Any Ridley Scott film starring Matt Damon should get a look. And in his latest creation, we follow this castaway story as Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is left behind after the rest of his Mars mission crew leave, following a sudden dust storm that threatens to engulf their craft. With Mark Watney presumed dead, this is where our story begins. Watney survives, wounded and partially buried in Mars, and is left with the daunting survival challenge of somehow getting back home. As he says, to himself, he is just going to have out science his way through it.
The adventure is shown through multiple facets of this long film, how Watney is getting on, NASA managing the political and management issues, keeping a corporate line, and the story of the returning crew. When NASA realizes that there is life on mars, and Watney is roving about the Martian surface, the film develops into an ‘Us-vs-Them’ format, with the usual renegades providing whacky ideas to help, and top management spending more time looking up rather than down.
This is where film could get a little lost – just falling into Sci-Fi sludge with people mincing about in lycra boiler suits talking earnestly – but, thankfully it doesn’t. It becomes real, encouraging a “how would I cope with this?” attitude from the viewer, in a wonderful and self-depreciating manner. Matt Damon plays Watney as someone we would expect; that a trained astronaut could pull on their vast training, strength of character and scientific knowledge to address the herculean task ahead of them. It then becomes a Robson Crusoe story of Watney looking at what he’s got to work with – how much food, energy and equipment versus how many days (Sols in case your asking) and the maths to allow him to survive, based on the assumption they will come back to get him. It creates a perfect tension to feed the plot.
We feel for him, but it is what a proper “hero” would do – not bothered about the size of the task, but devastated at using of the last bottle of ketchup to enhance the meagre starch diet.
The little chapters of Watney becoming a gardener (he is a botanist) are shown in great detail and are both charming and hilarious. His achievement at managing to grow potatoes, in a manner of perhaps the original European colonists in America, is reflected in his pride at his work. Lacking a means of communication, he manages to find the 2004 Spirit craft, and drag it back to the base camp, tinker around to get it to work and send a signal back to NASA. It generates another charming and hilarious sequence, where the two parties try to get some sound and vision working with the most basic means over the longest distance, with signals taking some 30 minutes.
Through all of this, how Watney personally deals with the loneliness, despair and, at times, overwhelming nature of the challenge is the heart of the film. Watney is, in fact, quite normal. He hates ‘70s disco music, which is all he has for entertainment – a legacy of the departed captain – and does so in that Waspish Matt Damon “I am fed up with this but out of politeness will put up with it” manner. We feel for him, but it is what a proper “hero” would do – not bothered about the size of the task, but devastated at using of the last bottle of ketchup to enhance the meagre starch diet.
The sets are totally spectacular and uncompromising, lavishly detailed to make Watneys life on Mars seem routine. There is no showing off of the special effects, they are there to support the movie and stunning as a result.
The story of NASA and the returning crew make up a big part the film, but this simply supports Watneys story. Having managed to grow potatoes all on his own, with remarkable imagination, NASA starts to manage him with updates required every day and advisors giving, well, advice. Watney accepts all of this with great dignity and conservative irony. It is this style and detail that really makes the film work so well. When the film flicks away from Watney’s story, you just want to get back to him know how he’s doing, reinforcing the me-and-the-rest of the world feeling of Watney. You feel for him, and so does everyone back home, as news spreads of his predicament and travails, forcing NASA’s hand.
Ridley Scott is the master of the big epic-personal story. The sets are totally spectacular and uncompromising, lavishly detailed to make Watneys life on Mars seem routine. There is no showing off of the special effects, they are there to support the movie and stunning as a result. This was only emphasized by the lengthy credits after the movie – the longest I have ever seen. The score also provides some additional colour – the unintended tribute of playing Starman featured, raising a tear for loss of our own spaceman from Brixton. A great Pizza-Beer movie to be watched with friends and family – just make sure you have a few tissues at the ready!
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean
Nominations: Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay
Why You Should Watch It:
A great and entertaining blockbuster that acts as a great escape into a world unknown, and one of Ridley Scott’s best films to date.
What It Was Missing:
Not much but, if anything, it was about 20 mins too long. To some extent, things were stretched out a bit. I could not see them not contacting the returning crew and launching a recovery mission straight away – I am sure the crew could have turned around or at least acted as a staging point for a resupply rocket – the “failed” supply mission wasn’t really helpful to the plot.
The Worldly Rating: ****