TIFF 2015: Spectacular but corny space drama with an engaging Matt Damon
Saving Private Ryan meets Gravity via Robinson Crusoe in The Martian, a bullish adaptation of the Andy Weir page-turner. The latest space mission saga from veteran director Ridley Scott may not be a genre landmark like Alien, but what it lacks in subtlety it certainly makes up for in spectacle and heart-in-the-throat tension.
When a NASA mission to Mars is struck by a fierce storm, team leader Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) decides to abort and head for earth. Fallen colleague Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left for dead. Tears are shed, a monument is built in his name and Watney becomes a sad memory. What they don’t know, and the viewer does, is that Watney is alive and well and stranded on the planet.
The Martian is not a film that wallows in existential angst or introspection. It is a gung-ho celebration of all-American ingenuity and the will to survive. Despair is not a word in botanist Watney’s vocabulary as he transforms his ordeal into an extreme exercise in problem-solving. How can he generate water? How will he grow crops? Can he sustain his wisecracking jocularity and the belief he will be rescued?
Scott accentuates the positive throughout, resulting in a slightly corny and simplistic tale. Lewis has left behind her cherished collection of 1970s music, handily providing the way-too-obvious tracks that underpin Watney’s state of mind, including Bowie’s 'Starman' and Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive'. Fortunately, Damon is just the actor to carry a film like this. His Boy Scout manner and understated way of treating triumph and disaster with wry humour make for a very engaging central character, while the final half hour pulls out all the stops to create do-or-die drama on a par with Gravity. The Martian is popcorn entertainment but of the highest calibre.
Screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2015. General release from Fri 10 Oct.