Movie Review: “The Martian”

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.

Epic, majestic, breathtakingly detailed, thrilling — all words that have accurately described the film ouvre of Ridley Scott over the decades. When your directing resume includes “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator” and “Alien,” that’s a given.

But “The Martian” manages a new one. Cute.

Scott’s breeziest film since “Thelma and Louise,” action-packed, scientifically sound, but trying just as hard for laughs as his failed comedy “A Good Year,” “The Martian” is a faintly patronizing but thoroughly entertaining effort at giving the people what they want.

The people? Sci-fi fans. What do we want? Something more entertaining than “Prometheus” to sink our chops into, a popcorny science fiction film close enough to reality to lobby for more space exploration by reminding us of the adventure of it all.

So here it is, a science-centered space opera about a man marooned on Mars. There are hints of the 1960s films  “Marooned” and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and more recent fare such as “Red Planet” in Andrew Weir’s self-published (originally) novel about an astronaut left for dead by the rest of his crew when a fierce sandstorm threatens to destroy their means of returning to Earth.

Matt Damon is that first Martian, doomed to be a colonist by an accident, doomed period because he’ll run out of food, water, etc. before any rescue can be attempted.

Jessica Chastain plays the guilt-ridden mission commander, with Kate Mara and Michael Pena among her surviving crew on their way back to Earth. They’re kept in the dark about Mark Watney’s survival, even after NASA knows. They’re guilt-ridden enough as it is.

NASA Chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is the fellow trying to run an open-book agency with a PR disaster on its hands. Kristen Wiig (!?) is the PR chief trying to manage the crisis.

Sean Bean is the mission commander on the ground, making waves to stir his bosses, and the world, to save Watney. And Chiwetel Ejiofor is the NASA scientist determined to crunch numbers and badger subordinates to find a way to get this man marooned on Mars home.

Here’s what’s inspiring about “The Martian,” the phrase that sums it up, sings the siren song of science and gives it the air of a film cheer-leading for a manned mission to Mars.

“Work the problem.”

On Mars, it’s among the first things Watney resolves to do. After “I’m not gonna die here.” On Earth, it’s what every level of the chain of command says as they scramble to find solutions, “do the math” and figure this thing out.

The coolest sequences in the film are its first third, with Watney’s communication cut off and NASA unaware he’s there. He has to figure out a way to signal them, they have to figure out a way to instruct him. Watney is injured, with limited supplies and a large, damaged habitat and vehicles to travel about in. There’s earlier space junk on Mars, but he’s not an engineer.

Still, if you needed somebody to help you figure out how to make water and food on an arid, lifeless planet, who’d you want? A biologist.

“Mars will to come to fear my biology powers,” Watney grins to the camera. He’s narrating a mission diary, in case he doesn’t make it. This gives Damon a chance to talk through the science experiments (and accidents) that Watney works up to save himself. It’s a handy device, and often an overly cute one. How will Watney figure out how to get his limited range Rover to a different corner of the planet?

“I’m going to have to science-the-(bleep) out of this,” he jokingly mutters.

After one setback, he says what most of us would say, under the circumstances.

“(Bleep) you, Mars!”

Damon has fun with the part, but there’s also a touch of his youthful mania for realism, authenticity. Damon, like Watney, starts to look scruffy and scrawny, as the weeks in high stress and on low rations take their toll. He looks gaunt in the later scenes, his skinniest since “Courage Under Fire.”

The laugh-lines are just part of the fun. The Rescue by the Nerds scenes back on Earth aren’t as detailed-oriented as similar moments in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” but having young and attractive Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover as crucial parts of the team sexes it up a bit. Their inclusion, and that of comic actress Wiig, gives “The Martian” the feel of a Ridley Scott homage to his more popcorn-friendly director sibling, the late Tony Scott.

But Daniels, Bean and Ejiofor lend “Their Finest Hour” gravitas to the NASA efforts. Ed Harris (“Apollo 13”) did it better, but no matter.

Earlier lost-in-space movies have tipped their hat towards Russia or the former Soviet Union as the only other space-faring nation that might have been of assistance, a chance to mend fences for the good of human space exploration. Here, the inclusion of Chinese space science scenes feels like a sop, tossing a bone to the world’s largest movie audience.

It’s too melodramatic and too determined to be jokey, and the 3D is only noticed in scenes where the crew in space does its thing in zero gravity. But Scott has created a most convincing Mars-scape, reddish vistas of dust and dust devils (tornadoes, the sandstorm being the film’s biggest scientific shortcoming). And he’s made a space exploration movie built on those old-fashioned words — moxie and pluck.

Yeah, we could go to Mars, “The Martian” suggests. Things might go wrong. But we’re selling ourselves short by not making the effort. It’s time to “Work the problem” again.

3stars2

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean
Credits: Directed by Ridley Scott, script by Drew Goddard, based on the Andrew Weir book. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 2:20

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