One of the best things I have ever acquired is my Cineworld Unlimited card. I've always been a huge film fan, but they are just so flipping expensive to go to now, you'd have to remortgage your house to go more than once a year. So for just over £16 a month, I can happily toddle off to see any film as many times as I like. Getting discounted snacks is also a bonus (although my diet might disagree. One benefit I hadn't utilised until this weekend was the Unlimited screenings. Every month, card holders can book to see a film in advance of its release date. Having been either unavailable on those nights, or just not that keen on the film, I hadn't bothered. But on Sunday, The Martian was showing, so I decided to go along.
Based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir, The Martian introduces us to Mark Watney, astronaut and botanist, who has been stranded on Mars after being struck by debris during a storm and presumed dead by his crewmates. Waking up to total isolation and likely starvation (that's if the injury he acquired during said storm doesn't take a turn for the worst), his prospects are looking a little, well, terrifying. At this point I would probably have lied down and awaited my impending doom. But Watney gets to business. He rations his food. He sets about growing potatoes using some less than pleasant methods. He tries to make contact with NASA And he starts a one-man mission of survival. All the time documenting his progress on his shelter's video feed, and denouncing his commanding officers' taste in music.
Matt Damon is the perfect casting for Watney. Resourceful, determined and pretty bloody funny, Damon brings the character a warmth and depth that makes you root for him. Demonstrating a guy who's only coping mechanism is to talk to his 'audience', he spends much of the film addressing us, developing a real connection with the people watching him, making you care. The moment when he welcomes his first budding plant, the symbol of his hopes at surviving, is truly touching, and he doesn't ham it up or play the emotion card. He is simply a man trying to live until someone can save him.
Watney's screen time is interspersed with scenes of his crew, currently on their long journey home and mourning their friend, blaming themselves for his 'demise' and waiting patiently to return home to their loved ones. Jessica Chastain plays mission commander Melissa, shouldering the burden of knowing that she ordered their departure, leaving one of their number behind. She does this brilliantly, again, without overacting the emotion.
Meanwhile we also see NASA HQ, announcing the demise of one of their own, then coming to the slow realisation that they had been premature in their assumptions. They crack on with a rescue plan, desperately trying to establish how to bring a lone astronaut home from 140 million miles away. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig and Jeff Daniels are the big hitters making the life-saving decisions, squabbling amongst each other, but putting on a united front. For various different reasons, they all want to bring their boy home, and it's enough to force them to work together. It would have been nice to have more time with these characters, all fantastic in their own way, but with so much happening, it would be impossible to extend their presence. They provided some of my favourite moments. Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean verbally sparring on whether to inform the crew members of their crewmates' survival, Kristin Wiig as the under pressure PR agent trying to put a positive spin on NASA effectively colonising Mars without meaning to, and Ejiofor's mission director Vincent's email conversations with an increasingly hacked-off Watney using some rather colourful language that the whole world is able to view.
Rather than just trying to mesmerise the audience with crazy science and breathtaking scenery (it still does both), Ridley Scott has given us a film with a lot of heart, and a great hero. I found myself holding my breath at certain parts, holding on to the arms of my seat. You don't just watch Watney trying to survive, you're there with him, willing him on. Every character, whilst being flawed, makes you want them to be successful. You like these people, you see what they're up against, and you're sure as hell thankful you're not the one making their decisions. The scenery is spectacular, the soundtrack is spot on, and the humour/drama balance is just about perfect. It's one to watch.
The Martian comes out in UK cinemas on Wednesday 30th Sept 2015.