The Martian review: “more rib-tickling than nail-biting”

Science and disco play their part in Matt Damon's survival in this Robinson Crusoe story set on the Red Planet

★★★

If there was ever a situation that required a sense of humour, being stranded alone on Mars at a distance of 140 million miles from Earth would be right up there. What’s surprising and also a little disappointing about The Martian is that Matt Damon’s unfortunate astronaut has little trouble looking on the bright side. In a sense everything is a little too entertaining to ring true.

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Everything else about Ridley Scott’s film (based on the novel by Andy Weir) seems meticulously researched, and the director revels in the technical detail of surviving day to day on an airless planet where temperatures swing about wildly in the course of a “Sol” – a single solar day. It’s a particularly fierce storm that separates Mark Watney (Damon) from his crew, who assume he is dead. For a while he has no communications either. The stage is set for a meltdown that never happens.

Watney is a pragmatist – and a pretty good botanist, too – or, as he puts it, “the best botanist on the planet”, continually cracking wise in a series of video diaries that invites the audience into his world. Apparently, this is what’s keeping him sane. That and the intensive work involved in a creating a greenhouse environment to grow potatoes for a couple of years until Nasa can come get him. Calmly, he sets about re-establishing contact with Houston using the old Mars rover.

There’s fun to be had in seeing Watney connecting the dots; solving small problems to resolve larger ones. As an example, retrieving a probe from 1997 means having to make a small nuclear reactor to keep warm for the journey to its landing site. His capability is never in doubt.

What in some ways feels like a hi-tech Robinson Crusoe story isn’t really. Watney is soon back online with mission control and in the company of others (albeit remotely) and there’s a gear shift less than halfway through the story that makes Watney a supporting player in the story of his own survival. As the geeks at Nasa take the reins, so does a remorseful Jessica Chastain, jaw purposefully clenched as the commander of the unit that left him behind, and inevitably wanting to turn back.

Political to-ing  and fro-ing between the commander and the heads of the space agency (a po-faced Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and an always fretful-looking Kristen Wiig) provides another layer of drama, but as with Watney’s techniques for survival, every obstacle is methodically and swiftly surmounted.

Ron Howard managed to stretch every narrative thread to near breaking point in Apollo 13 (even though the outcome of that perilous adventure was known) but Scott’s film doesn’t come close to sustaining that kind of tension, preferring to be impressed with the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the people involved – especially Watney. The humour that Watney draws on at every first sign of trouble – plus the cheesy disco music left behind by his commanding officer – also lightens the mood when, perhaps, there are cracks beneath his cool exterior that need exploring. The end result is a film that’s more rib-tickling than nail-biting.

That’s not to say Watney is uninteresting, just that rather than being weighed down by the existential angst that made Matthew McConaughey riveting to watch in Insterstellar, Damon trades on bags of good-guy appeal to keep you engaged with the mission. And seeing the cogs turn in the astronaut’s mind – the joy when he figures something out and shares it with us – creates a very different sort of viewing experience, one designed to tease and gratify rather than challenge on a deeper level.

For all the careful attention paid to “real science”, the psychological part doesn’t completely ring true and with such an epic canvas to work on, it’s also surprising that Scott resists opportunities to deliver characteristically awesome visuals (especially in early storm scenes) which might conjure the profound sense of solitude you would expect Watney to be feeling. According to this log, life on the Red Planet is bright and breezy, with Gloria Gaynor summing the tone up perfectly at the fade-out.    

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The Martian is released in cinemas Wednesday 30 September