Perhaps I spoke too soon. As it turns out, we haven’t seen the last of the genius who gave us “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott, science-fiction powerhouse, has returned with “The Martian,” a simple but not slight survivalist picture about Earth’s best and brightest trying to save one man stranded on Mars.
Unlike recent woe-is-space actioners, Scott’s return to form values humor and harrowing feats of scientific daring-do over existential dread, providing for a refreshing change of pace. Matt Damon delivers a decidedly charismatic star performance as Mark Watney, the stranded in question, a simultaneously cocky and self-deprecating botanist whose resilience, ingenuity, and plain-ole’ sense of humor saves him when the shit hits the fan, literally and figuratively. Because the film begins smack-dab in the middle of that failed mission, where his crew are forced to abandon him in the Mars desert, we get to know Watney through his predicaments, not beforehand, an interesting narrative choice that almost doesn’t work. But I’ll be damned if you don’t care about him by the end of one early scene where he extracts shards of a satellite antennae from his own stomach, with nothing but pliers, long tweezers, and a personal mirror. Meanwhile, NASA intelligentsia scurry around Earth crafting a rescue plan, hemming and hawing about the hows, whys, and difficult public ties. Channeling his work on “The Newsroom,” Jeff Daniels is the no-nonsense NASA director worried about the grand scope of public perception, and Kristen Wiig his more genial second-in-command. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are the engineers of Watney’s survival, geniuses in their own right whose hopes and dreams stand toe to toe with mother nature. Sean Bean shows up to stick up for the rights of the crew returning home, and rapper/sitcom star Donald Glover steals scenes as an eccentric youngster with a peculiar solution. Jessica Chastain is the take-charge commander of that crew on board the Hermes, with Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, and Sebastian Stan making up the rest. Everyone acquits themselves admirably, in particular the always funny Pena, but this is Damon’s show. His love of science shows through Watney, and it’s absolutely infectious, if not always comprehensible for the layman. That goes for the film as a whole, an adventure that matches this year’s “Tomorrowland” for optimism and can-do attitude. In this not-too-distant future, NASA is alive and thriving, a concept that’s hopeful in of itself, and Scott obviously relishes that, taking Andy Weir’s book and milking those themes of human exceptionalism for all their worth.
Smartly, Ridley’s directorial quirks take a backseat to the witty script by Weir and screenwriter Drew Goddard, so while the movie doesn’t measure up visually to the likes of “Gravity” or “Interstellar,” it makes up for it by making you laugh while your palms are sweating. “The Martian” turns science into popcorn entertainment, and that’s alchemy worth cheering for.