Tales of survival are something that have always appealed to me, perhaps from the time I read Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, Robinson Crusoe way back in school. I’m sure I have the company of several like-minded people, no wonder that time and again we have had films based on survival being made, quite a few of them succeeding as well. Be it Cast Away, Life of Pi, Gravity, 127 Hours and many other such films, I always wonder what is it about these films that appeals to us so much. Is it the element of thrill, is it because of one or more person’s fight against odds for basic survival or is it an underlying fear of what if something like this was to happen to us? Most likely it’s a combination of all these and hence books and movies on survival will continue getting made, the better ones getting appreciated as well. One of the more anticipated Hollywood biggies of this year, Ridley Scott’s The Martian is one such film and it finally opened in theatres Worldwide a few days ago.
Based on the popular book of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian is the 3rd space based movie made by Ridley Scott over the years, with the other two being Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012). It is also coming at a time when people are still remembering the kind of flak that he received for his recent films like The Counselor (2013) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Hence it was but natural for people to wonder if Ridley has redeemed himself to an extent at least with The Martian and whether the film goes on to be looked at as one of his better ones. While Alien is a classic, in case of Prometheus the opinions are a little mixed but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hence I was all the more looking forward to The Martian, hoping that the film would turn out to be an interesting sci fi tale of survival, in the process perhaps bringing back the Ridley Scott whose work we have all admired over the years.
The Ares III manned mission to Mars is suddenly hit by a dust storm and in the melee astronaut Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris, gets lost and is presumed dead. The mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) doesn’t want to risk the lives of the rest of her team members and hence she gets them to evacuate the planet. But Mark survives and finds himself stranded alone on the planet, with communication systems broken and with meager supplies left around. He knows that the best chance for his return to Earth would be 3 years later from the landing site of Ares IV, for which he needs to survive that long. Being a botanist and with a keen survival instinct, he goes about trying to survive and prepare himself for the long haul ahead. The Martian is a tale that talks of how Mark Whatney manages to stay alone on Mars, what happens to him from thereon and so forth.
The Martian perhaps is one of the more audience friendly sci-fi space films in recent times, the scientific talk is kept to the minimum and whatever exists is conveyed in simplistic fashion, something that will be easy for people to connect to at large. At the core it is all about Mark Whatney’s journey of preserving himself for the long and arduous task of staying alive till the remote chance of a rescue is possible. It’s interesting to see the way humour is been woven into the tale as Mark jokes about being the best botanist in the planet, posing for photographs, his disdain for disco music etc. He also keeps video blogging, not so much as a method of recording his ordeal and the process of survival but more as a means of getting rid of boredom and staying focused on his task. The timing of the release of the film certainly looks a little too good to be true, what with the recent discovery of water on Mars. The film is also quite NASA friendly in a way and hence this makes one raise eyebrows but all said and done it is definitely not a propaganda film.
While the focus of the film is definitely on Mark Whatney, we also get to see what the rest of his team is up to and how people at NASA react to the situation. After a while we actually end up enjoying Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor)’s anticipation of Mark’s moves, breaking the seriousness a bit at times. The scene where he tries to interpret Mark’s message “are you f—–g kidding me” along with satellite planner Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) is quite neat indeed.For a film that more or less gets its act quite right it’s a little surprising to see that the use of 3D doesn’t really serve any purpose here. As with most other films converted from 2D to 3D here too you feel no depth in the 3D, so much so that the portions in space which ideally would have looked great on 3D actually appear plain of sorts. Except perhaps for the blooper in the form of the dust storm at the start (which actually isn’t possible given that the atmospheric pressure of Mars is 1/100th that of Earth’s), rest of the happenings are all shown with some semblance of logic that writers Drew Goddard (screenplay) and Andy Weir have taken care of.
The film has a stellar star cast though some of them hardly get to do much despite some decent screen time. This includes Sean Bean who plays Mitch Henderson, the NASA Mission Director, Michael Pena who plays Rick Martinez, part of the Ares III Mission and Kristen Wiig who portrays Annie Montrose, the NASA spokesperson. Jeff Daniels as Teddy Sanders, the Head of NASA and Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis are dependable as always. It’s a little surprising to see Chiwetel Ejiofor as the half Hindu, half Baptist Vincent Kapoor (lending credence to the fact that the role was quite earmarked for Irrfan Khan) but then he carries off the character very well, virtually lending a balance of sorts to Matt Damon’s portrayal of Mark Whatney at the other end. Coming to Matt Damon well he seems to have had a blast playing Mark Whatney with conviction. Though his role might remind you a little of what he played in Interstellar, but a few minutes into the film and you soon understand that both the films and the characters he portrayed in them are quite different. The genuine moments of anguish are well handled by Matt and as mentioned earlier he pulls of the humour at the right places quite effectively.
The Martian is definitely not the best of Ridley Scott or the greatest sci-fi film but it’s quite an engaging film and makes you feel that he still has it in him to present us with a well mounted tale. And for all those who love tales of survival (me included) the film is also a simple old fashioned reminder of the days of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, albeit in today’s context.