If you’ve read that The Martian was shot in the same Jordanian desert as Lawrence Of Arabia and have conjured up images of gorgeous Red Planet landscapes, you might be slightly disappointed. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s 2011 novel is less concerned with the interplanetary scenery than it is with human ingenuity. Unlike Gravity, which was at its best a unique sensory experience, The Martian rarely tries to overwhelm us with scale or spectacle. Instead—and this might sound weird—Scott’s film is mainly a wry comedy, one which smoothly transfers the castaway narrative to outer space.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon), part of a NASA team exploring Mars, loses contact with the rest during a storm. Believing him to be dead, they leave the planet and continue with their mission. But Mark isn’t dead, and when he comes to the next day, he’s alone on Mars with no way of communicating this to NASA. This would normally result in a scene or two of hand-wringing and fate-cursing, but Scott’s protagonists have always been resourceful, and soon Mark is rationing his food and putting his training as a botanist to use by growing vegetables.
After NASA officials notice signs of activity, they manage to establish contact with Mark (through Pathfinder!) and a rescue mission suddenly becomes a possibility. From the chamber piece of the first half, The Martian becomes a more traditional bring-our-heroes-home kind of film. Nevertheless, it’s a very engaging one, full of good vibes and wisecracks and international co-operation. Not all the film’s decisions make sense—Donald Glover’s mad scientist is a bit of a comic relief in a film that doesn’t need it—but this is pretty fleet-footed stuff for big-budget Hollywood. It also steers clear of excessive emotionalism, which is a blessing for those who were left cold by Interstellar.
Besides Damon, the film has Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña and Kate Mara as the crew in space, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Jeff Daniels at NASA. This is an unnecessarily starry cast, but Scott and writer Drew Goddard wisely keep the focus on Mark and his resourcefulness, and expand the canvas only as far as the rescue efforts are concerned. If this is the middle ground between the bloat of Avengers: Age Of Ultron and the vision of Mad Max: Fury Road, we’ll take it.
This review appeared in Mint.