After a space mission goes wrong, an astronaut is stranded on the surface of Mars and forced to seek out the essentials for life — oxygen, water, food — until help arrives. That was the premise of 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars, except the astronaut was accompanied by a resourceful monkey. Also, there were aliens.
The Martian, director Ridley Scott’s thrilling adaptation of Andy Weir’s unlikely bestseller, has neither apes nor E.T.s, but it shares that previous film’s adherence to science, or at least the plausibilities of science. If an astronaut were to be left behind on the surface of Mars during a manned mission under these exact circumstances — with a heap of life-support technology and other handy remnants of planet-roving — then yes, The Martian is sort of plausible (forget this week’s reports announcing NASA’s discovery of water on the red planet, because they would totally gunk up up the movie’s plot).
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Weir’s novel, which has legions of rabid fans even though it reads like the appendices of a fat Popular Mechanics compilation, has been smoothed over and streamlined into a movie-friendly yarn by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods). Most of the fun science-fact remains intact: How do you create water on a barren planet, much less grow potatoes? If it requires a minimum of four years for a spacecraft to travel from Earth to Mars, but the stranded astronaut Mark Watney can only remain alive for three (provided no accidents occur), how will he ever be rescued him in time? Forget wormholes and black holes; leave that stuff to Christopher Nolan and the Interstellar crowd. The Martian is about what could conceivably happen, all right?
Besides, all matters of credibility melt away under the warm glow of Scott’s grand 3D images (is there another director who knows how to use the technology better?) and Matt Damon’s friendly everyman demeanor. Scott has cast the movie deep: Seemingly every speaking part is filled by a familiar face, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as the director of the failed mission, Jeff Daniels (still channeling The Newsroom) as the head of NASA, Jessica Chastain as a fellow astronaut, Donald Glover as a personable nerd who saves the day and Kristen Wiig as herself (OK, not really, but she’s basically here to inject levity at random moments).
Mostly, though, there’s the charming Damon, talking to himself (and us) as he sciences the s–t out of his dilemma. Scott throws in disco music and gargantuan eye candy to sell the illusion. Yes, The Martian does look like it was shot on Mars, even though the film’s tone is suspiciously light and cheerful for Scott, who tends to thrive on a chillier, more dour habitat. But who can bemoan this great filmmaker a crowd-pleaser? The Martian is impossible to dislike, right down to its stand-up-and-cheer, ABBA-soaked finale. About that science, though: Could an extra-thick Hefty bag really protect you from outer space? Really?
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig.
Director: Ridley Scott.
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard. Based on the novel by Andy Weir.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 142 minutes. Brief vulgar language, outer space peril. Playing at area theaters.