Matt Damon may play the marooned astronaut who fights to make it home in this feel-good sci-fi epic, but the big news is that director Ridley Scott is back. After a string of misfires (Robin Hood? Prometheus?), the 77-year-old filmmaker returns to form with a deep-space drama that stands with his finest. Which is saying something, when you're talking about the guy who gave us Alien.
Based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel, which is set 20 years in the future, The Martian gets right down to business. In the opening, members of NASA's Ares III mission to the surface of Mars receive news that a cataclysmic dust storm is about to descend. The angry red sirocco (the first of countless impressive CGI creations) has already arrived in the time it takes the warning to reach the crew (played by Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña and Kate Mara). In the ensuing chaos, the blinded explorers must leave behind a team member who appears to have been killed by flying debris.
That would be Mark Watney, the crew's botanist. Damon is great in the role, his most likably off-kilter since The Informant! No one in the history of movie castaways can compete with Watney for cheerfulness in the face of adversity. No sooner has he performed self-surgery on the piece of metal lodged in his gut than he sets himself to the tasks of tidying up the station, entering video logs filled with good humor and figuring out how to grow potatoes using his poo as fertilizer.
He even figures out how to produce water, a task that last Monday's NASA announcement may have shown to be redundant. The timing of the news prompted jokes about cross-promotion between the space agency and 20th Century Fox, but the two already have a happy symbiosis. The Martian, with its portrayal of dedicated, odds-defying super-nerds, is a love letter to NASA, and the agency's website currently devotes prime real estate to a list of things the movie gets right about a mission to Mars.
Hey, crazier things are done with our tax dollars every day. Besides, cooperation and synergy are the film's central themes. In a nutshell, Watney devises a way to communicate with ground control. Once they know he's alive, team leaders — some of them played by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig — race against the clock to figure out how to bring him home. The picture's an edge-of-your-seat celebration of intelligence, problem solving and coming together with a common goal.
With Scott behind the camera, The Martian is, of course, also a film distinguished by breathtaking visuals. The screenplay by Drew Goddard (who was originally slated to direct) succeeds in conveying massive amounts of technical information without getting bogged down. On the contrary, the film maintains a level of breeziness one might have imagined scientifically impossible. And everyone in the sizable cast is stellar.
What sets the movie apart more than anything else, though, is its unapologetic upness. It's the most uncynical, positive-minded, affirmative picture I've ever seen. It doesn't even have a bad guy. Every single character means well and does everything possible to save the stranded astronaut. Foreigners gather in the streets to cheer on the U.S. One country even donates a top-secret rocket just when one is most needed.
The Martian is white-knuckle fun from the first frame to the last. Yet, as refreshing as all this perfect harmony may be, one can't help but be reminded that there's a reason they call it science fiction.