Is there a current Hollywood star more effortlessly convincing as an scientist-cum-astronaut than Matt Damon? If Ridley Scott’s latest foray into the realms of science fiction, The Martian (2015), is to be considered as evidence, then the answer is ‘not likely’. Based on the novel by Andy Wier, here Damon excels as botanist Mark Watney, who is forced to rely on his expert know-how and good old American can-do attitude to survive after been left for dead on the surface of the Red Planet.
Fortunately, as the quote in the trailer suggests, he’s perfectly able to “science the shit” out of his predicament and keep audiences thoroughly entertained while doing it. Our protagonist is part of a six person Ares III crew that is just 18 ‘sols'(Mars days) into its mission when a heavy storm forces an emergency evacuation and sends a piece of equipment barrelling into Watney, leaving him dead on in the sand. However, he wakes to find his shipmates departed and the odds impossibly stacked against his survival.
For starters, he’d need to cultivate at least three years of food on a planet where nothing grows. “Luckily I’m a botanist.” Damon delivers that particular knowing quip to camera in what constitutes the film’s most successful and engaging sections. Drew Goddard’s screenplay fizzes with comic dialogue, most notably with Damon looking directly down the lens. It’s a neat conceit that not only facilitates the need for Damon to converse during his isolation, but also taps into themes of ingenuity and resolve. Watney can’t contact NASA and he’s not keeping records for posterity, his dialogue with the audience is his way of staying sane, and he happens to be great company. Every ironic pause and smart aside are judged to perfection, though there may be the odd recurring gag – the one regarding the musical tastes of Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) – that outstays its welcome. Even this, though, serves to underscore Watney’s desperation to remain goal-orientated and Damon is exceptional in conveying the precipice on which he’s balancing. Sadly, the whole film can’t just be Damon planting potatoes in the excrement of his crewmates and saying “fuck you, Mars!”
The action is divided between Watney, NASA (including Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor amongst others) and the crew heading home (rounded out by Kate Mara, Sebastien Stan, Michael Peña and Aksell Hennie). While the screenplay remains light-footed, and hardwires the science into proceedings, the material is generally far less compelling and when the drama escalates in the third act, it’s hard not to visualise a working man’s Gravity(2014). Dilemmas both moral and mechanical seem to stretch the runtime rather than serve it and you long for a return to Mars – which itself gets the MVP (Most Valuable Planet) nod thanks to Dariusz Wolski’s fantastic cinematography of its desert-double, Jordan. The stunning scenery and Watney’s contemplation of it, remind of the original reason for the mission, and The Martian is ultimately a love letter to the spirit that saw humanity reach for the stars in the first place. When it’s channelling that spirit via Damon and witty writing it lifts off, but then can’t quite sustain its trajectory.