Robinson Crusoe on Mars essentially sums up The Martian, Ridley Scott’s take on the bestseller by Andy Weir. Except there isn’t an alien called Friday in the story. And it isn’t the 1964 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
Ridley has let me down a lot lately, tarnishing his CV with the likes of Prometheus, The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. However, in The Martian he has made his best, and more importantly his most entertaining film since American Gangster.
Presumed dead and left behind on Mars following a series of unfortunate catastrophes, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to solve some very extreme problems using limited resources in order to survive. This includes a credibility stretching attempt to grow potatoes on Mars, although I was happy to suspend disbelief (unlike others I know). Meanwhile, NASA becomes aware of his predicament and do all they can to get him back, despite inevitable politics and disagreements that ensure. The novel, which I rather liked, contains a lot of scientific explanation as to how Watney manages the afore-mentioned potato growing feat, and other plans that enable him to solve pesky problems such as how to communicate with NASA back on Earth. In the film, this has been understandably pared back, allowing the story to proceed at a pace appropriate for an expensive studio blockbuster.
What makes The Martian work very well is its sense of humour. As in the novel, Watney’s dry, witty asides compliment his cleverness a great deal, especially when moaning about the fact that he only has 70s disco music to listen to (said disco music is used to cleverly comment on the action). Damon really makes the character his own, although it is rather amusing that his previous role (in Interstellar) also involved him being abandoned on another planet. Elsewhere, the likes of Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kata Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Pena and Donald Glover all provide valuable supporting roles.
Visually, the film looks terrific, and the special effects are marvellous, as one would expect from a Ridley Scott film. If you are going to see it, definitely see it at the cinema on the biggest screen you can find.
However, unlike the true greats of the survival genre, The Martian doesn’t contain any especially profound insights into the human condition. Here’s a quote from Weir’s novel (not present in Drew Goddard’s screenplay adaptation): “If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.” The Martian is a celebration of this optimistic, essentially truthful but not particularly deep appraisal of humanity. Certainly scenes of crowds watching the climactic events in Times Square and various other places around the world didn’t ring entirely true, for me at least. But perhaps I am being too cynical.
The film is a bit too long, and certainly not ground breaking in the manner of, say, Gravity, but all things considered The Martian is on a par with the novel: an exciting, funny and satisfying outer space survival adventure.