On a mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is caught in a terrible storm and presumed dead. Team leader Samantha Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the crew including Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) are horrified but have no choice but to take off for the journey home. But Watney is very much alive albeit stranded alone on a hostile and desolate planet with a dwindling food supply. Back on Earth NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), spokesperson Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) and mission controller Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) bring together a team of international scientists to try and bring Watney home. At the same time Watney's guilt-ridden crew-mates concoct a daring, near-impossible rescue mission. Meanwhile Watney must use all his scientific know-how, survival skills and resilient spirit to stay alive.
Back in the Fifties legendary producer George Pal cemented the concept of space exploration in the popular imagination with his films Destination Moon (1950) and Conquest of Space (1955). Pal's vision drew upon ideals such as patriotism, the belief that scientific ingenuity could work wonders and unwavering faith in the military-industrial complex that resonated strongly with American film audiences at the time. Yet bereft of moral complexity and human quirks his space epics sat uneasily with successive generations who found them sterile, stifling and stolidly one-dimensional. In time Pal's idealism gave way to Stanley Kubrick's ambiguous mix of cosmic wonder and anti-technological satire in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and eventually the outright cynicism of John Carpenter's Dark Star (1974). Soured by the Vietnam War and Watergate, film-goers turned away from speculative science fiction to more carefree space fantasies. Recently however, for the first time in decades, a new generation of filmmakers, from Alfonso Cuaron with Gravity (2013) to Christopher Nolan with Interstellar (2014), have dared to look once more to the stars with wonder.
Which brings us to The Martian. Adapted from the novel by Andy Weir with consummate skill by Drew Goddard, Ridley Scott's latest science fiction opus continues in the vein of Cuaron and Nolan's films to the extent it shares principal cast members in common with Interstellar. Yet it also updates and consciously improves the formula devised by George Pal, presenting a new, more credible vision of utopian idealism for the twenty-first century. Whereas Pal's films saw Americans unite to put a team of men in space, Scott, Goddard and Weir spin a yarn wherein a man stranded on Mars unites the world by invoking their collective humanity. The Martian presents a heartening and much-needed vision of human beings of all creeds and colours uniting to solve a crisis by means of bravery, decency and ingenuity. As such it achieves something close to wondrous. The film has an appealing 'science is cool' message but Scott sagely tempers the 'gee-whiz' factor with wry humour. Notably Watney's comical frustration at having nothing to listen to but Lewis' playlist of disco music. Which leads to such highlights as a montage set to Abba's 'Waterloo.' Kudos to the soundtrack compilers who avoid the obvious David Bowie song in favor of another classic. This is certainly the warmest and funniest Ridley Scott film in ages (at least since the undervalued and personal A Good Year (2006)) which is but one factor in its immense appeal.
There are no villains in this story. Certainly characters spark conflict with each other, bicker and debate, yet their motivations are decent. No-one harbours a hidden agenda. For some this might seem unrealistic yet it is also refreshing and, in context, credible. Even Jeff Daniels' often blunt and brutal NASA chief has good intentions at heart. Kristen Wiig's P.R. expert tries her utmost to keep this calamity from tarnishing NASA's reputation yet at the same time is genuinely moved and concerned with Watney's plight. Late in the film the Chinese government steps in to lend a hand (with a surprise appearance from Hong Kong action star Eddie Ko!) yet The Martian pulls off this particular twist far more gracefully than Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). Tonally the set-up evokes Apollo 13 (1995) though there are echoes of that other, more contentious Tom Hanks' favourite Cast Away (2000). Giving one of the most affable performances of recent years, Matt Damon portrays a hero arguably more affecting than Hanks' Chuck Noland. Although Mark Watney endures more than his fair share of hardship, suffering and psychological trauma, he reacts to his situation like a scientist. Which is to say he can't help but be fascinated and inspired by his surroundings, reacting with goofy wonderment to each achievement. While Damon is fantastic and compelling The Martian is not entirely a one-man show. In possibly the strongest ensemble cast of 2015, each player makes their mark. Curious casting choices have Anglo-African Chiwetel Ejiofor portraying an Indian and Mackenzie Davis essaying a cute, wide-eyed mission control operative you would swear was written as Korean. Yet both actors shine in their roles as indeed do the rest as compassionate, capable people moved by Watney's plight and determined to bring him safely home. Keep a look out for Community star Donald Glover in a key role as a boy genius. Freed from the stifling jingoism and conformity of Fifties space epics, Ridley Scott presents an appealing new take on utopian idealism in space travel. Watch as a double-bill with Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)!
Talented, prolific British director whose background in set design and advertising always brings a stylised, visually stunning sheen to often mainstream projects. Scott made his debut in 1977 with the unusual The Duellists, but it was with his next two films - now-classic sci-fi thrillers Alien and Blade Runner - that he really made his mark. Slick fantasy Legend and excellent thriller Someone to Watch Over Me followed, while Thelma and Louise proved one of the most talked-about films of 1991. However, his subsequent movies - the mega-budget flop 1492, GI Jane and the hopeless White Squall failed to satisfy critics or find audiences.
Scott bounced back to the A-list in 2000 with the Oscar-winning epic Gladiator, and since then has had big hits with uneven Hannibal, savage war drama Black Hawk Down and his Robin Hood update. Prometheus, tentatively sold as a spin-off from Alien, created a huge buzz in 2012, then a lot of indignation. His Cormac McCarthy-penned thriller The Counselor didn't even get the buzz, flopping badly then turning cult movie. Exodus: Gods and Kings was a controversial Biblical epic, but a success at the box office, as was sci-fi survival tale The Martian. Alien Covenant was the second in his sci-fi prequel trilogy, but did not go down well with fans, while All the Money in the World was best known for the behind the scenes troubles it overcame. Brother to the more commercial, less cerebral Tony Scott.