Chris's Film Reviews

The Martian (2015)

A review by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time.


Directed by: Sir Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan

Andy Weir's novel The Martian is one of those fairytale success stories: it began as a self-published novel on the author's website that was serialised, one chapter at a time, and made available for free. Weir then published a Kindle version on Amazon that sold for the minimum price available of 99 cents. It sold 35,000 copies in three months, which caught the attention of the big publishing houses that had previously turned him down. Weir sold the print and film rights in 2013 and within a couple of months it was announced that Sir Ridley Scott was developing the film with Matt Damon in the lead role.

The book ended up on the bestseller lists. In 2014 the front page of Drew Goddard's script travelled into space in an unmanned test flight of the Orion spacecraft, and Scott and his crew ended up in Wadi Rum in Jordan (the go-to place on Earth for Mars locations, and somewhere that's familiar to Sir Ridley, as he used it in Prometheus). Filming also took place at one of the largest sound stages in the world (at Korda Studios in Hungary). Production took place with the active assistance of NASA, particularly from the Planetary Sciences Division and the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Weir's book has made it to the screen with very few changes and those revisions that have been made help, rather than hinder the story. The book has a ton of science in it - and the film really captures the nuts-and-bolts, hard science of the book. While the exposition is understandably toned down in places, the way Watney talks through what he's doing is cleverly transferred to the film without losing anything important in the process, and he never patronises the audience.

A lot of dialogue in the book has made it, unchanged, into the final film. Watney's gleeful retort when his alma mater, The University of Chicago, informs him that as he's grown crops on Mars, that makes him a colonist:

"In your face, Neil Armstrong!"

is one of the most memorable lines in the movie. Damon's performance is one of the best things about an extremely good movie: he's the embodiment of NASA's can-do attitude, and Watney is a likeable, wise-cracking, extremely capable character who refuses to be dismayed by setbacks but instead, sits down and thinks about each problem and, in Watney's words, gets to "science the shit" out of things until they work for him.

The film looks gorgeous. The Martian landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful and I was delighted to see that Sir Ridley worked in lots of dust devils writhing across that dry, rusty landscape. I watched the film in 3D, and the use of stereo field was never a distraction; instead it really helped convey a sense of reality to the alien landscapes and futuristic spacecraft. Quite simply, it's all a joy to watch.

The technology used by the astronauts is sleek and filmic but still convincing. Strangely enough it's the film's portrayal of a glitzy, futuristic Johnson Space Center that is hardest to believe. Clearly, the NASA of the future finally got the budget they deserve!

The film is certified as a 12A here in the UK but I have to admit that an early scene where Watney performs surgery on himself really unsettled me; I could feel myself beginning to pass out and I had to close my eyes and just concentrate on breathing for a minute or two. I think that's a credit to just how fast I got deeply invested in the story and the character, as well as how convincing a portrayal of the book we get to see on screen but it does mean that if you're taking smaller children to see this film, it's not for the squeamish.

The supporting cast are excellent. Michael Peña in particular gives as good as he gets from Damon's wise-ass Watney. It was nice to see Sean Bean make it to the end of the movie, for a change - and the irony of having the guy who played Boromir in the Lord of The Rings movies sit in a conference room while everyone around him cracks jokes about the Council of Elrond was not lost on me.

The film really doesn't put a foot wrong. Two hours and twenty minutes flew by faster than some ninety-minute movies I've seen. When the end credits started to roll I just sat there, luxuriating in the impeccable film-making I'd just watched. It's easily one of the best ten films I've seen, and it's a fine return to form by Sir Ridley. The contrast between how satisfying this film was compared to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar has been remarked upon by several of my friends who have seen both films, and I absolutely agree with them.

This is an epic, spectacular movie which deserves to be seen on the big screen. Go and see it. It's well worth it.

Chris's rating: Five Stars.

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