Review: ‘The Martian’ Will Make You Believe In The Wonder And Hopefulness Of Space Travel Again (And Also Disco)

A perfectly-timed reminder of how space can bring out the best of us.

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When it comes to releasing a movie, there’s good timing, and there’s timing so incredibly auspicious that it’s enough to make you put on a tinfoil hat.

So it is with Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which enters cinemas mere days after NASA’s announcement that [extremely layman’s voice] flowing salty water has been found on Mars.

Lest this news pitch you headfirst into life as a Ridley Scott truther: it turns out there’s no salty water on The Martian’s red planet beyond the tears both onscreen and off. That may seem like an incredibly naff thing to write (and, well, it is), but bear with me — because in its best moments The Martian is one of those films that reminds you of the hopefulness of space exploration.

As Alone As Adam

Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, The Martian wastes no time kicking off: in the Ares III habitat on Mars, a NASA crew led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) realises an approaching storm is too dangerous to remain in the “hab”, and aborts the mission. In the ensuing maelstrom of dust and silicates (evocatively rendered in the film’s 3D print), botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is caught by flying debris, presumed dead, and left behind.

“Surprise!”, as Watney tells his video diary, he’s still alive. The rest of the film concerns both his attempts to stay alive long enough to meet either a rescue crew or the next scheduled Hermes mission, and NASA’s ploughing through space program politicking to decide whether or not to go save him.

It’s Castaway by way of The Curiosity Show, as Watney has to work out how to grow more food (thank god for potatoes, and human excrement) on the inhospitable planet. His mental health is troubled not just by his extreme isolation, but by the fact that the sole entertainment he’s privy to is Commander Lewis’ Now That’s What I Call-style disco compilation.

(There is an expertly-employed David Bowie song in the film, but it’s not the one you might expect.)

A Whole Galaxy Of Stars

Like a 1970s disaster movie, The Martian’s cast is so stacked with names it’s almost an embarrassment of riches.

Consequently, some of the ensemble performances are more memorable than others: on Earth, Sean Bean is affectingly gentle (and, in one NASA meeting, gets the film’s best joke) as the Hermes’ flight director; Benedict Wong plays a JPL bigwig; and Chiwetel Ejiofor is impassioned in the face of bureaucratic red tape as the Mars mission director. Less captivating is Jeff Daniels’ Newsroom redux as NASA Director “Teddy” Sanders, and Donald Glover as a typically screw-loose ‘kid genius’ type.

In the Hermes, Michael Peña provides much needed comic relief, as pilot Martinez, from his po-faced crewmates (a largely forgettable and interchangeable Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie). After having remained earthbound in Interstellar, Chastain clearly relishes her time in space.

But it’s Damon’s picture, and whether or not he steals your heart will depend on how grating you find Watney’s vaguely Reddit-ish persona in his more upbeat moments (“science the shit out of this”, et al). The performance and writing at times feels carefully calibrated to convince a space-sceptical younger audience that space travel and science is cool, man — though for the most part it avoids any “How do you do, fellow kids?” clangers.

There are times, however, when you may find yourself longing for the quiet poetry of Tom Hanks’ Castaway performance rather than another wisecracking video log entry. See, where The Martian, and Damon, really gets you is in the moments of true existential horror, and in the tiny details: like a NASA teddybear clipped to Watney’s crew rucksack, or the tenderness with which he greets a tiny potato seedling.

Hooked To The Silver Screen

After the appallingly disappointing Prometheus, it’s buoying to see Scott back in fine sci-fi form here; indeed, The Martian doesn’t so much have the mood of a science fiction film so much as it does a “science fact” movie, like other great space-set historical blockbusters.

Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 before it, The Martian captures the sense of hopefulness and wonder that space exploration can offer a jaded humanity (in 1969 it was a populace bored by Moon missions; here, it’s a non-specified near future where the public worries money might be better spent elsewhere, much like in Interstellar). It’s also a gentle reminder of just what we are capable of if we work together: will NASA treat JPL as more than an occasionally helpful little brother, and accept help from China’s CNSA? I’m sure you can guess.

Though it’s not perfect — it lacks the soulfulness of Howard’s film and Christopher Nolan’s ten-hankie Interstellar (all are trumped by Al Reinert and Brian Eno’s exquisite For All Mankind, which is more visual tone poem than documentary, and in its minimalism elevates space exploration to the metaphysical) — The Martian’s illustration of a world united by space travel is almost utopian.

And in a week in which Mars exploration has suddenly become a thrillingly real (if eventual) possibility, perhaps we need a little reminder of how space can bring out the best of us.

The Martian hits Australian cinemas on Thursday October 1.

Clem Bastow is an award-winning writer and critic with a focus on popular culture, gender politics, mental health, and weird internet humour. She’s on Twitter at @clembastow