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Film review: The Martian ***

By Preston Wilder

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is very clear on one point: “I’m NOT gonna die here!”. He probably is, though, because he’s an astronaut stranded on Mars, his crew having left him for dead. There’s shelter of sorts, with an oxygenator and a water reclaimer – but he only has provisions for a few months, and the next manned mission to Mars is four years away. Can he survive?

Movies have been here before, with Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but that was 50 years ago (in 1964) when they didn’t really know what they were talking about. This is a much more forbidding Red Planet, without even a hint of the water that NASA (conveniently) announced just a couple of weeks ago, Mark’s isolation even more alien in our age of constant communication. There’s a moment early on where he logs in with a username and password, and I had a crazy fraction of a second when I thought ‘Great, he’s got internet’ – but of course he doesn’t, merely keeping a video journal which allows for handy exposition of his challenges and proposed solutions.

The solutions are invariably scientific, our hero’s basic plan being to “science the shit out of this”. Hydrazine over an iridium catalyst produces water (so I’m told) which Mark uses to irrigate potatoes, fertilising the crop with the feces produced by the crew before they took off (I didn’t realise ‘science the shit’ was meant so literally). He also manages to remain clean-shaven, though he does stop taking showers – not unreasonably, since there’s no-one else but him on the whole planet. Of course, “none of this matters if I can’t figure out a way to make contact with NASA,” muses our hero – then immediately does figure out a way (it’s that kind of movie) which involves trekking across the red rock and exhuming the Mars Pathfinder, a robotic probe from the 90s that’s able to transmit data.

Luckily, NASA is aware of his plight, and Mars Mission honcho Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has already guessed that he must be on his way to the Pathfinder – so, just as Mark makes contact, Kapoor and a middle-aged team of 90s engineers have dusted off the old computers and are sitting in place to return his signal. This is quite convenient, since Mark couldn’t exactly have waited around for NASA to decipher his intentions – and it’s also worth noting that, according to chemists on the internet, his hydrazine-over-iridium trick wouldn’t work in real life either (at least not to the extent Mark requires). I guess it doesn’t matter, and The Martian after all is ‘only a movie’ – but it does seem a bit dubious to make a film about Science as the answer when Science, in fact, would not be the answer.

That’s the theme, to a large extent, an ode to science nerds everywhere and a gleeful delight in problem-solving. ‘Somehow I need to do X,’ says Mark, setting out some ridiculously daunting challenge; ‘Luckily I have Y,’ he goes on – then comes up with an improvised solution. The Martian is touchingly earnest not just on Science as a useful skill, but Science as a force for good (religion, its frequent rival, barely gets a mention, except when Mark uses a wooden crucifix to light a fire!). NASA is well-meaning and basically virtuous, even Jeff Daniels as its PR-minded Director (how he allows the climactic rescue attempt to be broadcast live to the world beggars belief). Scientists everywhere are noble, in thrall to a higher calling. At one point, the Chinese space agency have it in their power to save the day – so they do what they can and apparently ask for nothing in return, just a favour between scientists. Yeah, that wouldn’t happen.

The film is enjoyable but shallow. Its most glaring omission is the lack of any complex psychology for Mark, who survives all alone for years while remaining not just compos mentis but downright perky (he doesn’t even talk to a volleyball, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away), except perhaps right at the end when he briefly grows a beard and refers to himself as a “space pirate”. You’d think the video journal would provide a perfect opportunity to show his gradual breakdown – even just a few subtle hints would be welcome – but director Ridley Scott merely uses it to move the plot forward.

It’s been clear for years now that Scott has no interest in people, and The Martian is a slick, empty space yarn without the emotional kick of (say) Interstellar – yet it does have a gushy emotional love of techno-idealism, life as a series of problems to be solved scientifically. It ends with everyone united, astronauts and NASA officials, Chinese and Americans, to the joyous strains of ‘Love Train’ by The O’Jays. 50 years after Robinson Crusoe on Mars, movies still don’t really know what they’re talking about.



DIRECTED BY Ridley Scott

STARRING Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor

US 2015                         141 mins

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