After a team of scientists and explorers, led by commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), are hit by an unexpectedly large storm on the surface of Mars, they must stage an emergency evacuation. Yet on the way to the module, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by a communication antenna and left behind presumed dead. He then quickly has to figure out a way to survive for multiple years for a rescue mission in a habitat designed to last for 30 days and “science the shit out of” his terrifying dilemma.
There’s an old philosophical thought experiment about five passengers riding an out-of-control tram on a rail line approaching a cliff next to a track-switch with a second line with a sleeping man laying on it. Should you pull the lever and save the five even if it means killing the one? What is the ethical price of a human life? The Martian is an extended meditation on that very question, with a whole harmony of other themes of solitude, determination and survival.
A lot of the early half of the year is reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Castaway, with Watney stranded on his ‘island’ and talking to himself. The major difference is Watney is a scientist so the narration is mostly about how to make water from liquid Nitrogen, and scientists at Caltech inventing jet propulsion.
Meanwhile down on Earth, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the Mars mission director and Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) the NASA director, are busy discussing the next mission to the planet to ‘salvage the remaining equipment’ and the PR implications of broadcasting Watney’s dead body to the world through satellite photos. Only later when they discover the truth that he is alive do the ground control team go all Apollo 13 and work round the clock to try and save him. The global space organisation’s effort to devise a rescue plan also has a whiff of Robert Zemeckis’ underrated sci-fi Contact.
Watching everyone try and solve this extraordinary problem is, obviously, a lot of fun. But what makes it even more fun is the inspired correlation between cinematography and soundtrack. Watney is constantly exasperated that the only music he has access to is commander Lewis’ cheesy playlist, yet this juxtaposition of innovative technology cinematography and throwback ‘70s disco is a stroke of genius. It gives the project a hint of Jetsons / Thunderbirds retro-futurism and allows the script a comedy that led The Martian to win a controversial “Best Comedy/Musical Film” Golden Globe award. (Matt Damon is funny, but… a comedy, it is not).
The incredible production design – from Arthur Max, famous for epic cinema such as Se7en, Gladiator, Robin Hood, Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings – is paired with a gorgeous cinematography from Darius Wolski (of Pirates of the Caribbean franchise fame) and post-production colouring. The Martian is an undeniably good-looking film. Hopefully after the Academy Awards it will have a second cinema run so that those who didn’t see it get the chance to marvel at it on a big screen…
Yet for all its sci-fi bravado, the film is surprisingly sober, even tender in its sincere solidarity between marooned and mission control. The science, finally, seems to be just as important as the fiction.