Dir: Ridley Scott. US. 2015. 130mins

The Martian

Visually spectacular and consistently entertaining, Ridley Scott’s space rescue procedural The Martian suffers only from a failure to hit its emotional beats with the amount of force and feeling usually required to make this kind of life-and-death adventure really take off. It’s a crowd-pleaser for sure; but maybe not quite enough of one – even with a perfectly cast Matt Damon as a plucky astronaut stranded on the Red Planet – to get viewers making repeat visits to the box office or to win over the hearts of award season voters.

The storytelling techniques work well enough to keep the film engaging, and Scott keeps the pacing breezy and relatively light.

A world premiere at Toronto will certainly set the Fox release up for what should be strong openings in the UK and Australia on Sept 30, in the US on Oct 2 and through most of the rest of the world before Christmas. In the long run, awards recognition might make the difference between a gross on the level of the somewhat comparable Gravity (which took $274m in the US and $449.1m internationally) and Scott’s earlier space adventure Prometheus (which managed $126.5m in the US and $276.9m elsewhere).

The source novel – eventually a best seller but originally self-published online by computer programmer-turned-author Andy Weir – is a science-heavy account, largely made up of written log entries, of how US astronaut Mark Watney survives after being left for dead during a near-future manned mission to Mars.

The film kicks off with Watney (Damon, whose last sci-fi outing was Elysium) being injured – apparently fatally – while the crew is leaving Mars to escape a massive storm. When he recovers, Watney, the mission botanist and mechanical engineer, starts putting his ingenuity to use in an effort to stay alive until the planned arrival of the next mission several years hence. Amongst other things, his efforts involve growing potatoes in human manure and jury-rigging a rover for dangerous journey across the planet.

Eventually, Watney makes contact with mission control, allowing the film to follow the desperate efforts of NASA and JPL scientists – played by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean, among others – to mount a rescue mission and the heroic actions of the mission commander (Jessica Chastain, from Interstellar, in which Damon also had a small role) and her crew aboard the mission’s mother ship.

The storytelling techniques work well enough to keep the film engaging – though having characters read out messages as they type them gets annoying pretty quickly – and Scott keeps the pacing breezy and relatively light. There’s plenty of dry humour from Watney and from the eccentric scientists on earth consulting and sometimes clashing about the rescue mission. In fact, the film is often a bit too eager to please (overdoing, for example, the ironic use of cheesy seventies disco music).

Getting most of the book’s plot on screen also makes the film feel rushed, stopping it from milking dramatic moments and allowing the audience to share in Watney’s highs and lows of hope and despair. Damon is pleasantly watchable as the spirited and funny Watney, even if the other performers feel underused in what are for the most part rather one dimensional roles.Only in the climactic rescue sequence does the film deliver a really substantial emotional punch.

Three years after exploring the wonders of space in Prometheus, Scott, once again collaborating with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max, delivers another striking vision of a distant world. He makes the most of awe-inspiring locations in Jordan’s Wadi Rum (also used in Prometheus and Red Planet) to stand in for the surface of Mars and uses 3D to immerse the audience in the desolate landscape that accentuates Watney’s isolation 140 million miles from home. It’s probably in the visual and effects departments that The Martian stands its best chance of earning winning awards.

Production companies: Kinberg Genre, Scott Free Productions, 20th Century Fox, TSG Entertainment

Worldwide distribution: 20th Century Fox

Producers: Ridley Scott, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood, Mark Huffam

Executive producer: Drew Goddard

Screenplay: Drew Goddard

Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski

Production designer: Arthur Max

Editor: Pietro Scalia

Visual effects supervisor: Richard Stammers

Costume designer: Janty Yates

Music: Harry Gregson-Williams

Website: http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-martian

Main cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis