The Martian

Year: 2015
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Drew Goddard/Andy Weir
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong

The most surprising thing about The Martian is how much fun it is. That sounds like a strange thing to say about a Hollywood film (the purpose of which is usually to entertain us), but the story of an astronaut stranded on another planet could be anything on a spectrum from sad and desperate drama to outright horror.

Instead there are laughs, upbeat moments and more of an exuberant tone than a story about being stranded 140 million miles from Earth probably has any right to have, director Ridley Scott managing the tone perfectly.

With his crewmates, biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is completing a mission searching for mineral deposits on Mars when a dust storm approaches. As they make their way back to their launch vehicle to hunker down (and prepare to leave altogether if the weather gets too unstable), billowing red clouds of dust spill over the nearby mountains balefully.

The storm hits like a hurricane and the crew are left to make their way through the gloom, the howling gale and the sand filling the air. Watney is hit by flying debris and sent spinning away into the dark and the wind is getting so strong it's threatening to tip the rocket over, so mission commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) has to make the agonising decision to abandon Watney – who they'll likely never find in the maelstrom – rather than risk losing the rocket and stranding everybody.

Watney wakes up the next day injured but intact, realising he's not only been left there but he has no way to contact Earth to tell them he's alive. Worse still, even if he could, he doesn't have enough food or water to sustain him until anyone could make it back.

So begins his new mission, articulated brilliantly in the line from the trailer – 'I'm going to have to science the shit out of this planet'. While Watney jerry-rigs systems all over the place to grow food, produce water and contact NASA, the powers that be on Earth struggle to make it back to him, trying to compress the crippling mission and equipment development times as much as they can.

The story eventually shifts to Watney's crewmates, returning home to Earth in their ship The Hermes, when the engineers and mathematicians on Earth realise there's a way to retrieve Watney using a probe that's been offered for use by the Chinese government and the Hermes working in concert.

The effort back on Earth to reach Watney is affected by politics, but not enough to give The Martian any kind of political theme. Mostly it's about the twin stories of smart people from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working together to make something happen while Watney deals with the hope, frustration and moments of anguish on Mars.

The Martian is a celebration of the kind of science and ingenuity that gets the human race to other planets in the first place. Just like the title cards in the beginning of Gravity said ('life in space is impossible'), there's no way for Watney to survive for so long on his own with the resources he has, so he has to invent one.

And it's all delivered with a nicely buoyant tone and a bombastic selection of music that makes it a fun ride when it could have been sombre or terrifying.

A great cast delivers a smart and funny script by Drew Goddard (based on the best-seller by Andy Weir), and it's gratifying to see more and more science geeks on screens, solving the world's problems with engineering and teamwork instead of destructive, self-aggrandising heroics.

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