The Martian' discovers peril - and humor - on the fourth planet

Ridley Scott and Matt Damon deliver a grippingly realistic adaptation of bestselling novel

Thursday October 1, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Last time we saw Matt Damon stranded on an alien planet was in 2014's Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's touchy-feely sci-fi epic that used space travel and ecological disasters in service of hackneyed metaphors for how love conquers all. This fall's The Martian similarly maroons Damon on another planet, but for a more plausible, wholly satisfying tale of the space program and the human spirit. For a film that spends more time in space and on Mars than Earth, The Martian is appealingly grounded.

Based on Andy Weir's charming novel of the same name, The Martian takes place in the not-too-distant future, with NASA's latest manned "Ares" mission to Mars. An unexpectedly severe storm requires Ares Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain, also of Interstellar) and her crew to abandon the planet at short notice, leaving botanist Mark Watney (Damon) lost and presumed dead.

Watney awakens injured but very much alive, and after he returns to the now-abandoned life support habitat (or "Hab"), he realizes that he has no way home, no way to contact Earth and finite supplies of food and water. Resolving not to give up, he dedicates his know-how and ingenuity to solve his dilemmas, declaring, "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this." The film crosscuts between Watney on Mars, the Ares crew in space, and NASA officials (including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, and Kristen Wiig) on Earth grappling with the predicament.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard faced a steep challenge in replicating the tone of Weir's novel, which unfolds for long stretches as Watney's witty, self-deprecating diary entries. He's like a humor blogger trapped in multiple no-win scenarios. Over the lonely months on Mars he figures out how to grow crops, reclaim water, and other painstaking technical problems that seem perfectly credible, but not necessarily cinematic.

Damon conveys Watney's wit in video diaries, but proves more understated than the role on the page. His humor seems less a lifelong character trait than a defensive mechanism in the face of despair and near-certain death. Moments of peril, including some emergency self-surgery, evoke Damon's physical acting reminiscent of the Bourne movies.

Though the film only conveys a fraction of the book's comedy, it's probably the most emotionally warm Ridley Scott project since Thelma and Louise. And the big screen can accomplish things that book can't, like rendering the ruddy, Monument Valley-esque Martian landscapes. When Watney huddles in the Hab at night as storms rage outside, we keenly feel his interplanetary isolation.

The Martian ably juggles a sprawling cast of supporting characters, although Donald Glover portrays an astrodynamics specialist that's too much like a nerd out of "The Big Bang Theory." And though the plot sags in the middle, using montages to leapfrog over the passing months, it culminates with a nail-biting suspense sequence that suggests The Martian is the spiritual sequel to Gravity.

Apart from high-tech heroics, The Martian serves as a deeply-felt tribute to the NASA space program as well as the number-crunchers of Pasadena's famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which here resembles the dorms of an engineering university. The film implicitly calls for a real manned life-on-Mars program and has faith that humanity will rise to the challenge. It's the kind of science fiction film that places mankind's fate not with advanced aliens or "The Force," but squarely in human hands. ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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