The Martian | Film review – Mark Damon’s plucky astronaut proves there’s life on Mars

If the title ” target=”_blank”>Robinson Crusoe on Mars hadn’t already been snagged by Byron Haskin’s 1964 sci-fi film, it would be a perfect fit for Ridley Scott’s space epic The Martian, which maroons Matt Damon’s astronaut on the red planet and then shows him using Crusoe-like ingenuity in a bid to survive.

A NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, Damon’s Mark Watney, is left behind after his five Ares III colleagues – including Jessica Chastain’s commander and Michael Peña’s pilot – presume he has been killed during the rogue sandstorm that has forced them to blast off from the planet prematurely.

Struck in the storm by a unmoored antenna, Mark isn’t dead, but his prospects are so bleak he might as well be.

He is 50 million miles from home; the crew’s food supplies were only designed to last 30 or so days; and the next NASA mission isn’t due for another four years. But Mark, brimming with the right stuff, isn’t one to give up and sets about tackling the logistical challenges that stand in the way of his survival with can-do zeal.

‘I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,’ he declares in his video diary, and almost literally does that by growing potatoes in soil fertilised by his own excrement.

Watching Mark take apart and solve such science problems proves terrifically enthralling. And it’s refreshing to encounter an action movie that so emphatically celebrates brain over brawn – a key feature, too, of the novel by Andy Weir on which the film is based.

Nerdy brilliance is also on display among the NASA engineers and bosses grappling with daunting challenges back on Earth (including characters played by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Benedict Wong), while Mark’s erstwhile Ares III colleagues contend, in a more conventionally heroic fashion, with moral and physical tests and trials of their own.

Scott orchestrates all of this with deft assurance, skilfully balancing awesome spectacle with intimate human drama. That said, his film doesn’t probe very deeply into the psychological aspects of Mark’s plight, but Damon’s charisma and self-deprecating humour partly disguises this flaw and ensures we keep rooting for his character to the end.

Certificate 12A. Runtime 141 mins. Director Ridley Scott.

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