The last time Matt Damon went into space, he was a scientist driven to insanity and attempted murder after isolation on a distant ice planet in "Interstellar." Now, in "The Martian," he's once again a scientist stuck alone on a foreign planet but, instead of lapsing into bitterness over his abandonment, he turns into a Boy Scout with killer survival skills, a dry sense of humor, and a growing appreciation for disco music.
If that sounds a bit loopy, this is exactly what makes "The Martian" -- based on the bestseller by Andy Weir -- such a welcome switch from the usual serious tone of movies about people who find themselves stranded and on the edge of death.
From "Gravity" to "127 Hours," both remarkable films in their own way, there's a tendency for filmmakers to aim for the awe-struck and transcendent as the hero teeters on the abyss.
But Mark Watney (Damon) doesn't have much time for reflection as he needs to find a way to stay alive long enough on Mars for NASA to send someone to rescue him. He has more come-to-science than come-to-Jesus moments.
He's in this situation because his team of astronauts, including commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and his best friend Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), is overwhelmed by a sandstorm that's much worse than NASA predicted. It's so bad that they're ordered to abandon the mission and head back to Earth. But Mark is laid low by a flying piece of debris and presumed dead. When he wakes up many hours later, he's totally on his own.
What follows is a master class in making do as Mark, trained as a botanist, has to find a way to communicate with Earth, make the remaining rations last, create water and a conducive environment to enable some potatoes to grow, and not go insane -- that's where the disco stored on Melissa's computer comes in handy.
Directed by Ridley Scott ("Blade Runner," "Black Hawk Down") with a surprisingly light touch, "The Martian" maintains the humor readers liked about Weir's novel, and the film is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Though he may be a science Superman, Mark is just a regular guy who wants to get home, all while grooving to Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff." Damon proves adept at portraying both sides of Mark's personality.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA -- led by Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) -- has to navigate the tricky issue of telling the world Mark is alive after announcing his death. (Kristen Wiig is the head of public relations but she plays it fairly straight.) More to the point, they have to find a way to get him back and decide if it's even possible.
For all of its veneer of real science, "The Martian" does have an air of the fanciful. That Mark could be so level-headed and not prone to anger or self-pity seems beyond human and many have already dissected how "true" the film's science is. But the general consensus is that "The Martian" gets a lot right.
More than that the near-future of "The Martian" seems to be more harmonious than our current world.
Not everything works. "The Martian" isn't as engaging in its second half as the first. It becomes more predictable as it becomes more of a rescue story and less of one about survival.
Still, this marks a solid return to form for Scott, whose last few films ("Exodus: Gods and Kings," "The Counselor" and "Prometheus") have veered from the leaden to the unwatchable. Scott may have found himself by getting lost in space.
3 out of 4 stars
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rated: PG-13 (some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity)
Running time: 141 min.