In the space of Ridley Scott’s Alien, no one can hear you scream. In the space of Scott’s The Martian, all you can hear is disco.
After a long streak of features that tend to dwell in the dark and miserable (and that’s not even referring to the poor quality of some of them), The Martian is certainly the most light-hearted effort from director Ridley Scott in a very long time — 2003’s Matchstick Men would be the last (good) film he made with anywhere near the same level of pep and charm, and even that goes to some pretty dark places. And this is a rather unusual, or at least surprising, bit of praise to throw The Martian’s way, considering it is about a man being left to survive, alone, on the red planet, after events during a fierce storm cause his evacuating mission-mates to believe he has perished. It’s two months before botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes his very much still alive presence known to NASA on Earth, and four months before those who left him behind (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie) get the news to induce the mother of all guilt trips. But, really, this is a quite funny movie. Honest.
Unlike with, say, Gravity, Drew Goddard’s quick-witted screenplay, adapted from Andy Weir’s bestselling novel, is only fleetingly concerned with the detrimental effects of remote solitude in a seemingly hopeless space scenario, and the subsequent despair that comes with it. There are tears and there is rage, but Watney is a trooper, and the name of his game is getting through it the best he can, with whatever he can at his current disposal. There may not be a lot of real thematic depth to this particular survival story, but, to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. There are other films available for that, and there is plenty of space (heh) for both kinds of stories. This one’s structured as half-Cast Away, half-Apollo 13, with a host of eccentricities to its sprawling ensemble cast and their respective plot-threads to make one a little inclined to call The Martian Altmanesque, but that’s probably being too generous.
That said, Goddard, Scott and editor Pietro Scalia get you as invested in the plight of the players back on Earth as they do with Watney up in the sky. Among the motley bunch at NASA and beyond are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, (the delightful) Mackenzie Davis, and Donald Glover, the latter of whom seems to be channelling his own Community co-star Danny Pudi’s turn as Abed into his performance as an astrodynamicist with a “eureka” plan.
As a piece of sweeping populist entertainment, The Martian is a great success, despite a couple of issues that perturb throughout. To name one thing, and it’s surprising considering this is Scott at the helm, there’s not a lot of really arresting techniques done visually with the landscape of Mars itself. Much of Watney’s time is spent trying to survive with the equipment and station NASA sent over in the first place, meaning little inclination to spend time outside where those resources are at risk, but it still feels like a missed opportunity; Dariusz Wolsk’s cinematography is still plenty pleasant throughout.
Still, what it lacks in visual aesthetic quirks, it makes up for with the aural. Thanks to Chastain’s character having brought only a very limited selection of music to their Mars operation, Watney is stuck with the likes of ABBA and Donna Summer to soundtrack his crisis. It reminded this writer of a moment in Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Touching the Void, in which a wounded mountain climber, in a state of delirium, gets a song by Boney M. stuck in his head while draped over some rocks. The aural oddity almost makes up for an on-the-nose use of a certain David Bowie song over one of The Martian’s montages, but, credit where it’s due, at least it’s not the even more obvious “Life on Mars?” We just have to make do with the Spiders from Mars as our star (man) is waiting in the sky. (Sorry.)
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently a contributing editor at PopOptiq, a writer for VODzilla.co, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.