Damon’s latest blockbuster combines daring, dirt and disco to winning effects

Stranded on Mars, abandoned astronaut Mark Watney is faced with a choice: succumb to the starvation, injuries and harsh climes that threaten his life, or attempt to survive on this planet in the hopes of rescue. After all, help is only 140 million miles away. Luckily for viewers of director Ridley Scott’s film “The Martian,” Watney (played by a superb Matt Damon) chooses the latter, fighting throughout the 144-minute epic to return home to Earth.

More “Castaway than “Gravity,” “The Martian” relies less on feats of cinematic wizardry and more on the story of how far one man will go to survive against the odds. Watney could be anywhere – an island, the frozen tundra, or a desert – but it just so happens that he’s on Mars, unwittingly left for dead by his Ares III crew amid an unexpected storm. The film’s otherworldly backdrop could easily become its crutch if it weren’t for Damon’s performance. With a sizable amount of self-deprecating humor, realistic ingenuity and touch of human frailty, Watney is relatable without becoming just another cookie-cutter hero. The running gag of disco music throughout the film, left behind by one of Watney’s crewmembers, doesn’t hurt either (“I Will Survive,” anyone?).

While Watney tools around growing potatoes and building communication devices on Mars, NASA is stunned at learning he’s alive. Led by stony director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and agency spokesperson Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), the guys on the ground must now decide how to rescue Watney – or if that’s even possible. Daniels’ portrayal is stiff at best, while Wiigg is frankly miscast in this somber role. It’s thanks to Chiwetel Eijofor and Sean Beans’ portrayals of mission and flight directors that the NASA crew finds its heart, the two daring to advocate for a rescue plan most deem unthinkable, rerouting the Ares III crew’s flight back to Mars to rescue their abandoned botanist. The only problem: no one tells the crew Watney isn’t dead.

Helmed by a stellar cast – Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie – there’s no doubting the Ares III crew’s star power. The only question is do they have the guts to do the unthinkable? That’s for space to decide.

With almost as many moving plot points as a “Bourne” movie, “The Martian” is far from a relaxing affair. First there’s all the science to digest (realistic as it is), over two-hour running time to contend with and the fact that nearly all the action takes place in a pretty boring landscape (Red Planet, that’s for sure). That’s not taking into account a squeamish scene involving Watney, a metal pole and some staples or the whole zero gravity/zero oxygen/zero chance of survival circumstances that are just typical space. You get the idea. But underneath all those stress-inducing circumstances is a storyline with undeniable staying power courtesy of Drew Goddard’s surprisingly funny screenplay and that star-studded cast.

“The Martian” is a lot of things – space drama, character study, comedy about a guy growing potatoes by himself for two years – but it’s also a film that makes you marvel at humans’ capacity for that most basic of all things, life itself. There are two choices at hand: go and enjoy the story or go and enjoy the disco music. Either way you’ll be glad you did.

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