The Martian’s brilliant script sees Matt Damon as Robinson Crusoe on Mars in Ridley Scott’s sharply crafted sci-fi.

The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s novel which, just like the fantastic journey of its main character, Mark Watney, went on a fantastic journey of its own from a meagre self-published e-book to a New York Times bestseller, finally finding itself in Hollywood and in the capable hands of Brit film director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator).

Matt Damon plays Watney, a botanist taking soil samples as part of a mission to Mars when a storm of biblical proportions forces his crew to abort their mission and head back to Earth. But during the trek to their escape pod, a lump of flying debris swipes Watney away and his crew, believing he is dead, leave without him.

The Martian Review: A Sharp Tale of Human Survival and Ingenuity
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) about to have his future literally swiped away

“I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet” – Mark Watney

But Watney isn’t dead, and once he’s extracted an annoying piece of metal from his stomach and sewn up the ragged hole, he proclaims that he is not going to die on Mars. Yet, once he discovers he has no way of contacting Earth to tell the world he is still alive, he realises that in order not to die, he has to find a way to survive until the next NASA Mars mission is scheduled to arrive in two years time, even though his food and water supplies will be gone within a matter of weeks.

First up, we have to confess that Matt Damon has never been one of the Film Rave’s favourite actors. He’s adequately capable in action frolics like The Bourne Identity, but we believe when it comes to more worthy fodder, such as Syriana, Contagion and Interstellar (actually, the issue in the latter was that he was woefully miscast), he lacks that much-needed emotional range and has never lived up to the promise on show in the magnificent Good Will Hunting.

Damon brings the inventive and humourous protagonist in Weir’s novel perfectly to life on-screen, positioning the character as a fragile and vulnerable everyman whom the audience will root for and want to see return safely to Earth.

But we’re about to eat humble pie – Damon has never been as good as he is in The Martian, and we reckon that without his styled performance, the film would never have garnered the positive acclaim that it did upon its initial release. He brings the inventive and humourous protagonist in Weir’s novel perfectly to life on-screen, positioning the character as a fragile and vulnerable everyman whom the audience will root for and want to see return safely to Earth.

Wow, we thought that admission would hurt, but it was actually delightfully therapeutic and uplifting. Okay, enough, let’s move on.

Told through a series of video diaries that add an engaging dramatic framework for Watney’s solo existence, he leaps into full botanist mode and, using Martian soil and his own faeces as fertiliser, sets up an indoor vegetable plot to grow himself a life saving supply of potatoes.

The Martian plants

Meanwhile, back on Earth, everyone believes he’s dead, even giving him a hero’s funeral, until a lowly NASA analyst (Mackenzie Davis) spots some abnormalities on satellite imaging and realises he’s still alive. From then on, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and a whimsical Sean Bean argue and appraise the costs, logistics and political ramifications of concocting a rescue mission.

Watney all the time remains upbeat and positive, smiling and quipping about his situation even when things go bad. And he never changes. He never broods. He just stays positive and gets on with it. This sense of positiveness is intricately woven into all the narrative elements, even its colour palette, which is filled with golds and yellows that help you feel good as you watch the disasters unfold.

Some might gag at all this hope and good feeling, but you don’t really get chance to consider this as the narrative sweeps you up in its energetic pace, proving that director Ridley Scott has finally found his creative flare of old after the miscarriage of Prometheus and the perplexing and impenetrable narrative of The Counselor. Yet we feel he has to thank Cabin in the Woods writer Drew Goddard for constructing such a good screenplay to work from, and for having the cheek and ingenuity to work a Lord of the Rings joke into one of Sean Bean’s scenes. Much kudos for that.

Scott takes that screenplay to its broadest scope, riffing on the big sci-fi films that seem to have become popular in the past few years, spectacles like Nolan’s Interstellar and Cuarón’s Gravity, and although it doesn’t ponder any deep cosmological debates like Interstellar undertakes, it does give us a richer and more plausible story than Gravity. In fact, The Martian works on several levels at once – as a sci-fi spectacle indebted to Kubrick for its visuals, and as a nuanced character drama.

Its only real flaw is its length, coming in at a hefty two hours and twenty-four minutes – was Scott trying to film the two-year long rescue mission in real-time? Seriously, there is very few flaws in what is a tight, engaging narrative. And where else can you see a space explorer conquer life-threatening challenges using duct tape and plastic sheeting?

The Martian hit DVD and Blu-ray on 8th February 2016

Don’t forget to check out our guide showing how the screenwriting techniques used in The Martian can help your writing (coming soon)…

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Mark Randall
Founder of the Film Rave, Mark Randall is a teacher of English Language, Literature and Film Studies, who also works as a writer and editor. He loves watching movies and reading novels, particularly horror, science fiction, and that sublime space between them known as speculative fiction. He is currently working on a collection of short horror stories, a horror novel, and several horror and SF screenplays. He lives with his partner, and two cats.

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