With “The Martian” director Ridley Scott and star Matt Damon deliver an almost perfect piece of popular filmmaking, an intimate sci-fi epic that is smart, spectacular and stirring.
This big screen adaptation (by screenwriter Drew Goddard) of Andy Weir’s best-seller about an astronaut stranded on Mars has just about everything — laughs, thrills, visual splendor and a rousing endorsement of the brotherhood of man.
It’s the least pretentious and most wholly enjoyable film of Scott’s extensive career (which includes “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Gladiator”) and pushes Damon’s acting talents to the max.
The premise melds elements of 1964’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and “Apollo 13” (earthbound scientists and engineers invent ways to help their desperate colleague).
And nestled inside this riveting adventure is a sly commentary on bureaucracy.
Set in a near future in which the American space program is thriving (the film’s most patently fantastic assertion), “The Martian” opens on Mars, where a team led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is wrapping up a month-long scientific mission. A fierce sandstorm catches the astronauts out in the open, and they barely make it to the Martian lander that will return them to the orbiting mother ship.
But one of them, botanist Mark Watney (Damon), is literally blown away by the raging wind. Believing him dead, Lewis has no choice but to take off without him before the storm makes liftoff impossible.
But Mark isn’t dead. He awakens to a beeping alarm in his helmet telling him he’s almost out of air, struggles out of the sand in which he is half buried and discovers that he’s been skewered by a shard of wind-blown metal.
He barely makes it into the now unoccupied housing module where he performs a bit of surgery on himself and takes stock of his situation.
The outpost’s radio antenna was destroyed by the storm, so there’s no talking to NASA or the mother ship now heading back to Earth. There’s enough food on hand for a few months, but a rescue mission will take several years.
But Mark isn’t about to cave without a fight. Employing ingenuity that would make MacGyver envious, he cannibalizes the available equipment and creates jerry-rigged systems to provide water, oxygen, electricity and a greenhouse.
Meanwhile NASA (in the persons of Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the rest of the world are mourning Mark’s loss. At least until satellite surveillance of Mars shows signs of activity at the outpost.
Faced with the incredible possibility that Mark is alive, the best minds on the planet get to work on an ambitious plan to bring him home before his supplies run out.
From a layman’s perspective, very little happens here that isn’t scientifically plausible. The movie is practically a how-to course in surviving in a hostile environment. (You’d be amazed what can be done with duct tape.)
On the dramatic end, “The Martian” effortlessly balances knuckle-biting suspense with dollops of humor. In order to leave behind a record of his survival efforts, Mark records a daily video blog in which he views the red planet almost in human terms (“Mars will come to fear my botany powers!”) and laments that the only recorded music available to him is Commander Lewis’ cache of ’70s disco hits.
By the time the movie ends, you’ll be tempted to stand up and cheer.
Visually the film is terrific. Mars’ vast orange-ish landscapes of dunes and rocky mountains (many of the exteriors were shot in the deserts of Jordan) get the David Lean treatment from cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who clearly has spent much time analyzing “Lawrence of Arabia.”
And while all the performers are solid, Damon absolutely cleans up, holding down half the film without another actor to play off of and capturing his character’s shifting moods of desperation, determination, fear, pride and, ultimately, a sort of Zen-like acceptance of whatever fate throws at him.
A prediction: “The Martian” will receive Oscar nominations for picture, actor, director, screenplay, cinematography and in various technical categories.
“Gravity” was good. “The Martian” is great.