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The Martian
Genre Sci-Fi

The Martian is a Ridley Scott film. While the director is best known for Alien, and less so for Prometheus, he's gone for a much more scientific space film, undertaking the adaptation of Andy Weir's novel. It's been accurately described as "Apollo 13 meets Cast Away" as the realism of the NASA lunar misadventure is coupled with the spirit and tenacity of the stranded survivor drama.

We're thrown in the deep end as a mission to Mars is aborted and botanist, Mark Watney, is left for dead. As the resourceful astronaut makes a surprising recovery, he soon realises the extent of his predicament, counting the days and trying to send a distress signal to his distant compatriots.

Matt Damon has been entrusted to carry the weight of what would've been a Tom Hanks performance 20 years ago. You get the impression the first choice may have been Mark Wahlberg, given the cheeky nature of the character. Damon is more than up to the challenge and delivers an emphatic, human and well-balanced performance that ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to deeply affecting. His casting echoes his pivotal role in Saving Private Ryan.

Damon headlines a sharp ensemble including: Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor. While the supporting cast share the other half of the screen time, they ground the film with the weight of personal guilt or scope of concern surrounding the recovery of Watney. Chastain is pensive and altruistic as Lewis, Daniels is grand as political bigwig Sanders, Wiig is amusing as Montrose the "campaign manager" and Ejiofor provides level-headed diplomacy in all the panic as Kapoor.

This isn't an existential drama, but more of an entertaining science class and scouting expedition on defying the odds with available resources.  At it's core, it's "Magyver in Space", as we find a likable guy performing everyday magic, using practical know-how and his intellect to execute the unthinkable. Instead of wallowing in a hopeless situation, Watney faces the Red Planet head-on, armed with his wits and mental resilience.

Scott swathes us in a film that effortlessly moves from the dusty wastelands of Mars into space and back to Earth without flinching. The visuals are seamless, transporting us to a very real survival scenario and then zooming out to a more political drama playing out back home. The deep space scenes may not be quite as revolutionary as Gravity, but we're captivated, whether Watney is moving slowly on Mars or the space crew are gliding from compartment-to-compartment.

The Martian has many contemporaries and parallels. Gravity is the most obvious contrast, as another deep space survival drama plays out with first-rate visuals, compelling drama and cinematic precision. Then, we're reminded of Moon as our hero finds himself operating alone and isolated as the sole inhabitant of a makeshift space colony. The escalation of tension, entertaining tone and stars-and-stripes recall ArmageddonThen, the scientific detail and NASA politics of Europa Report come to mind as the situation becomes more desperate, while the time frame and casting echo Interstellar.

The Martian is a finely-crafted film that blends elements from science-fiction across the ages. The Magyver tricks and dexterous genre-mix make it stand out from the crowd as we're fascinated by the science of our hero's enterprise, empathetic towards his stay positive frame-of-mind and amused by his flippant do-or-die attitude.

At 140 minutes, The Martian is a lengthy but rewarding investment, yet the central criticism stems from the original story itself. We're acquainted with the American bravado surrounding the sentiment of "leave no man behind" from many Vietnam war movies, but the realism is underwritten by an invisible budget. Would a federal agency (or crew) spend or risk billions of dollars on an iffy mission to rescue one man in space, when it would better serve millions back home? Thankfully, the film's enjoyment is not dependent on this fundamental issue, but the irony is thought-provoking as a haunting residue.

The bottom line: Entertaining

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