The Martian review: the vacuum-packed potatoes save the day

Matt Damon grows spuds on Mars in Ridley Scott’s best film in a decade. That must have been some decade...

Matt Damon in The Martian, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s high-end pulp bestseller. Photograph: 20th Century Fox

Film Title: The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Genre: Sci-Fi

Running Time: 140 min

Fri, Oct 2, 2015, 11:16

   

What would two years of alien isolation do to a hitherto robust psyche? Would a man go mad or find himself inwardly strengthened? These are some of the questions not asked in a castaway drama with all the psychological depth of Gilligan’s Island.

Ridley Scott’s picture also fails to wonder whether – while legions starve – the US and Chinese governments would really spend (literally) billions of dollars to rescue just one man.

Oh well. We never asked such questions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Very much in the gung-ho style of such thumping yarns, the adaptation of Andy Weir’s contemporary high-end pulp casts Matt Damon as Mark Watney, botanist at a Nasa outpost on Mars. Fleeing a furious storm, Watney’s colleagues lose contact and leave him for dead.


While they head miserably home, he comes to and begins plotting survival. Mark retrieves the vacuum-packed potatoes intended for Thanksgiving and uses them to seed new plants. To the strains of 1970s disco – only base supremo Jessica Chastain’s music seems to have survived – he plans to make his way to a distant crater in time for the next human visit many months hence. Eventually, the folk at Earth notice him and halting contact is initiated.

Nervous about spending too much under-populated time on Watney’s red planet, the film devotes much of its attention to the returning crew (who josh blokeishly like contestants on A Question of Sport) and the panicked administrators (headed by Jeff Daniels as a more benign version of his character in the upcoming Steve Jobs).

This week’s news about water on Mars accidentally boosts the film while doing little to undercut the hugeness of its hero’s predicament. Managing a nice blend of hard science and shaky futurology (the base seems to generate its own water and oxygen), The Martian works best as a sort of enormous gameshow: Now Get Out of That!

In his best film for the guts of a ropey decade, Scott eschews (ahem) atmosphere for a focus on kinetics and cautiously rationed peril. Damon does what needs to be done with a thinly drawn character. The effects are as efficient as we now expect and demand.

We have one weary and familiar technical gripe. Once again (in the version shown to press at least) the 3D version adds little but an infuriating darkening of the image. See the flat version, for heaven’s sake.
 

Read Donald Clarke's breakdown of Ridley Scott's 23 films, from worst to best