Ridley Scott is a veteran director of space movies – Blade Runner, Alien, Prometheus – and ought to know what he is doing in this field.
Matt Damon has carved out territory as Jason Bourne in the various Bourne thrillers, so his credentials as a thoughtful action figure are established. Bring them together in Scott’s The Martian and you get Damon as astro-botanist Mark Watney, stranded on the red planet after a storm that sees his colleagues heading back to Earth.
Watney’s fellow astronauts think he is dead but space control in the US learns otherwise. They expect his real demise will come soon, especially since his food resources are limited. For viewers, however, the abiding question is not so much whether Watney will survive as much as how, and to what extent he will be tested in doing so.
This is a film about ingenuity, determination and an individual’s will to survive. One might think of Tom Hanks in Castaway. Considering the breadth of the space genre, it is easy to conjure other films. There is (at a stretch) Wall·e in, well, Wall·e. Given both the botanical aspect and a later issue of mutiny, 1972’s space-gem Silent Running comes to mind as well.
There is a sub-text about international co-operation, given the friendly contribution of a Chinese space industry consortium regarding a possible rescue mission. This is not just wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers but reflects some of the reality of financing such costly ventures.
Damon is doggedly resourceful as Watney, with a mental and physical toughness essential for his survival and which sees him through a variety of ordeals. Less convincing is the relative absence of his contact with family back on Earth. Would he not want to see and hear from them more?
Another oddity is that transmissions from Mars to Earth tend to be shown as immediate, defying physics. Obviously this is done in order to heighten drama, particularly in the final moments, and it is a flaw many viewers will overlook.
The 3D effects are deployed successfully. There is a degree of naturalism, even if some of the landscape representations seem a bit old-school. At least they don’t overwhelm. As you might expect, they work best when adding impact to explosive and high-drama moments.
Damon is on target with his role in a story that revolves around one human who is alone and a long way from help, both in distance and time. A parallel narrative deals with the angst back on Earth regarding what might be done about his dilemma. Donald Glover (TV series Community) is the quiet key character there.
Put aside the fact that scientists have just announced the discovery of water on Mars. If that is felt as any kind of disturbance in the force of Hollywood filmmaking, it will doubtless be as the trigger for a sequel to this enjoyable but ultimately unchallenging space tale that shows Mars as entirely dry.
Undemanding? Yes. Entertaining? Yes. It feels like a holiday season movie with the faint whiff of a plea from NASA for a bigger budget. But grab your 3D specs and give it a go.
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