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Martian, The

D: Ridley Scott / 144m

Cast: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover

On Mars to explore the terrain and collect samples, the crew of the spaceship Hermes, headed by Commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain), have established a habitat station (the Hab) that allows them to check their samples before sending the results back to NASA. It’s also a living space for them. When a fierce storm approaches more quickly than expected, and some of the team are caught outside, botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is struck by debris and catapulted out of sight. With little option but to abandon the habitat centre and return to the Hermes, Lewis makes the decision to leave Mars even though she wants to find Watney. When NASA learns what’s happened, its director, Teddy Sanders (Daniels), holds a press conference that details the mission’s current status, and Watney’s unfortunate death.

But Sanders’ declaration proves to be wrong. Watney is still alive, though when he wakes after the storm has passed, he has a piece of antenna sticking out of his torso. He makes it back to the habitat station where he removes the antenna and staples shut the wound. He then starts to work out how long he can survive on the rations left in the Hab, but quickly realises that he doesn’t anywhere near enough to sustain him until a rescue mission can reach him. Drawing on his knowledge as a botanist, Watney decides to use the Hab’s resources (including his and the crew’s waste), and the Martian soil to grow potatoes. Meanwhile, back at NASA, mission director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) is alerted to the fact that there is unexpected movement occurring on Mars, and soon it becomes apparent to everyone that Watney is alive.

Watney travels to where the Pathfinder probe lies abandoned and manages to get it to transmit images back to Earth. He and NASA come up with a means of communicating with each other (even if it is a bit slow due to the distance between them), and soon Watney is able to establish a more stable comms link. With NASA determined to rescue Watney, they finally decide to tell his crewmates that he’s alive. They’re all pleased but angry as well for being left out of the loop. But disaster strikes, when an airlock decompression at the Hab destroys the potato crop, leaving Watney with only enough rations for around 200 days, and a rocket supply drop arranged by NASA malfunctions and blows up before it even leaves Earth’s atmosphere. With time running out, NASA must find a way of getting to Watney before his food runs out, and he has to find a way of making his food last as long as possible.

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An adaptation of the bestseller by Andy Weir, The Martian is something of a return to form for Ridley Scott, with the septuagenarian director making his most accessible and expertly constructed movie for some time. This is largely due to Drew Goddard’s assured, though not entirely flawless screenplay, which juggles successfully not only the hard science that keeps Watney alive (and making it relatable to the average viewer), but a myriad cast of characters, all of whom had the potential to become stereotypes. But Scott keeps all this in check and presents us with a sci-fi thriller that feels fresher than most recent outings (despite some obvious antecedents), and which features an impressive central performance from Matt Damon that helps ground the movie immeasurably.

So good, in fact, is Damon as the embattled astronaut of the title, that sometimes the events happening on Earth come as a bit of an intrusion. Yes, it’s good to see the effort being put in to rescue one man (even though you could argue that the cost of doing so would be too prohibitive for even the most caring of space agencies to consider), but these scenes too often feel like second cousins to those in Apollo 13 (1995), and Ejiofor’s character also feels like a close relative to his character from 2012 (2009). With this element of the narrative ticking several expected boxes, even down to the plucky, rule-bending astrodynamicist (Glover) who comes up with a plan to save Watney that no one else has thought of, it’s thanks to Goddard’s understanding of the necessity for these scenes, and Scott’s accomplished direction, they’re intrusion becomes less worrisome, and as Watney’s continued survival comes closer and closer to connecting with his rescue, the viewer can root for both camps.

But with so much happening back on Earth (and with such a large ensemble cast to cater to), the script doesn’t put Watney in as much jeopardy as Weir’s novel does. Part of the fun of reading the novel was that Weir consistently came up with ways to put Watney in danger, and he consistently made it seem as if Mars itself was conspiring to make Watney pay for being there. But here the suspense is lessened in favour of Watney’s unflagging determination to survive, which is admirable in itself, but there needs to be more in the way of peril, even if we can all guess the outcome. Harking back to Apollo 13, it was the way in which problems continued to mount on that mission that heightened the drama, and the way in which each problem was overcome that made it all the more engrossing and exciting. Here, Watney’s methodical, never-say-die attitude ensures that each setback is dealt with matter-of-factly and in double-quick time (and usually by virtue of a montage). By taking some of the natural tension of the situation away, the gravity of Watney’s dilemma is lessened when it should have had us on the edge of our seats.

But Damon holds it all together, making Watney a pleasure to spend time with, and be sympathetic of. The little dance and shouts of joy he makes when he discovers he can talk to NASA is a small moment of inspiration, especially when he looks round to check if anyone has seen him. And Damon is equally good at expressing the character’s somewhat arrogant sense of humour and keeping the viewer on his side, even with lines such as “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonised it. So technically, I colonised Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!” There are few actors audiences would want to spend an entire movie with, alone, but Damon is one of them, and he keeps the viewer focused on what is essentially one man’s battle for survival against (almost) impossible odds.

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He’s supported by a great ensemble cast headed up by the ever reliable Ejiofor, with Wiig playing serious for once, and Daniels giving Sanders a sardonic air that fits well with his job as director of NASA. Chastain and Peña grab most of the limelight from Mara, Stan and Hennie as Watney’s fellow astronauts, and The Martian marks one of the few occasions when Sean Bean’s character in a movie doesn’t get killed (he’s also part of a great joke involving The Lord of the Rings). As you’d expect from a movie directed by Ridley Scott, it all looks incredible, with Jordan standing in for Mars, Arthur Max’s expressive production design, and very impressive cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (Scott’s go-to DoP for his last few movies). And on the music front, anyone expecting to hear David Bowie’s Life on Mars? at some point will find that Scott has gone for Starman instead, and there’s the completely unexpected use of ABBA’s Dancing Queen, which should feel out of place but is surprisingly apt for the point at which it’s used.

Rating: 8/10 – good sci-fi these days is rare (as anyone who’s seen Prometheus (2012) should know – sorry, Ridley), but The Martian is that rare beast, and is intelligent enough overall to overcome a few narrative concerns; with Damon in commanding form, and the drama of the situation sufficiently gripping, being stranded on another planet has never seemed so tempting.