Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ridley Scott’s latest cinematic masterpiece, The Martian, is how much it manages to achieve with what’s essentially a pretty plain premise. Interplanetary botanist Mark Watney is stranded on the nearby red world and needs to live long enough to catch a ride home. It’s so simple that it could well have been mundane, but instead it has ended up being possibly the best theatrical undertaking of 2015 so far.
Sci-fi aside, this is one of the most compelling character dramas that has graced the screen in a very long time. The set-up is straightforward from the start. It begins mid-mission without any need for a complicated or convoluted backstory. The protagonist and his peers are already on Mars, it doesn’t matter why or when. It could be now or it could be in twenty years’ time. The specifics of the scenario are not what’s important, which is remarkably refreshing in the face of overblown, pretentious pieces of space opera such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
What is important is the personal plight of Watney himself, played here to perfection by Matt Damon. His story isn’t about preventing the apocalypse or offering up environmental allegories. It’s about survival and perseverance on an individual level and everyone involved in the making of this movie executes it exquisitely.
The first half of the film is fairly light on action and suspense, instead choosing to focus on Watney’s problem solving and ingenuity. This works extremely well, which is owed exclusively to Damon’s incredibly powerful performance. He manages to endow the abandoned astronaut with a lot of likability as we see him take things in his stride, in spite of the apparent hopelessness of his situation. He simply accepts his circumstances and makes the most of them. The story subsequently delves deep inside of his psyche, revealing a charming and witty person with whom it is easy to empathise.
All of this consummate character building pays off spectacularly as the plot progresses and gradually gets more harrowing when increasingly overwhelming obstacles begin to present themselves. It all culminates in an extremely intense final act that’s packed full of drama and edge-of-your-seat sequences. The experience becomes so immersive, that you may well have to remind yourself that you’re not witnessing a news feed of a real-life rescue operation. By the time the climax comes around, your heart will surely be in your mouth as you will things to work out for the best.
This is mostly due to the fact that Damon and the filmmakers are so successful in turning Watney into someone about whom it is worth caring. However, there is strong support offered by the rest of the cast as well. Jeff Daniels strikes a nice balance between by the book businessman and caring colleague in the role of NASA’s stone-faced director, Teddy Sanders. Sean Bean is just as good as the fiery but effective mission co-ordinator, Mitch Henderson. Jessica Chastain also does well as Commander Melissa Lewis, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Peña are apparently incapable of playing unlikable parts in any of the movies in which they appear.
When it comes down to it though, in many ways these characters are in a similar position to that of the audience. They’re watching Watney, praying that he will defy the seemingly insurmountable odds and being brought through the emotional wringer in the process. Despite the stunning cinematography and otherworldly surroundings, The Martian is a very human story, the potent presentation of which will leave viewers wanting to laugh, cry and everything else in between before the credits roll. It’s a splendid example of not only how to do science fiction well, but of how to do movies well in general.
Follow @davesimpson1 on Twitter for notifications about new posts.