Matt Damon waits for one of the longest rides home in film history during Ridley Scott’s The Martian, both a love letter to the space program and the power of science and positive thinking. When we think of director Scott’s contributions to the science fiction genre, we normally think brilliantly grim (Alien, Blade Runner). More recently – mixed bag grim (Prometheus). Not the case here. The Martian is infused with laughter and an often amusing star turn role by its anchor.
We open in 2035 with Damon’s astronaut Mark part of a manned mission to the Red Planet along with colleagues that include the Commander (Jessica Chastain), Kate Mara, and Michael Pena. A massive dust storm wreaks havoc and leaves the crew believing Mark has perished and they are forced to leave the planet without his body. Of course he has survived and so begins Mark’s new solo mission: learning how to survive as the only inhabitant on a planet with little food or other necessities on his left behind vessel. Lucky for him, he’s a brilliant botanist who comes up with clever (sometimes disgusting) ways to harvest food.
NASA soon learns that Mark is alive and this sets off a furious effort to pick him up. This is no easy task to say the least and it involves the question of whether to inform his crew (on their way back to Earth) of his survival. There’s delicate involvement with the Chinese space program. Kristin Wiig (in a small but fascinating role) plays NASA’s media consultant, who must navigate the organization’s own land mines. And there’s the head of NASA, played winningly and by Jeff Daniels. Other familiar faces turning up as government scientists include Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean.
While Mark’s situation seems dire, he handles his circumstances with an often lighthearted touch (and occasional profanity laced tirade to his bosses). The Martian goes out of its way to explain the science behind rescuing our protagonist and it’s fascinating enough that it makes you ponder whether younger viewers may reconsider career choices. In short, it makes science look awfully cool and important.
Damon has shown real comedic talent before (see Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!) and he excels at it here, along with his more known ability at drama. Even with the welcome humor, this is by no means a straight up comedy (memo to the Golden Globes).
As Mark is a shining example of optimism under pressure, Jeff Daniels’ NASA chief is an example of calm under pressure. His performance is an example of strength and understatement. Damon may own this show, but Daniels earns marks for most interesting supporting player.
The visual look from Scott is the beautiful kind of feast we would anticipate from this visual auteur. Drew Goddard’s screenplay, based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, keeps things moving along with quirky touches that include a disco heavy soundtrack. It is only in the final stretches of The Martian that we see how the world is captivated by Mark’s long hoped for journey back home. It’s not really a necessity to see it because we just assume. We are entertainingly captivated, too, with lots of smiles along the way.
***1/2 (out of four)