Andy Weir’s novel The Martian is a text which has had an interesting development to the screen. Initially released in serialised form online, popular demand saw Weir turn the text into a downloadable Kindle text, where it soon picked up publication and became a Sunday Times best-seller. Fast forward only four years and now there’s a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Pretty impressive turn around, stratospheric is you will. The book is a meticulously researched, witty, and satisfying work, and thankfully Sir Ridley has delivered a pretty spot-on adaptation that captures the triumphant nature of the next, as well as its celebratory spirit towards science and space travel.
Due the Ares 3 mission to Mars, a team on the Planet’s surface, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), are forced to evacuate due to the arrival of a violent storm. However, during the escape Astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by a piece of debris and presumed dead, with the rest of the Ares crew leaving the planet to head back home. Watney, though, survived the storm, and finds himself stranded on Mars with very little resources to keep himself alive. Using all his scientific knowledge to survive, time is of the essence as Watney aims to prolong his life on MArs, while attempting to make contact with NASA back on Earth.
Weir’s novel is memorable due to its wit and attention to scientific detail, and while certain procedural steps have been shortened in its translation to the screen, the spirit of what made the book a sure-fire hit remains within Drew Goddard’s screenplay. If anything, the film is much funnier than the book, allowing Damon to exude his natural charisma through a character who refuses to let the situation at hand get him down, a character who gets down to work and cracks wise at a web-cam.
Visually, this is Scott’s most accomplished work in years (despite my feelings towards Prometheus, I can’t deny that it looks great). Working with his regular cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Scott seamlessly blends sound-stage and real-world vistas to present a believable Martian landscape hat is desolate, vast, and oh so very lonely for poor Mark Watney. The 3-D cinematography is also grand, emphasising both Watney’s solitude and the hubbub of Houston and the numerous space networks we spend time with back on planet Earth, whilst also showcasing the nigh on perfect visual effects.
Scott is not a director who usually seems all that concerned with focusing on what an actor is doing, he is very much an auteur who populates his film with very naturally talented performers and allows them to work on their character and their craft, and The Martian is another example of that. With Damon leading and a supporting cast which includes the likes of Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetal Ejiofor (not to mention Sean Bean as the most unlikely of NASA Mission Directors), Scott has populated his film with strong actors who are more than capable of holding the film together, allowing the scenes back on Earth to buzz as strong as
Damon’s on Mars. The only sour note in the cast comes from Donald Glover as NASA Astronomer Rich Purnell. While he conveys an appropriate amount of nervous energy, his performance is basically him doing his impression of Abed in the Community Season 4 body swap episode. It’s a little too distracting and slightly derails a crucial plot development.
The success of the book relies greatly on the humour that Weir attributes to the character of Watney, who keeps his spirits high on Mars, despite only having 70’s TV shows and Disco music to keep him entertained. The film needed a performer so unquestionable likeable to match the character in Weir’s pages, and Matt Damon is a perfect fit for the role of Watney. The humour feels very natural, while both moments of frustration and perseverance feel a very natural extension of his character. Much of why The Martian is such a successful adaptation is down to Damon embodying Watney in perfect fashion, being a very friendly and warm presence amongst the jeopardy of being left on a planet by one’s lonesome.
This film has unsurprisingly drawn many comparison between the two biggest space movies of the past 5 years, namely Gravity and Interstellar, but it is a very different piece. For one, it does not take itself as seriously as those two pictures do, as it very often plays for big laughs as well as nerve-shredding thrills. It is this lightness of touch that both elevates The Martian but also perhaps lets it down a tad. It is incredibly entertaining and will probably prove to be the most re-watchable out of it, Gravity and Interstellar, but I doubt it will hold as much worthiness for discussion as those two films call for. But, then again, I don’t think that’s what both Weir or Scott is aiming for. What they aim to achieve is a film which throws back to the celebratory and triumphant vibes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. At it’s core, it is an old-fashioned yarn that just so happens to be set predominantly on Mars. Enjoy the ride.