If you had to boil Ridley Scott’s The Martian down to five words, you could do worse than this: “Matt Damon lost in space.” Thankfully, I have more room than that. And I’m glad I do, because Scott’s sci-fi adventure is the kind of film you leave the theater itching to tell your friends to see. Like Apollo 13 and Gravity, it turns science and problem solving into an edge-of-your-seat experience.
The problem that needs solving is this: The crew of NASA’s Ares III mission is collecting samples on the Red Planet when a violent sandstorm whips up. In all of the zero-visibility chaos, Damon’s Mark Watney is presumed to be dead. So his team (led by Jessica Chastain) evacuates and irreversibly heads back to Earth. But Watney isn’t dead, he’s merely a bit roughed up, and now he’s stranded 140 million miles from home. Watney’s team left behind only enough provisions to last a few months. Which sounds like a long time until we’re told by NASA officials (Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor) that it will take four years before a rescue party can reach him. Watney may be alive, but he’s living with a death sentence unless he can figure out a way to use his wits and turn the lifeless planet into a makeshift Eden with water and food. Fortunately, he’s a botanist. “I’m going to have to science the s— out of this,” he says.
There’ve been a lot of movies about Mars. And there have been a lot of movies about lone castaways (see sidebar). There was even one that combined the two, 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars. But The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s best-selling novel and Drew Goddard’s airtight script, is the first to make you feel what it’s like to be stranded there, thanks to both Scott’s 3-D visual grandeur (this is, after all, the man behind Alien and Blade Runner) and his charismatic Crusoe, Damon. Watney keeps a video diary to track his Mr. Wizard experiments and to hold on to his sanity—it’s his high-tech version of Wilson the volleyball. Damon sells these confessional monologues about thermodynamics, hexadecimals, and even Donna Summer in a way few actors could. He’s equally at home peddling pathos and punchlines. And he single-handedly turns an epic survival tale into something intimate and human.
The Martian isn’t perfect. There are too many secondary characters (Kristen Wiig, as a NASA functionary, just stands around looking concerned, and Donald Glover’s Aspergian physicist is like an annoying, rejected cast member from The Big Bang Theory), and Scott’s ending is disappointingly corny considering how uncorny everything leading up to it is. But it seems churlish to point out a few flaws in a film that’s such a thrilling testament to human ingenuity. It’s a rare blockbuster with the brains to match its budget. A–