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Spuds in space

The Martian

Anne Burke 24 November 2015

Abandoned: Matt Damon in the lead role

When his greenhouse is blown up, we find that no one can wield double-sided sticky tape like Mark

Editor's note: This review contains spoilers.

It could have had class. It could have been a contender. But while Ridley Scott’s latest offering dazzles in many ways, it falls short of cinematic greatness by lack of attention to some of the niggly little details.

Despite being set on Mars, The Martian is a film about fairly basic science, just set in a hostile environment. Maybe it’s pedantic, but when scientists like me see science in a film, they like it to be accurate. The Martian gets it right most of the time, but minor irritations flaw the overall experience.

The technical effort is impressive. NASA’s input shines through (including the prodigious use of the famous logo). In a reversal of Wall-E, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself stranded on Mars when his shipmates are forced to take off during a violent sandstorm (I saw it in 3D: it’s just how you would expect a Martian storm to be). Believing him dead, the crew heads back to earth while Mark is forced to “science the shit out of this” in order to survive with diminishing resources.

And “science the shit” he does. Literally. In order to grow his own food, he concocts a compost from Martian dust and human excreta collected from the expedition. Water is provided from a little rocket fuel chemistry. Handily enough, Mark has a significant quantity of the humble spud in his supplies and he knows that if he can plant them successfully, a diet of potatoes will provide most of the nutrients he needs. (After all, the Great Irish famine occurred due to crop failure of the nutrient-dense tuber.)

So Mark produces potatoes. And here are the quibbles. Mark’s harvested spuds look like they have been brushed and graded. Uniform in size, the potatoes lack gnarly black bits and have a smooth white flesh when cut open. He is the best botanist on Mars. When his greenhouse is blown up, we find that no one can wield double-sided sticky tape like Mark. And as for the “keep the crew in ignorance campaign”, it is implausible that the family contacts don’t let slip that Mark is alive until the Hermes is almost home. And perhaps a shade too long at 144 minutes, it could have done with some more editing.

All that said, The Martian is a very good film. The visuals are stunning and the trick of a monologue addressed to a blog (similar to the strategy used by the character played by Tom Hanks in Castaway, who addresses a running dialogue to a volleyball called “Wilson”) works well to lighten the tension.

In short, this film is well worth a look. But it could have been up there with the classics.