Friday, 09 October 2015

The Martian

How much can a man achieve when put to the test? Ridley Scott’s view is refreshingly upbeat

Written by Ben Felsenburg
Ben-Felsenburg-colour-176Don’t be alarmed. The title is misleading: you’ll find no more little green men in The Martian than there were members of the Bloomsbury Set in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? There’s just one inhabitant of the Red Planet, a very human astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who’s left behind, believed to be dead, when his Nasa crewmates abort their mission and take off in a hurry after an apocalyptic storm hits their base.

Stranded alone tens of millions of miles from home, his radio communications fritzed out and with just a few weeks’ food supply left, Watney could be forgiven if he wandered out of his sealed tent without a helmet and surrendered to the suffocatingly thin air. But our hero is a man of indefatigable cheer and rare resource, a sort of bionic botanist who with fascinating ingenuity creates a crop of potatoes that just might sustain him until the rescue mission comes – if the boffins on Earth realise that there’s a reason to send one.

Director Ridley Scott terrorised us in space with Alien and conjured up a dreadful warning of deadly robots in Blade Runner. But while those tales were all of a piece with the pessimistic prognostications that have dominated so much science fiction going back to HG Wells, an older and wiser Scott offers a refreshingly upbeat vision of just how much mankind can achieve when we put our God-given minds to it.

This is mostly Damon’s one-man show. His very particular brand of all-American beefcake spliced with goodhumoured brainpower wears well – so well that we rarely question why Watney devotes quite so much time to spelling out what he’s doing for a video log that no one can watch. Problems crop up; he solves them; and it’s gripping to watch, knowing that in an utterly hostile environment, the slightest error will end his life. Watney’s a man who knows that (to quote Alien’s famous tag line) in space no one can hear you scream – so you may as well just get on with it yourself, because no one else will. To spice up the drama, there are jokes about the bad disco he’s been left to listen to, and occasional momentary interludes when Watney gazes into the distance as the lonely ruler of a world of rusty rocks (Wadi Rum valley in Jordan stood in as an impressively convincing location).

Back on Earth, those Nasa boffins do eventually make contact with their man, and the film gets bogged down in busy number-crunching as the office bureaucrats devise a plan. Watney’s only hope proves to be the spaceship crew that abandoned him, under the brave captaincy of Jessica Chastain, who exhibits an abundance both of steely resolution and the kind of beauty that belongs in a Titian painting. The recent discovery of water on Mars means the geeks may have a field day picking holes in the plot, but that very breakthrough only amplifies The Martian’s sustained pledge of faith in technology, intellect and the will to survive.

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