In the most satisfying of manners, Weir, Goddard and Scott set up an engineering puzzle of a kind not dissimilar to that dramatised in Apollo 13 – how to bridge the x million miles separating one point from another – before casting around for solutions and working overtime to resolve it, at every stage grounding the prevailing fantasy of life extension in nuts-and-bolts, math(s)-on-the-blackboard reality.
The Martian is the film that confirms Scott as one of the contemporary cinema’s great facilitators and logisticians, those numbercrunchers the movies surely need as much as they do their wayward visionaries. Here’s two hours and twenty minutes in the company of people who know exactly what they’re doing – and in the context of the modern multiplex, that’s a precious commodity indeed.
(MovieMail, September 2015)
The Martian screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.