Even those who have not seen director Ridley Scott's science-fiction film will know that it's about botanist astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) being left for dead on Mars by his crewmates after a storm hits the planet.
"Bring Him Home" is boldly emblazoned on the film's poster, so that's what the rest of the film is about.
This being a Hollywood blockbuster, the film is a spectacle of life on the Red Planet, with narrations of how Watney survives on the desolate planet and how Nasa, Americans, the world and even China, pool their resources and engage their willpower to bring him home.
The Martian, based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir, is a return to form by Scott, whose previous sci-fi flick, Prometheus (2012), should have been left for dead in theatres. He also directed Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979).
Scott taps Americans' rah-rah confidence and Watney's never-say-die attitude, and produces a compelling film that tugs at your heartstrings. I found myself dabbing my tears thrice; even Titanic made me cry only once.
Damon, too, makes viewers empathise with his situation. His character goes through a multitude of emotions during his long stay on Mars. The film received free publicity this week when Nasa scientists announced that they had found chemical evidence of liquid water on the planet's surface.
Watney first quickly cures himself of his injury and stares at the offending object that had pierced his body; this is a norm in films when the hero is injured and has only himself to fix himself up.
I found it surprising that he did not show more anger or dismay when he had assessed his predicament, and that he segued into his can-do demeanour in the blink of an eye.
It is also too convenient for him to be a botanist, which allows him to McGyver (concoct) potatoes out of nothing, thereby allowing him to survive until a rescue mission gets to him.
Back on Earth, Nasa jumps to show that the US is the best in the world in leading a brainy team to figure out a way to bring Watney home.
Nasa director Teddy Sanders (a strong performance by Jeff Daniels) has to eat humble pie when Watney is found alive.
He barks out orders for his team to step on the gas, but it's still going to take more than 500 sols (days) for a mission to reach Mars. His team includes Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), spokeswoman Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong).
While the Nasa team cracks its brains, our man Watney does a Tom Hanks impersonation in Cast Away (2000), so, instead of speaking to a volleyball, like what Hanks' character did when stranded on an island, Watney speaks to a video camera. He even undergoes a similar physical transformation to Hanks' character.
Cast Away isn't the only film that The Martian will make you think of. There are also Gravity (2013), about an astronaut floating hopelessly in space and figuring out a way to return to Earth; Mission To Mars (2000), about a rescue mission to Mars; and Apollo 13 (1995), about Nasa members putting their heads together to figure out how to bring back Hanks and Co from the moon.
Watney's crewmates have been kept blissfully ignorant of his survival by Nasa. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, who appeared with Damon in sci-fi flick Interstellar, though not together) takes the news of his survival the hardest as she had made the decision to abandon him on Mars and escape with the crew.
The other crewmates include wisecracking Latino Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie).
Meanwhile, life on Mars is pretty mundane. After all, how much can you take staring at the arid landscape, no matter how lovely it looks in extreme wide-angle shots?
Kapoor asks rhetorically how being stranded alone on Mars is affecting Watney's wellbeing. The film cuts to the latter jigging along to 1980s' disco songs.
While this is a humorous point in an otherwise serious narrative, I couldn't help thinking that the director is being flippant. Yes, Watney's priority is his survival, but how does he live or make use of the rest of his time? He can't just be growing potatoes, fixing
|Damon slogs for his survival in 'The Martian'.|
When the rescue mission gets underway, I breathed a sigh of relief as the film was throwing too many obstacles in Watney's way. It must have thought that these challenges would keep viewers engrossed in the film.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out who and what save Watney. I saw this option coming from miles away. The rescue mission nearly gets botched, and this will remind you of a scene in Mission to Mars.
The length of The Martian is a problem, too, as it keeps moving between Watney, Nasa, the crew and ... China. The producers must have realised the power of the Chinese movie market and taken the cue from China's presence in another sci-fi flick, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).
Despite these inconsistencies, I found The Martian invigorating, reasonably entertaining and surprisingly emotional. It's the weepy film for adult males.
3½ out of 5 stars