Castaway in Space: A Review of Ridley Scott's 'The Martian'

By | 08:00 2 comments

You know the problem with only updating every Sunday? Sometimes you're a bit late to the party for some seriously cool scientific news. 

Everyone with a curious bone in their body and an eye for space has been excited for the ground breaking news announced by NASA this week: that they may finally have evidence that liquid water flows on Mars...TODAY.
Not millions of years ago. Not even thousands of years ago. But now. It's briny stuff, but it's there. (Probably.)
Seriously, go read. I'll wait.
Done? Well I hope you've prepared yourself for a virtual hi-five, because we're both in a pretty cool time to be alive, eh?

One person who was definitely punching the air in joy this week was Ridley Scott's PR guy, because NASA's announcement couldn't have been better timed for the release date of his most recent film, The Martian.

The Martian is the story of a team of astronauts who are midway through their mission to Mars when, during a horrific storm on the Red Plant, they are forced to abandon the mission. During the chaotic flee back to the rocket their resident botanist, Mark Watney, is struck by debris and presumed dead. The crew make the difficult call to blast off for home, leaving Watney - who survived - behind to wake up alone.
The film is propelled forwards by Watney's isolated attempts to survive, as any return mission is likely to take years to arrive, assuming that NASA even find out that he's alive. Meanwhile NASA, who soon realise their horrific mistake, are left to measure out the worth of one person's life against their own reputations in a PR nightmare, tremendous expense and the risk to the lives of others that any rescue mission would mean. All of this is set to the ticking clock of starvation on the barren, vast world that Watney now inhabits.

Now there's no getting away from it, ladies and gentlemen, The Martian is basically Castaway in space and Matt Damon is Tom Hanks without the volleyball.

But just because we've seen this premise before (heck, we've even seen a similar premise before in space with Gravity), it doesn't mean that The Martian doesn't have something great to offer.

The first thing to mention about The Martian is that it looks gorgeous. I was lucky enough to see it in 3D on Wednesday and it is one of the few movies which feel like it was designed for 3D, as opposed to being scrapbooked together post-production and ending up looking like one of those victorian paper theatres. The opening shots of Mars' mountains are beautifully knitted together to give you a feeling of distance and depth which really helps the audience experience the wonder and threat of such an alien space. The 3D again takes a starring role in the smaller sets of the life-pods and space ships, allowing the layers to create a certain intimacy and realism. When you settle in you don't really notice the 3D any more, but you feel it. It lends a subtle authenticity that really works in this sort of movie. While this is - of course - a science fiction, the way the imagery is handled as well as realistic characters, skilled costuming and set design joined with a tight attention to scientific detail, means that you really can believe that this scenario is possible in our near future.

In tone, The Martian is an uplifting experience (especially for anyone with a curious mind) and is summed up best in Watney's declaration on survival that he is going to "Science the shit out of this!".  Overall it's an incredibly optimistic film, even in it's darkest moments. It would be too easy for Watney to want to roll over and die under the pressure of such odds - and our very first scene of his isolation where he attempts to tend to his injuries certainly make that clear - but in the end he finds the determination to live and the humor to keep his sanity. The film is a funny one that holds a humor made possible by the great acting all round, especially by Matt Damon, but the most uplifting part is his reliance on his own skills as a botanist and scientist to give him the ingenuity to survive and - briefly - to even thrive. Science hums throughout the whole film and is fascinating to learn about and, when we have our scenes on Earth this is brought fully to the forefront. 

In his review of The Martian Chris Stuckmann mentions that the chunks of time spent on Earth with NASA are perhaps the weakest points of the film, but I have to disagree. While I was always very eager to get back on Mars and check how Watney was doing, I thought that NASA's involvement brought a lot of reality and tension to the film that would have been lacking otherwise. One of the biggest themes for me in the film was the juxtapositions of isolation and community and how they interacted together, and NASA was one hell of a community, each with it's individual squabbles and pressures. The mix of the science, economy and politics of NASA were interesting to watch and the film would have been much less without this. By having this cast of characters at NASA arguing and pulling long nights, the stakes were raised that much higher. When they celebrated success it pushed a surge of well-wishing for Watney and anxiety in the hope that that effort wouldn't be wasted by circumstance on Mars. When NASA mourned failure it felt like a punch to the gut. Watching characters come together, and the sub plot of Watney's old crew and their involvement with his fate, added extra layers that knitted the story together very well.

So, how does The Martian stand up to its rivals Castway and Gravity?

I love both these films and I'm a fan of the lead actors in each, so it's difficult to compare them. I think, in terms of science, The Martian definitely takes the crown from Gravity. While Gravity is visually stunning, in The Martian you get far more a sense of what is at stake in space travel as well as what is involved. The science hums in the background as something quite complex but also fundamentally understandable and it is handled with such ambition and humor that it's a joy to watch. When it comes to acting and character development, I don't think you'll ever easily top Tom Hank's fantastic and emotive performance in Castaway, but Matt Damon does a very respectable job and his character - with his humor and intelligence - is certainly fun to watch and easy to root for. Plus The Martian creates far more of a community of characters on film (both on Earth and in Space), whereas Castaway is a very isolated experience.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Martian and it works brilliantly as a film that focuses on science-fact without being unapproachable. If you're a fan of space travel then you definately need to check this out.

More Posts on Space:

-What happens to the human body when exposed to space?
-The 10 most fascinating things ever found in space
-The race to Europa
-[Guest Post] Project Orion and the atomic age
-Will we ever see a supernova up close?
-The wonders of snottites and the search for alien life

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  1. Matt Damon.

    I think Blogspot is throwing a tizzy at the moment, though. Nothing's showing up on your Twitter feed. Maybe beat the back end with a spanner until it works? :p

    Neat review though, and I have to agree the news is eerily well-timed. XD Never quite twigged the Castaway comparison. It's quite heartening to see "hard" sci-fi shine at the box office, if only to show the breadth of the overall genre and to show it's not all lightsabers and mountains of action figures and labyrinthine expanded universes only of interest to nerds (full disclosure, am a nerd with too much brainspace dedicated to expanded universes). That it also doesn't seem to shy away from the human element (a criticism of some literary hard sci-fi) and if anything seems to make use of it to achieve a solid end can only be a good thing. Between this and Interstellar and Gravity we seem to be undergoing something of a wee renaissance for classier sci-fi.

    Solid review. Wish I could see it at the cinema. D:

    1. Ah it wont do, I have to post everything on twitter manually so when I schedule it ahead of time they get out of sync. I'm a bit annoyed that the automatic blogger image is showing the video rather than the movie poster too, i'll have to hop in and delete it and swap it out with a link and hopefully it'll fix it. Between that and last week's post being stretched, i really dont know what to do when the theme wigs out like that, unfortunately. Hm.

      Bit yeah its great to see some harder sci fi in the box office. I love sci fi films but find sci fi books (esp hard si fi) difficult to read.