It’s difficult being on your own. One of the details left out of Drew Goddard’s very faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s science fiction book The Martian is that lead character, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), has no family beyond his parents. He hasn’t had sex in a long time. Apparently botanists, even botanists who look like Matt Damon, have it tough. But Watney of both book and film is far from a drag; he doesn’t let that situation faze him. He’s a problem solver, an optimist, and a little bit in love with the sound of his own voice; he’s also got a great sense of humour. It helps him to deal with his loneliness. After the brilliant opening five minutes, that loneliness of his will become a whole lot more severe. By a few million miles.Joining the pantheon of great space-based films like Apollo 13, Gravity, and Interstellar, The Martian follows Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut who is left behind on Mars by his team, presumed dead. Except he isn’t dead. And he’s determined to survive. However back on Earth, when word finally reaches NASA mission control that Watney’s alive, an all-star team (featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Sean Bean, and so many more) help lead the efforts to help Watney survive, while keeping the news hidden from the returning Mars team, led by grieving Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain).Goddard is more than capable of turning Weir’s relatively short but incident packed book into a propulsive and compelling film. His very funny script moves along at a perfectly set pace, calmly moving from one problem to the next, whilst switching between the teams of NASA, Mars, and the Hermes craft in between seamlessly. The game team of actors help bring the characters and the drama to thrilling life. Nearly every one of them gets a chance to be funny and fun, yet they aren’t all copies of Watney. Ejiofor’s Vincent Kapoor is instantly likeable and he communicates a great deal of stress and worry going on beneath a fine veneer of professionalism.
Donald Glover almost steals the whole show when he turns up as Rich Purnell, the slightly off-kilter and uniquely driven Astrodynamics technician who comes up with a plan to save Watney. He certainly gets the best comedic moments of the script. And Jessica Chastain continues to be phenomenal, as Commander Lewis, who feels responsible for Watney being stranded. She’s also got a huge love for classic disco tracks, and one or two small moments allow Chastain the ability to play to a different, non-distraught side of the character, something she rarely got to do in Interstellar. There aren’t enough words or time to talk about every one of the notable actors in The Martian but there isn’t a bad or off performance in the whole film.That disco music she loves is one half of a beautiful and ridiculous soundtrack (the other half being the score). One truly brilliant use of ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ will convince the naysayers, one of whom would have been the protagonist. Because Watney’s stuck with all that was left behind, the only music he’s got is what the crew brought. Months of nothing but disco must have driven him insane, but Damon plays his frustration as playful, and he gets into the swing of the music on several occasions. Rarely does Watney break visibly, and when it happens it happens quickly and with bags of raw emotion. Then he gets straight back to work. More often than not however, it’s his humour and his persistence that are on display, without any bitterness or negativity surrounding it. The vast majority of Damon’s performance is the greatest one-man show in film that has been seen in years, and one with plenty to say.The Martian is full of proper science, but never lectures; it’s hopeful but never naïve. It’s a handbook for problem solvers and dreamers, and one which shows what humanity can do when we let go of our differences in favour of a common, scientific goal. It’s truly beautiful by the end, having maintained this mindset throughout without fail. Ridley Scott directs, but it feels like it owes at least 60% of its brilliance to the script and to the cast. Scott hasn’t made a film this great in decades though; of course it’s up to his exceptional visual and technical standard. But by working with so many great people, in service of the same vision, he’s been a part of something transcendent. With the recent, amazing news of water actually on the surface of Mars coming with this film, maybe this week a new generation can be inspired to solve problems like never before. The Martian is out in UK cinemas now.