The Martian

Matt Damon is very good in The Martian ***. He holds the screen for great gaps of time when he’s alone, stranded on Mars after he’s left there for dead by a departing NASA mission called Ares 3.

Matt utters the already-immortal line “I’m going to science the shit out of this” and he cleverly works out how to survive, putting his handy botanist skills to good use and growing potatoes. This literally means he has colonised Mars, leading him to tell his on-board video-thingy log: “In your face, Neil Armstrong.”

Ridley Scott’s film is a survival movie, focusing on the ingenuity of the protagonist while back on earth various stars – more than are in the heavens – scratch heads to work out how to get Matt Damon home. Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig (badly miscast as a NASA spin doctor), Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean appear hopeless but eventually realise their best bet is to send back the returning Ares crew, lead by Jessica Chastain.

Look, Scott is nothing if not a polished film maker who can create an on-screen spell that envelops the viewer for the movie’s duration – he made me enjoy Prometheus while it was on in front of my eyes. It’s only afterwards you start to think: wtf was that all about?

Same here. The Martian looks good and jollies its seriousness along with doses of humour – some of which work, some which look clumsy – and running gags about disco music. But it’s in the music choices that Ridley betrays his sledgehammer tastes – songs such as Don’t Leave Me This Way, Hot Stuff and Bowie’s Starman are rather on the nose, and there’s never any need for Abba’s Waterloo.

Certain action sequences are expertly executed and the pace of the finale is brisk and beautiful – it’s not Everest but The Martian that should be billed as “this year’s Gravity”. But there’s a distastefully gung-ho emptiness to all this – I don’t know what we’re supposed to be admiring here, human ingenuity, the wonders of the universe, the resourcefulness of the brain? How much does all this cost those poor saps pictured cheering in Times Square and Beijing?

Most glaringly, the film hardly examines the necessities of space exploration. Damon’s performance makes us care about this lost astronaut, but frankly  I couldn’t figure out what we’re doing in space at all, leaving our junk and debris all over a fresh planet’s pristine surface.

All’s I know is that once you’re up and out there, even after all this time since Ridley’s Alien, still no one can hear you scream – although they do have email now.