A little while ago, my pal Matthew Kresal reviewed the novel of The Martian in preparation for the movie adaptation. It’s safe to say he rather liked it.
Now the movie’s out. Any good?
I went to see it with mixed emotions – I’d heard good things about the movie, but rollercoaster reviews of the book. But let me save you some cultural sturm und drang – you don’t need to worry about the heavy weight of conflicting opinion that comes with The Martian. Just answer three questions:
- Did you enjoy Cast Away?
- Did you enjoy Apollo 13?
- Do you like Matt Damon?
If you can answer yes to at least two of them, you have nothing to fear either. If you don’t like stories of people in extreme situations, surviving against the odds, tense space-based races against time and physics to get a person back alive, or Matt Damon’s bankable signature of clever quirky sarcastic characters – then go see Something Else Entirely.
That’s the territory we’re in with The Martian – it’s half ‘man marooned on a desert island…only in space,’ half ‘we left a dead man behind, except he’s not freakin’ dead after all, how the hell do we get him home?’ (yes, if you want another high-concept boil-down, you could call it Saving Private Ryan In Space) but – and this is massively important – it’s a mixture that’s welded together by the character of Mark Watney, ‘the Martian’ himself. By the expedient of talking to himself, making video log entries and eventually, emailing the folks back home (or indeed the folks just halfway home, in the form of his erstwhile crewmates), he infuses the whole thing with his particular nature, and whereas, for example in Cast Away, the same basic idea led to a fairly taciturn performance from Tom Hanks, only opening up through the medium of Wilson the Volleyball, Watney, as played by Damon, is entertaining, sarcastic, and unmistakeably brilliant, as well as uniquely suited to the challenges of his abandonment, the trials and tribulations of being the only person, as he puts it at one point, to ever be entirely alone on a whole planet. It’s Damon’s strongest role in quite some time, partially of course because he has vast swathes of the film to himself and can invest Watney with plenty of shades of characterisation, but also because he gets the balance right between the kind of people NASA would send to man a Mars mission – excellent in their field, task-focused, thinking of the long game and the immediate priority at the same time – and the kind of people you’d happily spend a couple of hours rooting for in a piece of movie entertainment.
Watney is the botanist on board the Ares III mission to Mars, and when the crew are forced to abandon the planet in a severe storm that threatens to destroy their ride home and them along with it, Watney takes a heavy metal disc in the chest and has a little lie down. Actually, quite a long lie down, meaning the others have no option but to conclude he’s a dead man and leg it into space, heading for home with a due sense of sadness.
But Watney of course doesn’t die – a million to one chance means he lives to die another day, but he does find himself stranded, alone on a hostile planet, his life dependent on a shelter that was meant to last for 31 days, enough food for about a year and a bit, and a bunch of machines that are the only thing between him and total screaming death.
Watney’s a botanist – it’s his job to make things grow where things have never grown before. And he makes the choice not to die on Mars, but to make it bow to his mad botany skills, and his skills as a human being, turning the movie essentially into a statement of Mankind’s right to survive and explore even the harshest of environments. The right is won only by those who work hard, who keep their sense of self, and ideally, those who don’t run out of ketchup.
We see Damon’s Watney make fresh water by nearly blowing himself to bits, grow potatoes by fertilising with a complex mixture, the key ingredient of which is his own bodily waste, uncover a forgotten exploratory vehicle and figure out a series of ways to give the finger to the range of physical problems that will otherwise see him die on Mars. Damon is ridiculously well cast as Watney, and helps make the movie as entertaining as it should be, without compromising the essential brilliance of the man or the hardness of the situation in which he finds himself.
But no story like this can entirely be a one-man world. The movie is also studded with lively, memorable performances from other actors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Christen Wiig and Jessica Chastain, all of whom and more play their part in the quest to ‘do the impossible,’ Apollo 13 style, to get Watney home alive. There’s conflict, drama, insubordination, technical mutiny, a little bit of love that really doesn’t get in the way, some gravitational high jinks, a tiny bit of Iron Man action, but more than all of that there’s a sense of Watney’s call answered by the world – if he’s going to be stubborn enough and brilliant enough to survive on Mars, the world seems united in its determination to bring back one of its own.
Ultimately, what you’re left with in one of Ridley Scott’s finest movies in recent years is Watney’s philosophy – ‘Work hard. Work the problem, one problem at a time. And if you solve enough problems you get not to die.’ – and the feeling that you’ve just watched a Ron Howard biopic from a hundred years from now, only one with more humour and a more likeable central character than Howard traditionally picks.
As long as you can answer yes to two of the three questions we originally posed, go see The Martian. It’s a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, practically paced science barely fiction movie that your brain will thank you for making the time to see.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk