Is there life on Matt’s Mars?
In space everyone can hear you scream and whenever Ridley Scott is nestled in the director’s chair, you can be certain his actors will be issuing bloodcurdling shrieks.
In 1979, he unleashed a merciless killing machine on the crew of the Nostromo, giving birth to the Alien franchise.
Three years on the future was bleak for Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner and, more recently, scientists aboard the ill-fated spaceship Prometheus came face-to-face with an extra-terrestrial force of unimaginable power.
The life expectancy of characters in Scott’s testosterone-fuelled films can often be measured in hours rather than days or years.
So it comes as no surprise that in the opening 15 minutes of The Martian, adapted from the bestselling novel by Andy Weir, the director apparently kills off his leading man during a ferocious sand storm on the red planet. But the hero survives and draws upon his scientific knowledge to manufacture water and oxygen to sustain his solitary existence until a rescue mission can be mustered.
The film opens with the six-strong crew of the Ares 3, led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), gathering samples. Sensors pick up an approaching storm and Lewis gives the order to evacuate.
During the trek back to the ship, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by flying debris.
“I know you don’t want to hear this. Mark’s dead,” crew member Beck (Sebastian Stan) informs Lewis, who reluctantly blasts off with the rest of her team: Johanssen (Kate Mara), Martinez (Michael Pena) and Vogel (Aksel Hennie).
They begin the long journey back to mission control, crestfallen by their loss.
Little do they realise that, back on Mars, Watney is alive.
“I gotta figure out how to grow three years’ worth of food on a planet where nothing grows,” Mark mumbles, recording a video diary of his exploits.
Back on Earth, NASA Administrator Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Director of Mars missions Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Ares 3 flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) cut corners to let Mark know the cavalry is coming.
The Martian bears obvious similarities to Oscar-winning thriller Gravity in set-up and execution, and Scott employs the 3D format to dazzling effect in turbo-charged action sequences.
However, this is primarily a meditation on the endurance of the human spirit and in these quieter moments, Drew Goddard’s lean script and lead actor Damon hold us spellbound.
“I’m not going to die here,” Mark tells himself as he faces each obstacle with gritty determination, raising his spirits (and ours) with flashes of humour including a running joke about Commander Lewis’ disco-heavy music collection.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski envisages Mars as a vast, barren landscape of shifting red sand.
As Mark’s oxygen supply depletes, we hold our breath with the lead character, hoping for a miracle 140m miles from home.