This review first appeared in the Sunday Start-Times, 4th October 2015
Refreshingly free of actual monsters, the titular alien in Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic is Matt Damon’s botanist, Mark Watney, an affable astronaut left for dead after his crew makes an emergency departure from their exploratory mission of Mars. Determined to stay alive until NASA can send someone back for him in four years’ time, Watney embraces his “last man on the planet” status with surprisingly good humour – no mean feat given he lacks the ability to communicate with Earth or bolster his food supplies.
For those with little scientific nous, Watney’s ensuing ingenuity rings extremely impressive, all the more so because author Andy Weir, the child of a physicist and an engineer, researched his debut novel to the hilt and so the science is in fact watertight. Less credible perhaps is the depiction of the characters back on the ground at NASA who must face the facts of this public relations stuff-up – the flippant Director (a wry Jeff Bridges), the media relations expert (comedienne Kristen Wiig) and the surly renegade played by Sean Bean probably wouldn’t pass their probation period in the real world.
But once you realise The Martian is deliberately tonally different from pretty much every other sci-fi disaster movie you’ve ever seen (Watney’s to-camera complaints about having only disco music to listen to signal the shift into humour), the film is effortlessly enjoyable and gripping in equal measure. While the ground crew nerd out about trajectory and velocity, Watney attempts to grow vegetation on the Red Planet. The two and a half hours fly by and you could easily watch for longer.
Central to the film’s success is inescapably one’s enthusiasm for Damon, all the more important given most of his lines are delivered to us as he stars in his one-man show. But Scott’s direction, at age 78, seems to have taken on a new lease of life. Those still scarred by the disappointment of Prometheus can return to the cinema secure in the knowledge that not only does the director of Alien and Blade Runner still love his sci-fi, but he can occasionally produce a fantastic movie with tongue firmly in his cheek.