I’m a big fan of Matt Damon’s and I must have proved that when I willingly handed over thirteen of the Queen’s pounds to watch him in The Martian. I say handed over; most of my interactions in this cinema were with computers. After trying and failing to purchase my ticket from the first self-service machine I stumbled upon – this particular one must have been allergic to the colour of my bank card – I found myself questioning every press of the touchscreen, terrified of making a pricey mistake. Rather pathetically, I asked a rare member of staff if ‘AD’ definitely stood for ‘Audio Description’. Ironically, their inaudible response warranted subtitles. I took a deep breath (just like Damon often has to in the film) and surrendered to Cameron’s Britain.
In this particular cinema, I didn’t find it too hard to acclimatise to the space-related nature of the film. For a start, I had to leave the Earth’s atmosphere just to get to this Vue, situated on the top floor of a shopping centre. Then, of course, there were the astronomical prices (£2.99 for water, anyone?). A cosmic tone had well and truly been set. Luckily, all my prior first-world suffering was about to be lulled by a genuinely worthwhile sci-fi blockbuster.
Going into the screen, I had one main concern: the last film I saw Damon in was Interstellar, a self-serious, sentimental space ‘epic’ in which he played an astronaut stranded on a distant planet. The problem with that being, his IMDB now looks ever so slightly repetitive, since in The Martian he plays yet another astronaut stranded on a distant planet. This kind of emphatic diversity would usually be punishable by written lynching. But as it happens, his latest interplanetary outing is a galactic feat of sardonic humour and human ingenuity, one that has reinvigorated a previously mistreated genre. So we can forget about Interstellar now.
The trailers couldn’t end quick enough, having just heard the couple next to me concur that Vin Diesel’s The Last Witch Hunter “looked good” – fucking hell. Thankfully, the film started. And it started well. Damon’s character, Mark Watney, a botanist astronaut, is collecting samples on Mars with his five crewmates when a storm hits, prompting them to abort the mission. He’s struck by debris and flung out of the group’s site. Understandably, they assume he’s dead and leave the planet without him. But he’s not dead. Obviously. You idiot.
Now Mark has to find a way to survive on Mars for three years and keep us entertained for the film’s lengthy 142-minute runtime. That’s not a problem for Damon, who instils the charm and sarcastic persona of Andy Weir’s original version of the character. Yes, I’m aware this is an adaptation of a bestselling novel and I’m in the middle of reading it, so calm down.
It is in fact a strong testament to the adaptation skills of screenplay writer, Drew Goddard, who’s managed to fully capture the feel of the book and implement all the quips that make The Martian one of the most uniquely personal space stories. Mark knows he is likely to die of starvation or a 70s dance floor playlist-induced tumour, but that just fuels his sardonic sense of humour. “Hi, I’m Mark Watney and I’m still alive… obviously” he tells NASA in his first video message.
I suppose director Ridley Scott deserves some credit too for the tidy page-to-screen transition; I’m just struggling to get used to the idea that he’s finally made a great film again, especially after the colossally shit Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Even more impressively, at no point did I stop to think about the runtime. I took my eyes off the screen twice and that was only because the couple next to me – you know, the Vin Diesel people – each made a trip to the toilet. They politely apologised and I politely insisted it was OK, but I obviously wished they were dead. One of them missed a really good bit too where Mark sets up the first-ever potato farm on Mars, using the crew’s shit as fertiliser and says: “I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the greatest botanist on this planet.” Oh Damon.
Being a bit of a space geek, it was also thoroughly pleasing to see that none of Weir’s specialist lexicon was spared. And that delivers a research-robust believability; the kind Interstellar eventually abandons to focus on some bollocks about love. In many ways, it feels like Scott and Goddard are sniggering at the self-awareness of Christopher Nolan’s pompous opera. They’ve made a far more gripping, funny and human film without the use of too many special effects or a religiose organ-heavy backing track.
I’m sure that many will criticise the fact that an all-star cast is underused – Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie as the crew members, with Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the suits at NASA – but then those critics probably like Transformers. What’s important is that after leaving the cinema, I’d almost completely forgotten about the inordinate amount of money I’d just spent, purely because of Damon’s sterling performance. It was fucking expensive, though.