Should humanity ever set foot on the surface of Mars, it would be our greatest achievement. In the alternate near-future setting of The Martian, this has long since happened. Instead focusing on what would be an achievement to dwarf it: humankind coming together to rescue a single man left on its surface, 34m miles away.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is that man. When the crew of the Ares 3 research expedition is forced to abandon their mission due to a sandstorm, Watney is struck by debris and sent flying. Presumed dead and with no time to search for their botanist, Ares commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough but necessary decision to leave. The next day, Watney wakes up.
One of the film's many great scenes takes place shortly after as Watney treats his wounds, realises his desperate situation, comes to terms with it and decides he will do all he can to not be the first man to die on Mars. It displays the breadth of Damon's impressive central performance and the virtues of the film as a whole – there's pain and hardship, but there is humour, charm and optimism.
What I enjoyed most about The Martian was how delightfully old school it was. Here's a blockbuster with no battle between good and evil, no violence, no villain. Instead it's about the wonder of space, science and the human spirit.
The closest the film has to a bad guy is Jeff Daniels' Nasa boss Teddy Sanders – perfectly cast as the man willing to make the tough decisions that may doom Watney. Every time he clashes with Chiwetel Ejoifor's Vincent Kapoor or Sean Bean's Mitch Henderson, there's a reasoned logic to his argument and always the hint that ideally he'd do anything to save Watney, if there wasn't the chance of dooming future space exploration.
Ejiofor is the best of the supporting bunch but the whole cast impresses. Some have more to do than others and many are merely shades of characters, but no one ever grates and each has a role to play. Other performances of note come from Benedict Wong, as the over-worked head technician repeatedly handed impossible deadlines, and Jessica Chastain, who leads the Ares crew and bares the weight of her decision to leave Watney behind.
That said, this is undoubtedly Damon's film. He spends the duration talking to himself and the many cameras around his new home: the mission's base of operations. For long stretches The Martian is effectively a one-man show, and it's hard to think of actor better suited to this role.. Damon displays true acting prowess in what will come to be a defining role, but also a display of his qualities as a real, bonafide movie star - likeable and relatable in that way few are.
The Martian is based on the popular novel by Andy Weir, which I read earlier this year. After doing so I looked at the film's cast and crew and wondered how on Earth it could possibly go wrong. It's an incredible all-star cast, the screenwriter has been on the cusp of mainstream acclaim for a while now and its director is Sir Ridley bloody Scott. French excused, it's Scott who was the wild card, and the reason for most trepidation entering the theatre.
Scott hasn't made a truly great film for a long time (arguably since 2001's Black Hawk Down) and his last sci-fi film was the ridiculed mess Prometheus. Scott's problems in recent years have largely been borne out of script however, not his skill as a director. Here he plays his part, directing with the assured hand you'd expect and delivering some stunning visuals. Scott shines, but no brighter than any other cog in this pristine machine.
Accolades will be heaped upon Damon, and deservedly so, but screenwriter Drew Goddard is equally deserving. Weir's book is a very natural fit for a science fiction blockbuster, but extremely science heavy – often reading more like a how-to guide written by an interplanetary Bear Grylls. As much as some science-loving fans will want that detail to remain, it wouldn't work in a film if heaped on as heavily as on the page.
Goddard retains the science and makes it digestible in the way you wish your secondary school science teacher had. Watney is enthusiastic about the science and speaks clearly, evoking the wonder of science. That passion speaks louder than meticulous detail ever could. Goddard also succeeds in capturing the spirit of the book, not just the spirit of adventure, but the sense of humour (I haven't seen a funnier film this year) and rich vein of optimism running through the story and all its characters.
The Martian's few problems come in its final act, when the script skips over a large chunk of the book. While the reasoning for doing so is clear and understandable (it's the easiest part to cut), the film does lose a little sense of the toll that's been taken on Watney. Cutting this stretch of the novel needn't have caused this, but it does nonetheless. The editing during the climatic scene could have been tighter as well to create a greater sense of suspense. Like the film as a whole, it's not quite Apollo 13 but it is so, so close.
These are minor complaints really, because The Martian still culminates with an utterly gripping ten minutes. It's more a testament to the book's quality that I wasn't sat closer to the edge of my seat.
The Martian is a wonderfully cinematic experience and a refreshing blockbuster that should inspire as completely as it delights.