Film Review by Robert Henderson
Matt Damon as Mark Watney (botanist, engineer)
Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, NASA spokesperson (Director, Media Relations)
Jeff Daniels as Theodore “Teddy” Sanders, Director of NASA
Michael Peña as Major Rick Martinez, astronaut (pilot)
Kate Mara as Beth Johanssen, astronaut (system operator, reactor technician)
Sean Bean as Mitch Henderson, Hermes flight director
Sebastian Stan as Dr. Chris Beck, astronaut (flight surgeon, EVA specialist)
Aksel Hennie as Dr. Alex Vogel, astronaut (navigator, chemist)
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Mars mission director
Donald Glover as Rich Purnell, a NASA astrodynamicist
Benedict Wong as Bruce Ng, director of JPL
Director Ridley Scott
Imagine Robinson Crusoe without a Man Friday and stranded on another planet rather than a deserted island and you have the plot of The Martian in a nutshell.
Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of the Ares III mission which has landed on Mars and set up a temporary base there. A dust storm blows up while the crew are out on the surface and Watney is hit by some flying debris. The rest of the crew are sure he is dead, but they also have a major threat to distract them from searching for him: the dust storm is threatening to blow over the rocket that will take them back to their orbiting Hermes spaceship. If the rocket topples over the crew will be stranded on Mars. Consequently, they make an emergency take off without Watney, get safely to the Hermes and head for Earth.
But Watney is not dead. He has been injured by the flying debris, but not mortally. The facility which sheltered the crew on Mars, the Hab, is still functioning and there is a large Mars rover vehicle intact. Watney sits down in the Hab and does exactly what Crusoe does, takes an inventory of what he has then sets about working himself out of the monumental hole he is in. This he achieves in a series of ingenious ways including, again mimicking Crusoe, by scavenging equipment from wrecks, in this case from abandoned equipment left from previous missions, manned and unmanned, to Mars.
Most of the film is taken up with Watney’s efforts to overcome one daunting obstacle to surviving after another long enough to have any chance of rescue. He starts from the bleak point of knowing that NASA think that he is dead. Hence his first need is to establish contact with Earth to let them know he is alive. He eventually does this by cleverly tinkering with equipment intended for other things until eventually he has an email link with NASA.
After making contact with NASA, Watney’s most pressing problem is having enough food to keep him alive until Earth can attempt to rescue him. It will take several years to send another spaceship to Mars and Watney has food for nothing like that long. Luckily he is a botanist so he works out a way of producing water and this, with the excrement from the astronauts acting as fertiliser, allows him to grow potatoes inside the Hab with sufficient success to enable him to survive for considerably longer but not long enough for the next Mars expedition, Aries IV, to arrive and save him.
While Watney is problem solving on Mars NASA is problem solving on Earth and meeting with disaster. Their attempts to launch an unmanned rocket with extra supplies to allow Watney to survive until Aires IV can get there ends in disaster and all looks lost. But eventually the Aries III mission ship Hermes ship is re-provisioned in space and then turned around on its flight to Earth and sent back to Mars to rescue Watney. This is done only with the help of the Chinese (note the glib internationalism and/or kowtowing to the Chinese).
After further adventures including a disaster with the Hab and a long ride across the Martian surface in the Mars Rover the film culminates in a hair-raising exercise to rescue Watney. Does he make it? Well, you will need to see the film to discover that.
Damon’s performance as Watney recaptures the engaging boyishness of his early films like Goodwill Hunting and Rounders. He is decidedly funny. Without him the film would be pretty dull, for apart from Damon the plot involving the rest of the cast is rather predictable and even those with the larger parts such as Jeff Daniels as Theodore “Teddy” Sanders, the Director of NASA and Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis, the Ares III Mission Commander, are distinctly one-dimensional. Sean Bean is horribly miscast as Mitch Henderson the Hermes flight director speaking what lines he has with as much verve as a speak-your-weight-machine.
The Martian has been criticised in some quarters for Damon’s role being too comic. That is a mistake. Whether or not someone in such a desperate and isolated position would be able to maintain such an upbeat persona with the sense of both his utter physical isolation and desperate circumstances pressing upon him is of course debatable. But that is to miss the point. The same objection could be levelled at Robinson Crusoe. But in both cases what counts is whether there is a good story to be told and in both cases the answer is yes. Moreover, the attitude of Watney is that of those with the “right stuff”, an epitome of American can do. Nor is he utterly alone for most of the film. To keep him sane he has contact with Earth for most of the time and eventually the Aries III ship Hermes. He also records his progress on a video blog, something which would provide a sense of purpose. It is Boy’s Own stuff but none the worse for that. Nor is it utterly unbelievable. Think of the tone of the diaries kept on Scott’s doomed return from the South Pole or the resolution of the crew on Apollo 13 after an oxygen tank exploded two days into the mission and crippled the spacecraft. Boy’s Own behaviour is sometimes found in real life.
The depiction of Mars is unnecessarily sloppy. It looks convincing as far as the scenery is concerned, but there are anomalies. The gravity on Mars is one-third of that on Earth yet when Damon moves around there is no indication of this in his walk, which one would expect to be at least mildly bouncing. Nor when Damon moves things does he do so with unexpected ease as one would imagine he should with only one-third Earth gravity. Then there is the atmospheric pressure which is around one-hundredth of that on Earth. Would the storm which causes the Aries Mission crew to leave really have had the energy to hurl debris as violently as it did or threaten to knock the rocket over? The answer is no because it is the density of atmosphere which provides the “weight” behind a dust storm. On Mars the dust storm would be a breeze not a hurricane. As the dust storm plays a significant role in the plot this is not a small thing.
For fans of politically correct casting The Martian provides a feast. The commander of the Aries II mission is a woman; Chiwetel Ejiofor is Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Mars mission director, Benedict Wong is Bruce Ng, director of JPL and there are ethnic minority and female bodies in abundance in the NASA control room scenes. Donald Glover as Rich Purnell, a NASA astrodynamicist, the whizz kid who produces the maths which allows the Hermes to turn round and head back to Mars, is black. (The overwhelmingly white and male reality of NASA today can be seen here).
Despite its flaws the film is genuinely entertaining. You will not leave the cinema feeling you have wasted a couple of hours.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic