by NEVIL GIBSON
It’s hard to believe premium space adventures just keep getting better — not just in their technical quality, but in their story ideas.
Most blockbusters of the comic book variety, including the Star Wars and Star Trek series, are content to rest on their special effects and fantasy elements.
But Ridley Scott’s The Martian (20th Century Fox) is in a different tradition of realistic astronaut dramas that range from 2001: A Space Odyssey — considered by many still to be the best of all time — and the Russian version of Solaris to Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff to Gravity and last year’s Interstellar.
They continue a trend of setting the bar higher each time.
Prometheus (2012), which was Scott’s first return to science fiction after Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), explored the origins of life on a distant planet.
The Martian sticks largely to what is known about space travel today as well as conditions on Mars (although the recent discovery of salt water may have been timed to push a film that is a long recruiting promotion for Nasa, the American space agency).
In fact, Nasa is the real hero in The Martian, which depicts the plight of an astronaut (Matt Damon), who is left for dead at the Mars land base after an emergency evacuation in a storm by the station crew in their spaceship Hermes.
But this is no Robinson Crusoe or castaway affair, with Damon alone taking up most of the story. Just as much action is back at Nasa’s headquarters and in the Hermes as they try to figure out whether Damon should be rescued and if so who should do it and how (a task that could take several Movie Review years).
Meanwhile, he must survive in an extreme environment of low gravity and no breathable atmosphere.
Ridley is a master of the spectacle and although the story is derivative — Damon is a botanist like the solo character in Silent Running (1971) — it is never lacking in ingenuity, such as the stranded astronaut planting potatoes in soil made with his own waste.
He also spends a lot of time exploring the otherwise uninhabited planet. These scenes are familiar, too, based on pictures sent back by Rover and Pathfinder.
All this has been impressively recreated in the Jordanian desert as well as studios in Budapest, Hungary.
The emphasis at all times is on realism, as Damon is no superhero with unlimited powers. The opposite,in fact; he learns mechanical and other skills by experimentation, including on his own body.
In a world obsessed with social media, he records his efforts, failures and successes in video posts with touches of dry humour.
Scott also succeeds in making the most out of routine as the Hermes crew and its commander (Jessica Chastain) get on with their tasks, as does the team at the Nasa control centre under its leader (Jeff Daniels).
World media coverage is another element that adds to the everyday reality, as all communications with Mars are shown live on television.
A further twist is a diplomatic coup I won’t reveal that puts new meaning into international cooperation.
Rating: Mature audiences (offensive language); 141 minutes.