Settling in for The Martian, you could be forgiven for feeling a little deja vu. Interstellar might be flooding your memory, given that Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon grapple with space again. Alien and Prometheus could also pop into your head, seeing that director Ridley Scott seemingly heads into familiar territory too.
Thankfully, their resumes aside, the rehash largely stops there. That’s not to say that The Martian doesn’t recall many other intergalactic efforts such as Gravity, Moon, Sunshine, Contact and Apollo 13, nor that it doesn’t work with themes and narrative components recognisable to anyone who has seen a survivalist film like Castaway or All Is Lost. What this adaptation of Andy Weir's 2011 novel of the same name does do, though, is soar forward with two things in mind: optimism and practicality.
Botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is the key. He's residing among a group of astronauts manning the latest mission on Mars — until a storm strikes, he gets knocked out and blown away from his colleagues, and they head back home. When he wakes up to discover he's now the only human left on the planet, he focuses on attempting to remedy his predicament. Finding a way to grow food in the inhospitable environment is his first priority, followed by trying to communicate to NASA that he's alive and ready to return to Earth.
Solving problems rather than wallowing in sentiment is the approach Watney takes, as does Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods). As the repercussions of the Watney's situation ripple through those trying to rescue him — be they space agency head (Jeff Daniels), other members of the ground-based team (including Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover), or Watney's departed crewmates (Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie) — action rather than emotion sits at the film's fore.
Accordingly, The Martian favours procedure and process over psychology. It traces the steps needed to bring the stranded man home. It springs from a position of simply believing that resolution is possible. It presents characters using science (or sciencing the shit out of things, as the MacGyver-like Watney puts it in the video logs that comprise much of the storytelling) to make things happen. People, teamwork and ingenuity reign supreme, even over the capably rendered 3D spectacle.
Anyone fearing a lack of wonder or feeling in the film can rest assured; they are there, and they spring from the way the cast subtly handle their roles (particularly an empathetic Damon) rather than the script hitting audiences over the head with horror or sappiness. A keen sense of humour is also evident in perhaps the most upbeat survivalist offering for some time, with Lord of the Rings fans likely to have the biggest laugh. There's also the endearing soundtrack, which includes moments of dancing along to disco hits or letting a classic, perfectly chosen David Bowie track (though not the one you think) play out in full.
That it all adds up to one of the most enjoyably pragmatic sci-fi stints seen in the cinema is refreshing and perhaps surprising, even given its pedigree. In fact, The Martian doesn't just solidly engage from start to finish — it entertainingly and convincingly colonises its own patch of space movie territory.