Ridley Scott is rightly held in high esteem as a sci-fi master. Alien and Blade Runner are two high watermarks of the genre. Yet, after Prometheus proved to somewhat of a misfire, you would be forgiven for going into Scott’s latest, The Martian, with mild scepticism. If anything Prometheus, along with recent outings, The Counselor and Exodus, have proven that even the greatest visual story teller still needs a damn good script. Otherwise, the films just won’t work.
It’s a pleasure to report, then, that barring one or two hickups on the closing stretches, the script for The Martian is a fine one. Many of the positives, of which there are plenty, must be attributed to the original 2011 novel by Andy Weir. The novel is a smart science heavy thriller that has been equally smartly streamlined by scripter Drew Goddard.
The plot is a simple one. After a dust storm forces his companions to make a hasty getaway, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left for dead on the planet Mars. Determined to survive against the odds, the botanist gets to work on innumerable nifty solutions to his plight, growing potatoes in his own shit, manufacturing water from hydrogen, and finding a way to regain contact with NASA and ultimately try to make his way back home.
Much like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Damon needs to hold huge swathes of the film together. In fact, much like Cast Away (or even Apollo 13 for that matter), it’s not hard to see some of Hanks brand of everyman charisma and charm in Damon’s performance. The moments with Damon on screen are the film’s best, and you miss him when he’s away. His incredibly funny, yet human, performance, lending Watney a cocky empathy, holds the film together.
It’s only natural then, that the rest of the film may suffer somewhat as a result. Some elements work incredibly well. For example Jeff Daniels’s NASA boss playing tough is well done while other elements (Donald Glover’s comedy physicist) overdo the slapstick. Similarly, his former crewmates aren’t given a great deal to do apart from look moody and wrestle with the guilt of leaving him behind. Still, Scott has populated his film with some great actors, meaning that even the broadest characters seem realistic and engaging in the hands of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jessica Chastain.
The film also prides itself on realism and scientific accuracy – although it does take some liberties, the science seems both credible and realistic. Much of this engaging realism can be attributed to the gorgeous production design, the universe building that Scott has always cultivated in his films. The film is also beautifully lensed by regular collaborator Dariusz Wolski, with his wide shots of the Jordan Desert (a suitable stand in for Mars) proving particularly jaw dropping.
After the epic naval gazing disappointment of Interstellar last year, The Martian is a sci-fi film that looks for the positive, what humans can achieve. It manages to do this with great style and good humour. Thanks to Matt Damon giving one of the best performances of his career, this is easily Sir Ridley’s best film in years, and probably the most downright entertaining film he’s ever made. Great fun.