When most aspiring novelists boldly place their Magnum Opus on self-publishing sites, they usually suffer a brutish and short existence, lost in the never-ending expanse of Amazon.com. Ridley Scott, however, has just rushed to the rescue of the maligned self-published author, and proves that there really is story-telling gold to be struck among the digital tomes of Amazon Kindle's Self-Publishing service. It's not just fan fiction turned erotica-bestsellers after all...
The Gladiator and Alien director's adaptation of Andy Weir's self-published science-fiction novel, The Martian, is a tour de force of phenomenal heart, humor and suspense. It will entertain and inspire, but perhaps most importantly of all, it will make you proud to be a member of the human race.
The Martian sees Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a witty NASA space botanist who is unceremoniously left stranded on Mars after a freak dust storm forces the premature abandonment of the Ares III Mars colony. While his colleagues (including Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña) manage to make it to the safety of their orbiting mothership, Watney is believed to have been killed on the surface of the still untamed planet - news which is gravely relayed to the world's media back on Earth.
Check out the latest trailer for The Martian below:
Meanwhile, on Mars, Watney regains consciousness and soon discovers he has been left as the sole living thing on the planet. Although the Ares III habitat seems to have survived relatively unscathed, our 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' soon does the math and discovers he has to survive for at least four years -- in a facility designed for a 31 day mission.
This is the major crux of the whole story, and despite its relative simplicity, it is one that remains captivating throughout the entire runtime. Watney quickly develops a depressing check-list of reasons Mars will inevitably kill him, and the story sees him solving - or, as he puts, it "scienc[ing] the shit out of" - each dire situation in turn. Back on Earth, NASA soon discovers he's still alive and begin their own desperate attempt to bring him home.
Of course, as with any Hollywood movie, things do not always go as planned, although I would honestly have been happy to watch a two hour movie in which Watney simply solves each dilemma without incident. The major part of the enjoyment of The Martian is discovering Watney's ingenious answer to each life-threatening problem. Whereas some movies rely on explosive set pieces to ensure the attention of the audience, The Martian does exactly the same thing with soliloquies laden with science lingo. In this sense, Scott has turned lengthy exposition, one of the most tiresome elements of blockbuster movies, into the highlight of the The Martian's first third. This is something he achieves with the skilful coordination of science and humor.
Calling The Martian a science-fiction film might be doing it a disservice. Although some of the movie's elements take a small flight of fancy (Earthlings have landed on Mars for one thing), the rest of the movie is grounded in what appears to the laymen as reasonable and recognizable science. For example, this isn't a sci-fi world where NASA nanobots and robots can simply synthesize water. To do this, Watney must become intimately familiar with the relationship between hydrogen and oxygen - which means getting his hands on some hydrogen in the first place.
A movie about the bonding of different elements hardly sounds like riveting viewing, however it is rendered so by Matt Damon's performance as Mark Watney. For a significant portion of the film's first third, Damon must put on a one-man show as Watney attempts to not immediately perish on Mars. Instead of woefully lamenting being left behind, Watney approaches the whole situation with a dark, dry but not unbelievable sense of humor. You get the impression Watney is a man who knows he's funny and enjoys an audience, however, with literally no one else on the planet, Ares III's video diaries must become his outlet. It's a narrative device that works exceedingly well and plays to Damon's showmanship, as well as Ridley's attention to production detail.
Matt Damon's Mark Watney "Does the math" in the clip below:
That's not to say The Martian is without emotional depth, but Scott knows when to time these moments for maximum effect. Watney's first real-time conversation with NASA command could get the waterworks flowing, while unexpected failures deliver gut-punches akin to watching Wilson's heart-breaking 'death' in Castaway.
Running parallel to Watney's Mars-bound survival drama are NASA's attempts on Earth to jerry-rig a rescue strategy before Watney inevitably starves to death. Although there is some internal debate about the best way of doing this, the brilliant minds of NASA (including standout performances from relative newcomer Mackenzie Davis and supporting veteran Benedict Wong) are ultimately all pulling towards the same goal: saving one man.
This is also one of the most refreshing aspects of The Martian, there is no stereotypical 'bad guy.' After all, when you're dealing with the unforgiving nature of space and a planet without an atmosphere, you don't really need a cliché antagonist in a business suit to make sure things go wrong. Therefore, at its core, The Martian is almost a feel good movie. It really does make you feel good to be a member of this plucky, ingenious and resourceful race of beings. A seemingly apposite soundtrack featuring disco music, and the occasional well-timed flash of Bowie, only adds to this.
If I can turn off the faucet of gushing praise for one moment, there are a few niggles which perhaps prevent The Martian from reaching astronomical heights. For example, towards the end of the movie, The Martian's refreshing optimism does perhaps veer uncomfortably close to old fashioned jingoism, while it also seems to abandon its strict adherence to practical science. This is slightly jarring, and seems at odds with the rest of the film, although it can probably be forgiven in the name of providing a satisfying, and dramatic, climax.
Another minor issue concerns the use of 3D in the film, and I believe The Martian suffers from the classic curse of 3D post-production. Certain scenes clearly had CGI elements added to them (dust, paper, more dust, etc.) which whooshes towards the screen. Far from creating a more realistic and immersive experience, I found these additions particularly unnecessary and they only acted to remind me I was sitting in a movie theater and not in a colony on Mars or in Houston's Mission Command.
Indeed, despite a strong and impressive effort, The Martian isn't Scott's best movie, although this probably has more to do with the strength of his back catalog than any major deficiency with this latest project. While clearly a contender for Scott's best recent project, The Martian does lack the cinematic scale and grandstanding of Gladiator, while it also doesn't reach the nuanced and subtle brilliance of Alien. Furthermore, while it is certainly not simplistic, it isn't as bold or daring in posing questions as, say, Blade Runner.
But -- and it's a big 'but' -- The Martian also offers a commodity that is lacking in many other mainstream blockbusters: positivity. It shows the resourcefulness, idealism, conviction and genius of a race of beings that sometimes gives itself too much bad press. It'll make you feel awesome for being human, and afterwards you'll want to high-five the first person you see because they're an awesome human being too.
The Martian opens in theaters on October 2nd.