The Martian (2015)
141 min., rated PG-13.
When it comes to space and "Alien"/"Prometheus" director Ridley Scott (2013's "The Counselor"), nothing less than masterful is expected. "The Martian," based on the scientifically sound 2011 novel by computer programmer Andy Weir, marks his lightest touch since cutesy 2006 Russell Crowe starrer "A Good Year" and most crowd-pleasing in a long while, in no small part to a screenplay by Drew Goddard (2012's "The Cabin in the Woods") and an appealing performance by Matt Damon as the only man on Mars. Brainy and intelligently researched with all the scientific minutiae sold with conviction without being inaccessible to mainstream audiences, the film still settles for being merely good rather than truly great.
Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is one soul of a crew of six astronauts—among them, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie)—for the Ares III mission on Mars. When a severe dust storm cuts short their gathering of soil samples on the Red Planet, Mark is the only one to be struck by debris, while Commander Lewis must make the difficult decision to abort the mission and evacuate the location without him. Lost and presumed dead, Mark is actually alive but cannot make contact with NASA. Being resourceful, he's able to patch up his wound with a medical kit in a space camp. Being a botanist, he is able to harvest potato crops on a planet where nothing grows and rations out almost enough for three years when he anticipates to be rescued. Meanwhile, on Earth, NASA becomes aware of Mark's survival and waits to notify the rest of his crew, who must not riddle themselves with guilt but will eventually have to come to his rescue.
Emotionally compelling but also unexpectedly low-key and wryly good-humored, "The Martian," like 2000's "Cast Away" before it, is a sci-fi variant on "Robinson Crusoe." The film is not drenched in grave seriousness and importance—as "the martian" says, "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this"—and it's all the more refreshingly modest and entertaining for it. The ultimate outcome might not surprise a la "Apollo 13," but the steps director Ridley Scott takes to get there are enthralling and keep the stakes high. More might have been learned about Mark Watney, considering the film is at its best when focusing on his resourcefulness and the time he spends entertaining himself and keeping his sanity on video logs. Whether Mark has family or friends who aren't astronauts back home waiting for him, we never know (except for one brief line about his parents), so on an emotional level, the viewer only cares to see the character survive because he's played by Damon. Without much surprise, the actor is innately charismatic and engaging on screen, even as he's playing off no one (not even a volleyball) but himself for the bulk of the film.
"The Martian" is steadily paced, even through the mundane days Mark spends on Mars. The NASA scenes are educational and even amusing, particularly when green, eccentric NASA astronomer Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) comes in with a final plan, but often stodgy, too, slowing down the momentum of Mark's solo survival. If the screenplay isn't always satisfying in fully realizing its thin, if functional, characters who don't have lives outside of the plot, director Scott at least fills out each part with an outstanding ensemble. Jeff Daniels, as NASA director Teddy Sanders; Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor; Kristen Wiig, as media relations spokesperson Annie Montrose; Sean Bean, as flight director Mitch Henderson; and Mackenzie Davis, as Mission Control satellite planner Mindy Park, round out the Earthbound cast.
Seemingly shot on the Red Planet, the film's tech credits are a marvel, Dariusz Wolski's cinematography immaculate in the sense of desolation it creates and the visual effects utterly tactile. In addition, the music score by Harry Gregson-Williams has a quiet, distinguished hum, accompanied by an upbeat soundtrack of '70s disco hits (including Vickie Sue Robinson's "Turn the Beat Around," Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," ABBA's "Waterloo," and David Bowie's "Starman") left behind by Commander Lewis. "The Martian" might never be as moving or as exciting as it strives to be, like the virtuoso, deeply profound thrill ride that was Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity." Still, to be fair, it has plenty of merit as a smart, pretty good popcorn picture before the Oscar bait rolls in.