Ridley Scott’s The Martian – A Modern day Gladiator

Damned good Damon

The Martian is, in my opinion, Ridley Scott’s best film since Gladiator. Always a master at juxtaposing the individual human struggle against an epic background, this is a cracking film from our North East born Hollywood star director. This time, instead of the Roman arena, the landscape is even more foreign and dangerous – the red planet Mars. It is a bit like ‘Castaway’ in space but it’s much, much better than that.
In a nutshell Mark Watney is a botanist astronaut, on a fact finding mission to Mars with his crew in the Hermes. While collecting samples on the surface of the planet, there is a terrible storm and Mark is knocked out by some flying debris, the crew can’t locate him and think he is dead. They are forced to abandon the mission and head back for home without him. Mark is not dead. He regains consciousness the next day partially covered in red sand with a section of communications antenna sticking out of his stomach. The metal rod and congealed blood have formed a seal and kept his suit airtight. He is in big trouble. The ‘Hab’ (habitat) is a kind a planet surface lab, and he is able to get to it, patch himself up and begin to assess his sticky situation.

Life on Mars

I read Andrew Weir’s book a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. First, I must confess that I am a life long sci-fi nerd. I was reading Wells and Wyndham at an early age and got hooked on my brother’s Asimov and Arthur C Clarke soon afterwards. However, I did wonder how film makers could dramatise much of the rather complicated and detailed science that was in the book, and how the director would be able to sustain the dramatic tension, when so much of the story is just Mark Watney in a big white caravan (the Hab) trying to figure stuff out himself. I need not have been concerned. All it took was a jaunty Matt Damon speaking to the video camera, acknowledging the enormity of his predicament and voicing the solution. ‘I am just going to have to science the shit out of it!’ Genius. The script is sharp and even witty and doesn’t seem like it was written by a consortium – which sometimes happens in Hollywood and can ruin a perfectly good film. It avoids the sentimentality of Gravity, which I found tedious and trite (the ghost of George Clooney, the world’s oldest astronaut, appearing in space to Sandra Bullock,  – really?)

Matt makes the best of it

This is a tour de force performance from Matt Damon, who manages to be that very rare combination of both a film star, and a versatile actor at the same time. In the book there is a quite a bit of description about Mark Watney’s equable and likable personality. A team player, a joker able to diffuse tense situations, well balanced and optimistic. It is one of the reasons he gets picked for the mission in the first place. It’s also the main reason he stays alive and manages not become overwhelmed by his negative circumstances. We could all take a leaf out of Mark Watney’s book from time to time. The part where he has to figure out how to grow his own food in the book is quite a tortuous process of trial and error,  but again this is neatly covered by the cinematic magic of jumping to so many days later, when it’s all worked out. He has to live a year on some dried food packets and a few Martian grown potatoes. He needed the carbs.

Magic Martian potatoes

Part of the film shows the other astronauts back in the Hermes spaceship. They are all good actors as well (Jessica Chastain is in everything at the moment) and the strength of the bond of friendship between Mark and the rest of the crew is a central driver of the film. They will do anything to save their comrade and their friend. The soundtrack is great too. Much humour is derived from the fact that the captain’s choice of disco music is all that Mark has to listen to in his enforced isolation. Luckily for my friend Julie and myself we love disco, and so this was all an extra bonus for us. Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor – what’s not to like?

Head of NASA??

The shenanigans back at NASA where there are trying to work out how to ‘bring him home’ are pretty good too. The theme is – Maths can solve anything. Even how to rescue someone who has been left behind on Mars! The only slightly jarring note for me was Sean Bean turning up as a head of NASA. Now I could just about believe in him as the hapless Ned Stark in Games of thrones, but he still has his Sheffield accent and now looks more like a jowly retired steel worker (sorry Sean I do love you really) than one of the world’s biggest scientific brains.
The film is over two hours long and I was not bored by a single second of it. The end rescue – which I knew was going to happen – was still, I have to say, absolutely nail biting, I was literally hiding behind my hands and squeaking ‘Oh no!’ out loud in the cinema. Not since I shouted out ‘It’s in the basement!’ during a screening of Arachnophobia back in the 90’s have I expostulated so. I had to relieve some of the stress my companion was suffering by assuring her of the happy ending (sorry if you haven’t seen it!) It really did make a difference being able to see those exciting scenes on screen.

Why so glum Ridley – It’s a hit!

I haven’t written a film review for quite sometime because to be honest I haven’t see any films that were that good. This one is extremely good – Rotten tomatoes gives it 94 percent and I’d rate it even higher. An intelligent accessible blockbuster that’s got box office clout, well done Mr Scott.