Mark Watney, one of a team of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars, is left for dead following a freak storm on the planet from which the rest of his crew manage to escape. Coming to after the storm, Watney realises he is alone on the planet, and after Mission Control back on Earth learn of his existence, they strategise to bring him back.
That's the fairly simple premise of The Martian, and to be honest 'simple' remains the watchword of this uneven but nevertheless reasonably entertaining sci-fi flick. Scott focuses much of the film on Watney, played by a slightly more animated than usual Matt Damon (who in the latter phases of his isolation - where the actor looks a lot older than his 45 years - reminded me of the unravelled Tom Hanks at the end of Paul Greengrass's 2013 movie Captain Phillips). Watney's Robinson Crusoe approach to his survival, rigging up a hothouse to grow his own food and using his scientific resources to work out how to overcome the tricky issue of communicating with Earth, is perhaps the most satisfying part of the film, although Damon's limited acting palette fails to fully capture the pathos and futility of his situation. It's when Scott adds in the other only very sketchily drawn characters - the occupants of the ship that abandoned him and the stressed Mission Control personnel - that the drama becomes rather fractured.
The last half of the film plays like an old fashioned disaster movie, but where movies of that genre would have delighted in showing off the hardware, Scott refuses to detail the mechanics, so we're left with all the tension being created by the actors - but this has neither the personal drama of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (2013) or the ensemble tension of, say, Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The Martian is shot through with humour - some of it broad, some more subtle (even the title is not without levity) but this only serves to confuse - is this an action movie, a serious drama, or a film that shows that humour can be found in the strangest of situations?
Ultimately I wasn't convinced by The Martian, although I can't deny that it does look good. The depiction of Mars - actually Jordan - is particularly impressive (although I'm old enough to remember being wowed by a similar use of Death Valley in Byron Haskin's Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) - a film to which The Martian is also heavily indebted but so far unmentioned by the critics) and the detail of the scenes on board ship depict a crew at home in their surroundings and with their hardware - but then Scott's a past master at this. But thinking about the film afterwards, the confusion of styles and general messiness militate against it remaining in the memory for very long, and one is left thinking just how much of a return to form this is for Scott, who has, we should remember, only recently served up the dubious thrills of Prometheus (2013).