Watch This Spaceman; Film of the Week Ridley Scott Brings Mars to Life Splendidly in This Tale of Interplanetary Survival Starring the Ever-Likeable Matt Damon

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 2, 2015 | Go to article overview

Watch This Spaceman; Film of the Week Ridley Scott Brings Mars to Life Splendidly in This Tale of Interplanetary Survival Starring the Ever-Likeable Matt Damon


Byline: David Sexton Critic of the Year

THE MARTIAN Cert 12A, 141 mins ONE of the disappointing realisations about seeing the main crop of movies contending for awards and big audiences at this year's film festivals was that they have so few new stories to tell. So many of them were, in the end, biopics, one way or another, uninspiring transfers from reality, whether from history or comparatively recent news, whether about newsrooms, gangsters, political dodging, genius dons, tragic singers, cheating cyclists, gay or trans pioneers, or the lady in a van on Alan Bennett's driveway on Gloucester Crescent.

The Martian was a shining exception.

It has an entirely new story to offer, one that originated in a single author's mind. Andy Weir, now 43, who lives in northern California, was the child of particle physicist and electrical engineer parents and started working as a computer programmer when he was just 15. A self-confessed "space nerd", he began writing The Martian, about an astronaut trying to survive after being accidentally stranded on Mars, pretty much for his own interest, posting chapters every few weeks on his own website for free. He thought of it as "a technical book for technical people" but it found plenty of eager readers, some of whom asked him to make it available on Kindle for easier download.

In 2013 he did so, at the minimum price, 99 cents, and it turned into an Amazon bestseller, eventually being picked up for hardback by Random House in 2014 and spotted as a potential film by producer Simon Kinberg, who has made the X-Men series and Elysium. Drew Goddard (Buffy, Lost, Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z) quite faithfully converted the novel into a script and no less a director than Ridley Scott (where to start? Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Prometheus, maybe) took it on.

When Weir, who had not actually met his agent or any of the producers, was told that it was Ridley Scott who was making it into a film he thought he was being hoaxed. But here The Martian is, a great big boy's own story given the best possible Hollywood treatment. And our stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, who, being millions of miles away from anybody else has to hold our attention on his own for a long time, is Matt Damon, not just completely engaging and likeable as always but remarkably funny too. Weir's comment on this casting is pitch perfect: "I based Mark on my own personality, although he's smarter and braver than I am, and doesn't have my flaws. I guess he's what I wish I were like. He's Matt Damon."

It's 15 or so years in the future. The third manned Ares mission to Mars, with its crew of six, has landed and set up living quarters, the "Hab", and started research. Then, in the first moments of the film, there's a catastrophic storm (this part is poetic licence, since the atmospheric pressure on Mars is so low it couldn't happen). Watney, the engineer and botanist of the mission, is hit by flying debris, a broken off antenna piercing his spacesuit like a spear, and is left for dead as the rest of the crew, led by exquisite Jessica Chastain and piloted by ever-personable Michael Pena, make an emergency blast-off and begin their nine-month voyage home. …

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