This isn’t Ridley Scott’s first trip to space but the director of “Alien” and “Prometheus” takes a different kind of journey in “The Martian.” Thrilling, funny and, above all, human, it’s a crowd-pleasing story about the power of the will to survive.
Matt Damon is Mark Watney, an astronaut left for dead during a mission to Mars. As the rest of the crew heads for Earth (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Michael Peña and Sebastian Stan) Watney comes to 140 million miles from home. A botanist by trade, to survive he knows he’ll have to “science the BLEEP out of this.” Rationing the food left behind and growing his own potatoes he’s able to feed himself, but the supplies won’t last forever.
When NASA receives a message from Mars, “Hi, I’m Mark Watney and I’m still alive… obviously,” teams of scientists and Mark’s old crew stage a daring rescue attempt.
The trick to casting a movie like “The Martian” lies in finding an actor able to hold the screen for extended periods of time by himself while being likeable enough to have an audience care whether or not he makes it back to Earth in one piece. Since Tom Hanks has aged out of playing roles like this, Damon, recently named as Hollywood’s Most Bankable Actor by Forbes, is that guy. His mix of humour, smarts and all-American problem solving keep you invested in Watney during the long stretches he putters around finding ways beat the insurmountable odds.
The rest of the film isn’t as engaging as Damon’s “Castaway” act. “The Martian” is composed of three components: Life on Mars, Ground Control and the Space Cowboys who hurtle through the universe to rescue their lost friend. Each are well cast—Jeff Daniels is perfect as the spearhead of the NASA rescue and Peña brings some wonky good humour—but the when the film leaves the Red Planet it leaves some of its heart behind. There is drama, conflict and even some humour in all segments, but the compelling stuff happens when the film is at its quietest, when Damon is alone MacGyvering his way out of a bad situation.
“The Martian” is a fun film, a space Western about the strength of the human spirit and the indomitable will. “Interstellar” tread similar thematic ground last year but did so without the humour, the cheesy 70’s soundtrack or, most importantly, Matt Damon.