'The Martian'

'The Martian' is a sweeping, heartfelt, funny and well-cast film
LEFT BEHIND: Matt Damon plays stranded astronaut Mark Watney in 'The Martian.'

Epic and yet surprisingly playful, Ridley Scott's adaptation of Mountain View author Andy Weir's best seller, The Martian, contrasts the vastness of space with the intimacy of a DIY podcast. It begins with a Martian tempest imperiling the Ares III mission. Astronaut Mark Watney is speared by flying debris. He's presumed dead by his fellow crew members on the Hermes as they hastily evacuate the red planet.

This Robinson Crusoe on Mars is left to use spare parts and duct tape to ingeniously kluge together a farm—"Luckily, I'm a botanist," Watney (Matt Damon) explains. The astronaut literally digs up an energy source and wires a communication system to get in touch with home. The role of Watney brings out all of Damon's most appealing features—his solitude, his self-doubt, his eternal boyishness, his hard-bitten humor.

Back at NASA, Watney's marooning and survival is a public relations mess. The cantankerous chief (Jeff Daniels) seeks spin-control—good luck at that, since his head of PR is a nervous Kristin Wiig. She doesn't get to say much, but the face says it all. Truly, the PR person's lot is just like appendicitis.

Meanwhile a group of rebels within NASA, led by the bearded mission controller Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) concoct a drastic plan to extract the astronaut. The conspirators include an indomitable technician (Sean Bean) and an over-caffeinated student (Donald Glover, a bit too pixieish).

It's clear why Weir's book was a success—it contrasts technology and trigonometry with old-fashion science fiction movie daring. The means of getting the Hermes back to Mars fast involves something the Enterprise did once. A spot of China ex Machina is forgivable to the long memoried, who recall how the Russians stepped up to the plate in Marooned (1969).

You don't expect a space adventure like this to be funny—Scott is usually a brooder, and when he goes antic, as in A Good Year, he can be leaden. Scripter Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) keeps the tone light and free of the philosophical blather that bloated Prometheus.

There is a noble old movie scene of crisis—the one where the boss, and presumably the audience, are asked to pray, "because we need all the help we can get." But there is also a scene where a crucifix is requisitioned as an ingredient to cook up some water on Mars. Watney figures Jesus won't mind. The film is deservedly profane. Conditions on Mars require a lot of swearing—so much depends on little things, like a flapping plastic tarp holding out against the infernal Martian wind.

What they used to call the "Bomber-Movie cast" (i.e. a mixed batch of types) flies the Hermes. As the captain, Jessica Chastain has literally weightless grace. (The crew has been aboard their ship for so many months that they swim through the gravity-free corridors like athletes.) Scott keeps cutting to interesting actors aboard the ship—Michael Pena and Kate Mara for example. And he insists on a human scale, as in the pat Damon gives the Mars rover's muzzle as he leaves it behind, or the spontaneous squeeze Wiig gives her boss's shoulder during a tough moment.

Some of the scenes of the Martian rover during Watney's long journey to the rescue site look a bit false in 3D, compared to the Utah-based Martian vistas in the much-maligned John Carter. The end game gets predictable, inferior to the similar but better business in Gravity. But the music of David Bowie (in his spaceman period) supplants a load of ironically-used disco ("Hot Stuff" plays as Watney hauls a load of plutonium) and the retro-electronic score of Harry Gregson-Williams is suitably spacy.

The Martian is a spirited, sweet-tempered movie about survival and rescue. It bypasses the importance of sacrifice in favor of humanist values, as in a conversation over whether Watney should be left behind to take one for the team: "This is bigger than one person."

"No, it's not."

The Martian

PG-13; 141 Mins.

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