If you aren’t a fan of having sex in public places then seeing The Martian was probably the most fun you could have had in a cinema in 2015.
The Martian is the story of the eponymous Mark Watney (Matt Damon), one of a crew of astronauts who we find at the beginning of the film midway through a mission on Mars. Disaster strikes moments into the running-time in the form of a massive, life-threatening, mission-aborting sandstorm. The crew makes it aboard their shuttle – all of them except for Watney, who is presumed dead; whacked in the face by some heavy space debris.
No, of course not. Mark survives, and what plays out over the next 118 minutes is how he continues to survive (“I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this”) and how NASA solves the problem of bringing him home.
The Martian was always going to succeed or fail on the strength of its leading man, and the impression you get from watching the film is that there are very few actors who could have pulled it off. Lucky then that Matt Damon has the charm, wit, and cocky-yet-likeable arrogance necessary to make Mark Watney someone we care for. By the time the daring rescue that forms the finale of the film orbits into view you desperately want it to be a success, and for no one to die despite the gloom-mongerers at NASA saying otherwise. Damon certainly seems more comfortable in this area of sci-fi than he did in 2013’s Elysium, and the role is an unintentional but nonetheless interesting companion to his cameo in Interstellar last year. It’s no mean feat, either, to carry a film where most of your dialogue is pretty much expository. The joy of watching Damon is in his reactions – both physical and verbal – to the various challenges set against him in his quest for survival on Mars. Science itself perhaps is the costar here; perhaps even the real hero.
If our protagonist is Science, then the antagonist is Mars itself. An arid, dusty, terracotta landscape stretching as far as the eye can see. Wadi Rum (The Valley of the Moon – go figure) in Jordan is the stand in for the Red Planet and, in the hands of Sir Ridley Scott and his DoP Dariusz Wolski, you would be forgiven for thinking the production had somehow got around the obvious logistical issues and actually shot the film on location. This is a beautiful and cruel place, not in any hurry to cooperate with Watney, and that really does come across very well.
Of course, this isn’t a Cast Away type scenario and we don’t spend the entirety of the film on Mars. Watney’s predicament is made known to NASA relatively early on. In this world, NASA is made up of a host of famous and dependable actors – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, and Benedict Wong (who apparently likes to pop up in space movies every three years or so) – who must figure out how to get their astronaut back to Earth alive after making the embarrassing mistake of announcing him dead to the world: a PR disaster that Wiig’s director of media relations would like to limit as much as possible. Teddy Sanders (Daniels), meanwhile, is the NASA director unwilling to take risks, and Sean Bean, for once, doesn’t die. As with Watney’s monologues, a lot of the conversations between these characters serve only to explain some scientific theory or another as a way to advance the story appropriately – but goshdarnit, if it isn’t the most entertaining exposition this side of a Star Wars crawl. There are also human moments too – in particular a very funny scene involving a secret project called ‘Elrond’. To call Sean Bean discussing Lord of the Rings codenames ‘meta’ doesn’t begin to cut it. Drew Goddard has, unsurprisingly, done an excellent job as scriptwriter, providing a fresh and lively take on the sometimes by-the-numbers nature of the genre (see also: The Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield, and Buffy).
In between Earth and Mars is the crew of the Ares III, captained by the stoic Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and made up of Marvel actors and a Norwegian playing a German. Even they do sterling work with the little screentime and characterisation that they have; the moment they make the decision to go back and rescue Watney despite the overwhelming likelihood of certain death to them all is genuinely touching, if not altogether unexpected.
The Martian might not be the best film of 2015, but it is by far the most entertaining. Unlike its thematic cousins Interstellar and Gravity, which took themselves far too seriously, The Martian is fun! Certainly Sir Ridley’s best work since American Gangster, and a far more engaging space adventure than 2012’s overhyped Prometheus. From the excellent use of ’70s Disco music (someone’s been watching Guardians of the Galaxy) to the peerless central performance of Matt ‘Always Needs Saving’ Damon, what we have here is an instant classic that people will be watching the shit out of for years to come.