Ridley Scott's work has always been spotty at best. Matchstick Men, back in 2003, was a mixed bag of tricks. American Gangster was a huge departure into more realistic, less constructed output for Scott whilst The Counsellor was, well, nobody knows what happened there. The point is that Ridley Scott's a man in need of a commercial and critical hit. When it was announced that he was taking on Andy Weir's acclaimed bestseller, The Martian, eyes rolled everywhere. But, of course, we all forget that Scott is the man who made Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down - all fantastically well-made films, deserving of their accolades.
The film wastes no time in preamble and blasts right into the story. Matt Damon is Mark Watney, a botanist / astronaut who's a member of a manned mission to Mars. Together with mission commander Jessica Chastain, computer analyst Kate Mara, pilot Michael Pena, chemist Aksel Hennie and square-jawed guy Sebastian Stan, they must all escape the planet when a massive storm threatens to destroy their craft and the habitat in which they're living. However, in the maelstrom, Damon is separated from the crew and presumed dead. Not so, as you'd imagine. Damon's character, who's almost has a happy-go-lucky, competent outlook on his situation, resolves to find a way to make contact with NASA and create enough food for himself to survive. Through various montages and direct-to-camera logs, Damon's character explains how he's making the food, how he's creating water and what he thinks of mission commander Jessica Chastain's choice in music. Back on Earth, NASA - led by Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor - are sweating out decisions and working up solutions for the stranded astronaut.
Damon's natural charisma shines forth onto the screen. It could have been very easy for the film to go in a completely different direction with this kind of story - a stranded astronaut on a dead planet, waiting to suffocate or starve or even go insane. Instead, he simply gets on with the work at hand. When he's presented with a problem, he resolves to 'science the s**t out of it' and get it done. In a sense, there's very little time for him to sit and focus on the realities of his situation. That works both to drive the story forward and to keep you engaged and entertained. We don't see any long-winded, morose monologues about the futility of life; we see a man who doesn't appreciate disco music trying to fix an antenna so he can make contact with Earth.
The supporting cast all fill out their roles very, very well. Jeff Daniels is the brusque, determined Director of NASA who has to grapple with the tough decisions and shepherd everyone to their appointed task. Sean Bean, as the Flight Director, works as the foil to Daniels' suited, almost bureaucratic visage. Meanwhile, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor act as the brains who are fervently working on a way to shorten Damon's time on Mars and get the supplies to him. Everyone's working toward a goal, a mission objective and to see them work so competently and diligently really does give a sense of excitement and optimism to the proceedings. Screenwriter Drew Goddard's ear for dialogue is what keeps the audience engaged and entertained. Although the film is a space adventure, it only peppers the technobabble here and there; just enough so you can get the basic gist of what's happening or what they're planning.
As we know from his previous output, Ridley Scott often gives over far too much to the visuals of his story. More often than not, they engulf everything about the film and make it so that you're staring for two hours at a beautifully orchestra painting rather than a film with an emotional narrative here. Here, we still have the sumptuous, eye-watering vistas of Mars, the texture of a real world that holds no life and gorgeous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, but it's not what's driving the story. Scott is big enough to let the human aspect of the story come to the fore. The adversity and sheer scale of the situation is made evident, but it doesn't fall into the trap of becoming maudlin or depressed by it. Ingenuity, intelligence, common sense and a rollicking disco soundtrack lead us to a crowdpleasing and hard-won finale.