Thursday 17 August 2017

The Martian movie review: 'Ridley Scott's epic is a story of survival, ingenuity and indomitability of spirit - timely and thrilling'

Stranded: Matt Damon in Ridley Scott's 'The Martian'
Stranded: Matt Damon in Ridley Scott's 'The Martian'

Paul Whitington

NASA's discovery of water on the surface of Mars would have been warmly welcomed by the protagonist in The Martian, a stranded astronaut who ends up having to cook up his own, and grow spuds with the assistance of his own excrement. Though set mainly on the red planet, The Martian is not so much a sci-fi adventure as a story of survival, ingenuity and that indomitability of spirit we humans seem to admire so much in ourselves.

4*

Directed by Ridley Scott and based on a novel by Andy Weir, the film is set in the not-too-distant future and stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a scientist and astronaut who's part of a manned mission to Mars. He, his captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and four colleagues are kidding about on the intercom as they search the planet's surface for scientific data when a huge dust storm suddenly hits, prompting Lewis to order an immediate departure before their ship is fatally damaged.

On the way back to it, Watney is struck by a large piece of debris, and sent careering off into the dust. All communication with him is lost, he's presumed dead, and the crew leave without him. But Mark is not dead, and wakes the next morning to find the planet becalmed and his colleagues nowhere in sight. He returns to the crew's base, repairs a wound to his stomach, and takes stock.

As Earth is 225 million kilometres away, direct communication is not possible, and Mark's initial calculations offer a gloomy prognosis. With only enough food to last him 30 days, he'll be dead in a month, alone and forgotten and with only his captain's appalling disco compilations to keep him company. Then, he realises that the oxygenated hub actually holds supplies for six people, which if combined and rationed, could last him years.

Also, Mark is a botanist, and decides to try and grow his own potatoes using Marian soil, poo-poo and water created by burning hydrazine.

If all of that works, and he does survive long enough, Watney plans to travel 3,000 kilometres to the Schiaparelli crater, where another manned mission to the planet is due to land in four years. But there's a problem: his space rover is powered by a battery that needs recharging every 35 kilometres, so Mark will have to concoct a radical new way of powering it.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA has realised he's alive after noticing movement on their satellite images. NASA chairman Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) has already announced his death, and even held a funeral for him, but as news of Mark's survival grows he becomes an international cause celebre, and Sanders and his scientists work desperately to find a way of beating the odds and saving him.

Basically, then, Mark Watney is Robinson Crusoe in a spacesuit, and The Martian also reminds one of Robert Zemeckis's Castaway. But while Tom Hanks lost his reason and started baring his soul to a volleyball, Watney seems to treat his isolation on a hostile planet millions of miles from home as a minor inconvenience, and rarely do we see him succumb to anger or despair.

Instead he problem-solves his way through long days and nights on the freezing, dusty planet, rarely losing sight of his ultimate goal and never giving up or becoming despondent. If this relentless positivism is hard to believe, it's worth recalling that we are watching a Hollywood movie, and a hugely entertaining one at that.

Matt Damon is as winning as ever as the resourceful and dryly humorous astronaut, and Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor play NASA types who shift heaven and Earth to save him.

Jordan's deserts stand in for Mars, and Ridley Scott handles the planetary and space sequences beautifully, especially an action-packed climax that will have you on the edge of your seat.  (12A, 141mins)

Irish Independent

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