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Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Martian

I can't remember the last Ridley Scott film to feel this assured. Well, okay, yes, I can, but that was American Gangster in 2007 and who the hell can remember that far back.

Welcome back, Sir Ridley, it's been way too bloody long!

The Martian tells the story of the first manned mission to mars (to be clear, the fictional story - but, um, you do know that, right?) and of the astronaut who is accidentally left for dead by his crewmembers and is forced to fend for himself on the inhospitable Red Planet until NASA send their next mission some four years hence. However, rather than going the more obvious route of a gritty, or at least more lonesome and meditative, survivalist story, it plays out like Apollo 13 on steroids - and it really is all the better for it.

This means that though it does lack the depth of something like Duncan Jones' beautiful indie sci-fi flick, Moon, it more than makes up for it in terms of sheer, unfiltered enjoyment. And, frankly, after the unpleasant, if breathtakingly evocative and/ or disappointing Everest, give me effortlessly enjoyable over grueling any day of the week.

Now, this being a story about a guy trying to survive a damn near impossible situation, it's not exactly all fun and games, but considering its subject matter, it's an absolute delight to see just how light and funny it turned out to be. The film flits between through locations - Mars, NASA HQ and the homeward bound flight of the rest of our poor astronaut's crew - and all three sections of the film are peopled with incredibly likable and sympathetic characters, with nary a bad guy in sight.

Matt Damon brings all his breezy charm and humour to stranded spaceman, Mark Watney, and, odd breakdown aside, he's terrific company with which to spend years on an otherwise utterly desolate planet and the neat narrative device of his keeping a video journal to record his exploits gives the whole thing an added sense of intimacy but an intimacy that feels controlled, rather than voyeuristic or monotonous. We join him in his ingenious plans to survive and make contact with NASA and in his, by turns hopeless and hilarious, attempts to keep himself occupied with little more than some old videos and literally the worst music collection on the planet.

With all this going on, we also have the team of brainiacs at NASA figuring out how on earth, if you'll excuse the pun, they plan to save a guy who is literally millions of miles and four years away from them, living all by himself on a planet that seems specifically engineered against his survival. Fortunately, we have the crack, but very, very unlikely team of geniuses, headed up by characters played by the likes of Jeff Daniels (in full Newsroom mode), Chiwetel Ejiofor (in full anything-but-Twelve-Years-a-Slave mode) and Donald Glover (in full broad comedy mode), with major support from other top thesps like Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean. While Damon carries his own section brilliantly all on his lonesome, the pleasure of the NASA parts of the film is all about seeing this disparate group of characters interacting with one another, while trying to come up with their own brilliantly mad solutions to the problem at hand.

Finally, we have the rest of Watney's crew (Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) and though they only really make an impact in the film's presumably ludicrous but fist-pumpingly thrilling final act, they actually form the emotional core of the film, as they are forced to confront their potentially fatal but absolutely understandable mistake.

What ties all of these sections together and prevents the film from ever feeling even remotely bitty or incoherent (and makes sure that those 140-odd minutes fly right by) is the film's celebration of science and human ingenuity - something that has been front and centre of all promotion and publicity surrounding both the film and the popular novel on which it is based. It's a wonderfully optimistic view of humanity and for all of its science-speak, it's a film overflowing with emotion and a wonderfully timed sense of humour. Some have complained that the latter, in particular, detracts from the weightiness of the film's premise, but they're rather missing the point.    

This isn't a film about human weakness and human failing, nor does it have any real interest in delving into the psychology of what being stranded for years on an alien planet would do to a person, and it most certainly doesn't have any of the weighty ambitions of more recent philosophical sci-fi like Interstellar or the new Planet of the Apes films. This is, very simply, a film about the very best of us. It's about compassion, loyalty, humour, curiosity, inventiveness and all other things that are great and beautiful about the human animal at its very best. And, yes, it's also a thrilling, funny and utterly absorbing rollercoaster ride that manages to both leave you with no doubt whatsoever about its ending, while still having you on the edge of your seat throughout.

Working off a fantastic script by ace screenwriter and Joss Whedon-disciple, Drew Goddard, this is unquestionably Sir Ridley Scott's most assured and artistically successful film in years. His films are never less than great on a purely aesthetic level, but it's a true pleasure to see him once again, finally matching his peerless technical sensibilities with genuinely impressive storytelling - especially just two years after the unbearably full-of-itself The Counselor all but had me writing the guy off once and for all and last year's Exodus: Gods and Kings doing little to dissuade me of that position.  

Maybe there's a chance for that Prometheus sequel, after all...

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