The Martian

THE MARTIAN. Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Michael Peña. Directed by Ridley Scott. 141 minutes.Rated M (Survival themes and coarse language).

Joining ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Gravity’ as terrific modern entries in the sci-fi-survival genre, ‘The Martian’ utilises its entertaining script and strong cast to craft a thrilling tale of survival against all odds. After a few consecutive misfires, Ridley Scott has come roaring back into form in a return to his science fiction roots.

The film is based on the highly successful book of the same name by Andy Weir. We open with a mission crew on Mars, clad in wonderful, slightly futuristic spacesuits, busily collecting samples and conducting tests. Among them are botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and team leader Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). When a dangerous storm is detected, they evacuate the planet. Tragically, Watney is struck by debris and presumed killed, and the others leave him behind to return to their earthbound ship.

NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels, channelling his serious work on television’s ‘The Newsroom’) announces the sad news to a packed press conference. Cutting back to Mars, we witness a miracle – Watney has survived, and stumbles back into their temporary habitation setup. He begins keeping video logs, which keep the audience privy to all pertinent (and some superfluous but scientifically fascinating) information. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski makes good use of spacesuit- and spaceship-mounted cameras, but knows how to dazzle also with stunning panoramas of Mars’ inhospitable desert terrain.

Watney is stranded in a ‘hab’ designed to last a couple of months; he has limited food, water and oxygen supplies; he has no way to contact his crew or Earth; the time it would take for help to arrive is measured in years. Things do not look good, but Watney applies his scientific mind to each problem that faces him and begins to make breakthroughs. After he eventually manages to contact NASA, the extensive team on Earth work their way through layers of bureaucracy to mount several attempts to rescue their colleague, but each faces unforeseen problems and failures.

Ultimately, with no other viable option, Watney’s original crew make the decision to return to Mars themselves and retrieve him – this course of action is naturally beset by even more impossible setbacks. Screenwriter Drew Goddard (who has been delivering strong work in film and television for several years) presents each clever obstacle with suspense, but Watney’s wry humour and ingenious solutions provide a veritable rollercoaster of emotions, the amazement and thrills of the highs contrasting the loneliness and fear of the lows.

The cast boasts A-list talent to an incredible depth, and they all play their parts in service of the narrative rather than self-aggrandising with the material. For this reviewer at least, it was difficult to see Matt Damon as anything other than himself, but the actor seems so personable and decent and easy to root for that is doesn’t matter. Elsewhere, Donald Glover impresses with an amusing swagger as a scatter-brained but brilliant astrodynamicist, and Michael Peña injects his role with the same good-natured enthusiasm which made him a standout in ‘Ant-Man’.

This film won’t stand alongside ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ as genre classics, but it’s by far the best film Scott has made in the last decade. As far as popular and escapist blockbuster filmmaking goes, it’s a masterclass from Sir Ridley, reminding everyone that his talent has not been dimmed by age. Solidly recommended.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out October 1.

20th Century Fox.

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