After the languorous Exodus; Gods and Kings, and the misguided Alien prequel, Prometheus, The Martian is a triumphant return to form for Ridley Scott. It is as surprising as it is welcome – Scott doesn’t make fun movies, certainly none set in space (observe the chest-bursting horror of Alien, the technological pessimism of Bladerunner). But, strangely, The Martian is just that.
The plot is simple – Mark Watney, Matt Damon’s everyman astronaut, is stranded on Mars after a severe dust storm that leads his crew to presume him dead and leave for earth. He’s abandoned, alone and unknown, 54 million miles from home.
In different hands, this might have been heavy, existential sci-fi, in the lineage of Solaris, or 2001: A Space Odyssey – the emotional turmoil of human finitude, loneliness and despair played out beyond the reaches of humankind. But Watney, funny and uncomplicated, has no time for any of that. After about half a minute weepily pacing his deserted Mars-base, he steels himself and resolves, ‘I am not going to die here’. Unreflective, can-do doggedness is seemingly his only setting. Faced with a catastrophic food shortage, he cheerfully grows potatoes in his own excrement. When those potatoes are ruined, he jauntily seeks an alternative.
At times, his incorrigibility means the film borders on the flippant, giving it an occasional sterile feeling, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting the situation Watney finds himself in. But watching the film, these criticisms feel academic. An occasional foible of Scott’s – sacrificing character in favor of philosophy – is inverted here, and Damon is so immensely likeable that you can’t help but root for him. It is an utterly immersive experience, so much so that you might find yourself cheering along with the NASA control room.
Scott, who one suspects might have an eye on the Oscars, has made the best mega-budget Hollywood sci-fi in years – Gravity without the mawkishness, Interstellar without the cloying metaphysical baggage. It’s a lovely, straightforward film, light as the gravity on Mars.