Really loved this movie. It’s a strange one coming from Ridley Scott, whose previous sci-fi films are not exactly known for their sense of optimism and belief in the best in people, yet with The Martian he strikes a perfect tone: it’s entertaining, inspiring, enormously good-natured and with a perfect mix of seriousness and silliness. It celebrates science, intelligence, perseverance, teamwork, and is full of likeable characters I wanted to give hugs to. It is also a love letter to that humble vegetable, a potato (no, seriously).
Like Gravity, the film wastes zero time on the setup: right off the bat, we’re on Mars, where Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew get caught in a nasty storm and are forced to leave in a hurry. But because Matt Damon has a crappy luck with missions on other planets, he gets knocked down by a piece of equipment and is left behind, presumed dead. So he finds himself stranded alone on Mars, and, with meagre supplies at his disposal, must figure out a way to survive and contact NASA back on Earth.
I haven’t read the book the movie’s based on, so I somewhat expected it to be something like Castaway on Mars, but the action is split between Mark’s adventures on Mars, the rest of his team who are heading back home, and the NASA headquarters, where a bunch of scientists work on bringing him home once they realise that he’s alive. I don’t know how much of the science in this movie is credible, but I had an absolute ball watching smart, resourceful people and their ingenuity at solving problems. The supporting cast in this movie is stellar: Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean (for once playing a character who doesn’t die); their characters might be painted with broad strokes but each gets just enough detail to be memorable. It was also refreshing that the movie had no villain that everybody must struggle against, like a corrupt politician or military or whatever; Daniels’ Director of NASA might at times make decisions that sound heartless, but he’s a guy who simply has to keep an eye on the big picture so I could see where he was coming from, at least. And as Mark, Matt Damon has never been more likeable; he’s smart, funny, cocky but vulnerable. From the very start, he’s like, f**k this, I’m not going to die here, and then he just goes on about the business of surviving. Another refreshing detail was that, unlike 99% of movies with similar scenarios, there was no teary family back on Earth to pull at your heartstrings – Mark’s got the audience’s sympathy anyway so none of that sentimentality is necessary. I think he mentions his parents once, and that’s it.
Humour is another notable thing about the movie; there was a couple of moments near the end where I felt like it descended into Joss Whedon-like quipping too much, but otherwise humour arises organically from character and situation and adds a lot to the enjoyment. There was one Lord of the Rings joke which was particularly hilarious with Sean Bean in the scene (I half-expected him to say, one does not simply walk into Mars, haha). Needless to say, technically and visually the movie is amazing. I would totally visit Mars if it wasn’t for, y’know, the distance and the lack of oxygen and the limit of space travel nowadays.
If I had a semi-quibble, it’s that, because the film picks a particular tone and sticks to it, there’s not much room left for a more psychologically nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to be a sole human being stuck on a hostile, lifeless planet for months. Not that the film skips it entirely, and introspection in this situation would probably be something you’d want to avoid like plague anyway, but I would have liked to see more of the moments which show the vastness and solitude of Mars. These moments only really happen at the end, and they’re some of the most beautiful and memorable images in the movie. But then, The Martian is just a different beast with a different focus, it’s not meant to be dark or dense or meditative, and what it does it does brilliantly.