The Martian (2015)

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Peņa, Benedict Wong

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

The Martian, like Cast Away or Locke, is one of those films which, on paper, sounds pretty dull. Man stuck on Mars plants potatoes. Wow. but the critics agree that this film is a triumph: smart, thrilling, stirring, gripping, and... heart-warming? Now Ridley Scott's films are many things – bleak, epic, exhilarating, terrifying – but heart-warming isn't generally an adjective associated with the most bombastic big-scale director since Cecil B DeMille. Heart-warming is Up! and Frozen; dogs looking after disabled children and Nadiya winning The Great British Bake Off. Heart-warming is... Steven Spielberg. Where are the ray-guns and robots, the face-huggers and chest-exploding aliens?

Matt Damon as The Martian

Spoiler alert: there aren't any, just lots and lots of red dust and some seriously horrific astral weather, so bad it forces a mission to Mars to abort, with astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) left behind for dead. He's not.

Most folk would find the thought of being the only person on a hostile planet, facing an imminent and lonely death, somewhat depressing. But Watney is an astronaut, and as such, much more resourceful, resilient and brainy than your average Joe. Instead of despairing, he sets about trying to solve his problem of survival through maths, science and botany. Or, in his words, to 'science the sh*t out of this'. (Sh*t being the operative word, it transpires – how else can he grow potatoes?)

Meanwhile, back on earth, NASA are dealing with the same substance, in a fan-hitting scenario. Can a team of the world's top brains, led by Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor, engineer his rescue before he dies of starvation? You've two hours and twenty minutes of nail-biting suspense to find out.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Martian

If, like me, you loved Gravity and, er, most Steven Spielberg films, I guarantee you'll love The Martian too. Damon is endearing, engaging, inspiring and always credible as the level-headed survivor who only very rarely loses his sense of humour – there are a surprising number of laughs along the way, especially given Ridley Scott's recent po-faced output – and the supporting cast are also fantastic. I particularly liked Kristen Wiig as NASA's beleaguered comms manager, responsible for spinning this PR disaster. Hashtag DeadAstronaut – yikes!

Smart, thrilling, stirring, gripping, and, yes, heart-warming The Martian may be, but, like its hero, it's also tough, a little cynical and never sentimental. There are no tearful farewells to a pregnant wife for Mark (or indeed even a tearful wife at all), no Aerosmith power ballads to make us well up. (Just disco lots of disco. And David Bowie's 'Starman' – though 'Major Tom' would be more appropriate, as poor Mark finds himself more or less literally floating through space in a tin can...)

But just as Mars doesn't need monsters to make it scary, so The Martian doesn't need to manipulate our emotions to move us to tears. Just great performances, stellar SFX, an involving story and a sharp script. Yup, The Martian really is a Starman.

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