Science is cool. That is the idea that sits at the beating heart of The Martian. Without it nothing in this film works and yet it could have so easily been its downfall. Based on a book which tried it’s hardest to be scientifically accurate, The Martian may not have been the easiest conversion to the big screen. Science may be cool, but on a cinema screen it is rarely sexy. Yet somehow Drew Goddard’s script makes it not only work, but makes it sparkle. Throw in Ridley Scott doing his best work in years and The Martian may well be unmissable.
On the surface, it’s a simple story. When a storm hits a team, led by Jessica Chastain’s Melissa Lewis, doing work on Mars they have to leave in a hurry. While doing so, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and supposedly killed. Lewis makes the decision to continue on, leaving his body behind to save the rest of them. Of course, Watney’s not as dead as they think and he is left behind to survive by himself with limited food. When this is discovered back on Earth, a group led by the four-pronged attack of Jeff Daniels (the head honcho), Kristen Wiig (the PR person), Sean Bean (the one who cares about the astronauts) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (the one in charge of the mission), have to figure out how to bring him home.
Simple, eh? In the hands of another writer and director duo, it may well be a thrilling action movie. You can bet that Michael Bay would have had Matt Damon punch at least one real live Martian. Yet in the hands of Scott and Goddard it is nothing of the sort. It’s a science fiction film that puts the science at the front of the matters and it’s all the better for it. The fact that it’s still full of some the most intense moments you could see in a cinema this year is just an added bonus
Of course, they are helped by that cast, which I’m sure you can agree is rather special. Damon is wonderful in the central role, spending 99% of his on-screen time acting to himself, something they get around by having him keep a video diary. His Watney is a man who hides his fear behind a mask of humour and while the world around him seems to be going to shit, he responds with sarcasm and bragging. This makes him all the more human and you find yourself praying that he makes it out of this alive.
The cast back home isn’t too shabby either and while they never manage to be as interesting as Damon growing potatoes with his own poo, they make sure you are never bored when watching them. While the crew that is left drifting through space, unaware that they’ve left Watney stranded behind them, is unlikely to be forgotten either. Not with Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara heading them up. It is as A-list a cast as you will find this year and they all get a moment to shine.
None shine as much as the science though and it really is what makes this film. By refusing to ditch what makes the book so fascinating, the film creates a story about space that feels alive. More so than Nolan’s Interstellar or Scott’s previous journey into this genre, The Martian feels like something that could happen and every beat hits that little bit closer to home because of it.
The Martian is Sir Ridley’s best work in years and for that alone is a joy to watch. However, it is much more than that. A fantastic cast delivering an engrossing screenplay mean it was never likely to fail, but its insistence on putting the science front and centre is what makes it truly stand out in this genre. This is event cinema at its best and is one you won’t want to miss.