The Martian

Monday 5th October 2015

The Martian

a film by Ridley Scott

screenplay by Drew Goddard
staring Matt Damon

I read the book The Martian by Andy Weir, in April 2015, when I gave away 25 free copies of it for World Book Night. It was a good read and thumping story. Tonight’s film (at Leicester’s Cinema de Lux) followed the story presented in the book but it was the cinematography which really stole the show. Watching it in 3D was an amazing experience and for me represented a milestone in my cinema experience.  I cannot remember seeing anything quite so remarkable at the cinema since I went to the first showing of a film in Cinerama.

Mark Watney stranded on Mars

If you haven’t come across The Martian yet, the story is straightforward: an astronaut called Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets left behind on the planet Mars following an emergency take-off during a violent storm. The bulk of the story is about Botanist Mark’s struggle to stay alive on the red planet until he is finally rescued and brought back to Earth. It sounds like a simple plot and in many ways it is. But what makes this film so outstanding, as a piece of cinema, it how it was made.

What you notice about the camera work is the innovation in perspective. Various shots show the focus in a scale which had never been done before. One of the early sequences shows the vehicle in which Watney is traveling as being very small relative to its surroundings. Later in the film, there is a shot of Watney, in his space suit, sitting on the top of a rocky promontory: the long shot shots makes him appear very small but as the camera circles round to the front of him, he grows larger until we see him life-size so to speak. The photography was breathtaking and 3D brought out the impact of many scenes in a way that only it could achieve. If you think that 3D is just a gimmick, see this film – it will change your point of view.  Gone are the old cardboard glass with their red and green lenses. Today’s 3D glasses a step forward in the technology. I wore mine over my normal spectacles and that worked well. You have to wear them to watch the film because the 3D images would looked blurred (a kind of double vision) without them. These new glasses work on polarised light, rather than on the more traditional method of having two separate colours. If you miss The Martin you can always go to see the 3D version of Moby Dick when it comes out. The camera work also made a lot of use of GoPro cameras mounted on the astronaut’s spacesuit as well as being used for several other scenes ably bringing out the realism of what we saw; a bit like seeing footage from security cameras. It was all very credible and was a step forward in the construction and realisation of space travel.

The film stays true to the science and the engineering and largely avoids the pitfalls of licence for dramatic effect. Knowing book can help you keep up with the fast-moving storyline but it is not a prerequisite.  The plot is easy enough to follow and the pace is nail-biting and one that keeps you on the edge of the seat throughout.

I loved seeing Matt Damon in the leading role. His work has always impressed me through a succession of many of my best-loved films: Good Will Hunting (with Robin William, his performance won him an Oscar), The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Bourne Identity and more. A strong supporting cast saw Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis (one of his mission crew members) Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, Jeff Daniels as Teddy Sanders and Michael Peñaas Rick Martinez among others.

The Martian is a film that has no shortage of human interest; if it has a moral or ethical slant then it is that human life – even the life of a single man – is worth saving. Millions of dollars are marshaled to save the stranded astronaut not to mention international collaboration; crowds gathered in New York, London, Tokyo and other cities to watch the live coverage of his rescue. This might seem far-fetched but you know what the media is like and the film presents several press conferences where NASA is forced to explain what is going on.

Ridley Scott is an acclaimed director who scored a hit with Gravity, the sci-fi drama that won seven Oscars, and had already made his name with Alien and Blade Runner. His Prometheus also earned considerable acclaim for the space genre.

Mark Watney stranded on Mars
Mark Watney stranded on Mars

Was the film like the book?  Yes.  It followed the story line and plot of the Andy Weir novel.  Whilst I enjoyed the story, I found the book often got bogged down in too many technical details, as Watney explains the science behind his plans to stay alive; this for me made it hard going, even though I would salute the scientific details that were presented. The details got in the way of the story. As one review put it ‘it was written for nerds – by a nerd.’ [Slashdot] The film-makers had done their homework well:  if you have seen the pictures of the Martian surface from NASA’s Curiosity Rovers, you will see how faithfully the surface has been represented in the film. The shots of Mars were very convincing. The recent news that water has been found on the red planet has fueled speculation that a manned mission might be possible, making it probable that humans living on Mars will one day move from science fiction to fact.

“smart, thrilling and surprisingly funny” – Rotten Tomatoes

See also

Our review of the film The Black Swan (2011)

Character profiling for film scripts (2017)