My notes on Ridley Scott’s new science fiction film. NB: this discusses some plot developments you might prefer not to hear about going in – though it’s a mainstream feelgood Hollywood movie, so don’t expect it to end with Matt Damon dead on Mars.
In an up-to-the-moment take on Robinson Crusoe on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left for dead when a sudden sandstorm prompts commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) to hustle her crew into the Mars Ascent Vehicle and cut short NASA’s Ares III mission to Mars. Knowing that it will take at least four years for another manned expedition to the Red Planet, Mark sets about surviving with his motto ‘let’s science the shit out of it’ – basically growing potatoes in a field of soil created from mixing the Martian sand with the crew’s freeze-dried excrement and carving splinters of a crucifix to power a home-made water-manufacturing device. He also manages to contact Earth by unearthing an obsolete Rover and piggybacking off its still camera … which gives NASA a tough set of choices as various proposals for resupply and rescue are put forward, tried out and mostly hit snags until a wiggly maths genius (Donald Glover) works out that – using the old Clarkean favourite slingshot orbit – the ship that is heading safely home after its mission is done can be thrown back at Mars and Mark can make it to the next available MAV (which is in an area seemingly not ravaged by the sandstorms that threatened to topple his getaway craft) and aim for a catch in space.
Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, scripted by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z, Daredevil), is a satisfying series of science puzzles which get licked through perserverence and ingenuity – a story format that goes back beyond Gravity and Apollo 13 (obvious precursors) all the way to the original Robinson Crusoe, though one wonders whether Defoe’s story would really have benefited from constant cutaway-from-the-island chapters set back in York as Crusoe’s employers put together a rescue mission. We see Mark painstakingly create a farm and subsist on spuds for a year – and a few non-gratuitous nude shots show what a diet like this and no showering do to a person’s body – and get a sense of the trial-and-error tedium of communicating across the void with only the scraps of scavenged or repurposed equipment that come to hand, but Scott virtually fast-forwards through the ordeal for fear of losing the audience and so it’s down to Damon’s (very good) performance to suggest the epic loneliness and psychological cost of the whole experience – oddly this is less acute a depiction of suffering in isolation than almost any Robinson Crusoe movie you could name, including Robinson Crusoe on Mars. No hallucinated dead comrades here – Mark gets to spiel for the record and jauntily express his love-hate for Lewis’s left-behind library of 1970s disco music, which applies a few lazy but effective contrasts (‘Starman’, ‘Waterloo’ and ‘I Will Survive’).
The Earthside stuff is full of good actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Kristen Wiig) heroicallt making meetings, conference calls, press conferences, sessions peering at screens and multi-disciplinary ingeniousness interesting – but, again, the film ducks the really hard questions: like just how many billions of dollars and busted future missions is Mark Watney’s life really worth? It’s a given that his immediate astronaut pals (Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate MaraAksel Hennie) will add a couple of years to their mission and accept an added risk to their lives to get Mark home — and any conflicts they might have about this are swiftly tidied up to get to the more exciting business of telemtries and trajectories and relative speeds which make for a hands-in-space finale that involves Mark, who has fantasised about being a space pirate, the chance to prick his spacesuit palm and pilot himself ‘like Iron Man’.
It’s one of Scott’s better recent films, thanks to material with some focus, though it’s also one of his more anonymous assignments – Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes or James Cameron might have made more or less the same film given this script and cast. It has credible 3D Martian vistas mocked up in North Africa with a visual effects redwash, but rarely conveys the sheer bleak hostility of an alien planet (imagine a Werner Herzog or Robert Bresson version of this story, or hark back to Luis Bunuel’s crazed Crusoe). The home stretch is, however, irresistible as the whole world – including China, who give up a technological advance to help out – pull together to bring Mark/Matt back to Earth.