Cert 12A | ★★★★☆
When returning from a manned mission to Mars, it’s important to check that you’ve got all of your Matt Damons with you. Look underneath your seat. Check any nearby craters for hidden Damons. Because like some sort of interplanetary Home Alone, The Martian proves that it’s all too easy to leave the poor man stranded on the red planet.
Damon plays astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, knocked unconscious and presumed dead during a hasty evacuation of a storm-battered NASA outpost on Mars, only to wake up alive, healthy and doomed to starve to death a few hundred million miles from home, long before any rescue mission can swing by to pick him up.
But rather than resigning himself to the honour of becoming the planet’s first ever corpse, Watney bravely resolves to find some means to survive the inhospitable Martian wilderness using the scant resources at his disposal. (It’s worth noting the unfortunate timing of the real-world NASA’s report they’d found water flowing all over the place on Mars, rendering large chunks of the film moot).
As Watney puts it, he’s going to “science the shit” out of the situation, MacGyvering up a series of homegrown and scientifically accurate solutions to an ever unfolding catalogue of problems.
This is raw engineering geekery rooted firmly in existing technology, a survival drama that sidesteps sci-fi sorcery to feel believable, authentic and perilous. I’m no scientist, but this is probably what would happen if Matt Damon really did get stuck on Mars. He’d almost certainly eat potatoes grown in sachets of his own rehydrated excrement, and he’d absolutely construct mad contraptions designed to turn rocket fuel into water.
Resourceful genius Watney is easy to root for and, crucially, his monologuing to the audience is presented in some believable chunks of video blogging, which, considering he’s still on the clock for NASA, make a great deal of sense.
Also gratifying is how Damon plays his character with just enough gallows quipping to not undermine the important sense that Mars is constantly trying to murder him.
Not that it would be a bad place to perish: Ridley Scott’s influence can be found not only in the sleek design of the Martian spacesuits and the near-contemporary NASA spacecraft, but also in the planet’s ominously beautiful landscapes, dusty red deserts and starlit craters loomed over by wind-carved mesas.
The Martian is a gorgeous and subdued piece of gentle space tourism, approaching the likes of Interstellar in terms of galactic spectacle.
Back on Earth an uncomfortably large supporting cast of boffins and suits clamours about the place, desperately trying to cobble together a route home for our hero amid some fluffy political wrangling, but the man stuck in the sky, and his arse-potatoes, are the true stars here.