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The Martian (2015)
Director: Ridley Scott

review by Christopher Geary

This century's cinema has seen a few good space movies about manned expeditions to the Earth's nearest planetary neighbour. Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars appeared in direct competition with Antony Hoffman's Red Planet (both 2000). Spanish offering Stranded (2001) posits an even gloomier variation of the first landing on Mars, while recent horror The Last Days On Mars (2013) over-works its notion of a mysterious alien force as a lethal threat against human intruders. The Martian has no weird aliens or a sinister elemental presence for its astronauts to contend with. Basically, it's Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), crossed with Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995).

As noted elsewhere, rescuing Matt Damon has become Hollywood's irregular pastime since, following the helicopter escapade in Edward Zwick's Gulf War drama Courage Under Fire (1996), Spielberg established our endangered actor's uniquely accidental, or disconnected, franchise with WW2 movie Saving Private Ryan (1998). Damon fell heavily into this tragic role-play as the damned hero in distress for Neill Blomkamp's Elysium (2013), the first of Damon's trilogy of off-world rescues. Christopher Nolan's hard-SF drama, Interstellar (2014), took the mission of mercy from Elysium's orbital habitat into deep space when Damon played a pioneering explorer stuck on the wrong side of a wormhole. Although Scott's The Martian leaves our hero stranded closer to home, its rescue effort hardly seems any cheaper or less eventful.

It's a tall but quite enthralling story of survival and endurance, and it's about the right stuff with some reckless yet crazily inventive rocket science. During early departure to avoid a storm, the crew of Ares III abandon Mark Watney (Matt Damon), believing he is dead. How Watney survives - and is able to rightly claim "I am the greatest botanist on this planet" - is a fascinating drama; just as confrontational in its sombre aspect of loneliness and mortality as it is escapist adventure of the lost man who lived to return home to prove his matchless story. When he cleverly manages to grow potatoes on Mars, it makes him officially the first colonist.

The Martian deploys its various pop music soundtrack options for ironicomical effect in ways that are far better than all of the cringe-worthy mix-tape songs in Guardians Of The Galaxy, and David Bowie's Starman hits the geeky high note for a montage of NASA inspired can-do practicality with scientific, space age improvisation. In fact, movie-makers on The Martian enjoyed an open-door policy at NASA and JPL that ensured a degree of realism here for an excellent recruiting poster. With a visionary director at the very peak of his A-game, this benefits from its world-class presentations of hi-tech problem-solving by a great ensemble cast (including Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kate Mara), that all exude professionalism, and/ or enthusiasm, in key roles; while the movie's routinely spectacular landscapes, and planet scenes of magnificent scale, conjure up a sense of wonder, despite the title character's isolation and potentially deadly troubles on a daily basis.

Against the typical standards of today's genre cinema, where space opera, exemplified by the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars, is the normal model, the science fictional content of this particular picture is astonishingly bold, and beautifully crafted. Although there are lots of happily unobtrusive tributes to such genre milestones as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scott's own Alien, Robert Zemeckis' Contact (1997), and the US Solaris remake, what shines through from a brighter source is the laudable hard-SF values of Clarkean optimism, merged perfectly with Heinlein's archetypal 'competent man' for an admirable peak-performance protagonist: a man who seemingly believes that 'specialisation is for insects'. Other worthy attributes of this movie, its narrative focus, and supporting characters (notably, "Rich Purnell is a steely-eyed missile man"), include the displays of true grit that result in an almost complete absence of sentimentalism, along with a keen sense of humour that's as observationally sarcastic and sharp witted as the most intelligent American TV sitcoms.

With astronautical thrills and in-jokes that outdo even Gravity, it is arguably the best space movie, set in our familiar Solar system, since Peter Hyams' classic 2010 (1984). On the blu-ray edition, there's a fine batch of extras: covering the production, from its challenging script (based upon the first novel by Andy Weir), and stunning designs, to casting stars for the charismatic characters in a daring interplanetary rescue mission. Best of the bonus material is Refocused, a faked TV documentary set seven years later that interviews the core cast (all still 'in character' for this where-are-they-now media spotlight), and considers how this movie's tale changed lives and ended, or advanced, careers. It's a fine addendum to a great storyline.

The Martian

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