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The Martian review

Ridley Scott mines big drama from small stakes in The Martian

In space, no one can hear you scream.

That was the mantra attached to Alien and acclaimed director Ridley Scott for years, the same one that fueled his return to that universe in 2012’s Prometheus. We all saw how that homecoming played out, unfortunately. But for his next trip to the stars, Scott has flipped the tagline on its head: In The Martian, everyone can hear you scream, and everyone wants to do something about it.

Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian follows the team behind the fictional Ares III manned mission to Mars — and, more specifically, the man the mission leaves behind. His name is Mark Watney (Matt Damon), he’s a botanist, and to put it bluntly, he’s a bit of a prick.

Stranded on Mars and left for dead, our hero Mark Watney is forced to “science the shit” out of his situation.

Watney finds himself alone and stranded on Mars after the Ares III crew is forced to evacuate the planet due to the arrival of an intense storm, threatening to jeopardize everyone’s lives. Rather than wait out the risk, the crew’s commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) pulls the plug and aborts the mission. Unfortunately, Watney, the only one who disagrees with the decision, gets knocked out during the storm. He’s presumed dead, and abandoned accordingly.

Over the next several sols (an analogous way of saying “days” on Mars, essentially), Watney faces seemingly insurmountable odds in his effort to survive. At first, things look impossibly bleak. Food packed for this short mission will only last him so long. He has no immediately obvious way of communicating with NASA and the people of Earth. He is the only living person on the planet. It’s a grim picture.

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But leave it to Watney to “science the shit” out of his situation, as he puts it. After some initial fits and starts, including performing an operation on himself that isn’t quite as monstrous as Noomi Rapace’s alien pregnancy termination scene in Prometheus but still gets the skin crawling, Watney begins his quest to survive. For instance, he figures out exactly how to ration his current food supply and create some more, a process that provides a more literal way of saying “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Sub out those food items for feces and potatoes, and you get the picture.

Indeed, Mark’s story is, at its core, all about making a meal out of a crappy situation — and despite its nasty beginnings, that meal is actually quite tasty.

With The Martian, Scott successfully returns to his Alien roots in a way he didn’t accomplish with Prometheus. He conjures up an incredible off-world experience that feels extraordinarily faraway and yet intensely personal at the same time. The stakes are huge, and yet extremely small. This story is not about saving the planet. It’s a story about saving the one man all alone on a planet. While Scott’s most recent science fiction epic asked the big questions of “where do we come from” and “why are we here,” his latest effort instead explores a simpler premise: “I know where I am, but how do I get home?”

The movie also scores huge points with its sprawling ensemble cast. While Watney’s story is front and center more often than not, The Martian focuses on other people’s perspectives, from the global interest back on Earth, to the bureaucratic warfare waged internally and externally at NASA. There isn’t a wasted performance in the bunch, from Jeff Daniels as NASA head honcho Teddy Sanders and Sean Bean as his greatest detractor Mitch Henderson (keep an ear out for an unbelievable Lord of the Rings callout) to Donald Glover as an eccentric astrophysicist and Kristen Wiig as a public relations worrywart.

The Martian is all about being stranded on an alien planet, yet it’s one of the most human films in Ridley Scott’s catalog.

Outside of Watney, however, the most compelling story involves the Ares III astronauts aboard the Hermes, and their role in saving their stranded comrade. Every single one of them plays a powerful role, from Chastain as the laser-focused Commander Lewis to Michael Peña as Watney’s wisecracking friend. With her role as Beth Johanssen, Kate Mara gets infinitely more science-fiction (and science-fact) action than she ever even blinked at as Sue Storm in Fantastic Four — and that’s saying a whole lot, considering her relatively minimal screen time here.

All that being said, this is the Matt Damon show. And just as Damon has recently shown some unsavory aspects of his personality in real life, the character he plays in The Martian features some torn seams as well. Watney is arrogant, sure of himself, careless at points, but also incredibly brilliant, gifted and perseverant. It’s a perfect Damon role, in other words, and he does a great job at creating a magnetic character that you’re constantly rooting for, even when recognizing that he’s a bit of a dweeb. You get the feeling that even Watney would agree with that assessment — right up to the point where he would remind you that he’s a literal space pirate, of course.

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Drawn with compelling characters working against impossible odds in the face of an extremely personal problem, The Martian excels, delivering tense thrills and laugh-out-loud moments in equal measure. It’s a movie all about being stranded on an alien planet, and yet, it’s one of the most human films in Ridley Scott’s entire catalog.