(Video) 'The Martian' Movie Trailer: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet.
Run time: 2 hours 21 minutes
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig
Director: Ridley Scott
This is what science-fiction filmmaking is all about: transporting an audience to a place they've never been with such uncanny authenticity that everyone looks baffled to discover they're sitting in a theater when the lights come up.
Based on the phenomenally popular 2014 book of the same name by software engineer turned novelist Andy Weir, The Martian begins with a bang: A team of NASA astronauts is trundling around the surface of the fourth rock from the sun when a massive sandstorm blows up. Before they can all return safely to the mother ship, however, botanist Mark Watney (Damon) gets clobbered by a piece of windblown equipment and disappears into the dark. Assuming Watney is dead, the team reluctantly blasts off for home. It's a pulse-pounding sequence, one of several in the film that will only enhance Scott's reputation as a peerless orchestrator of action scenes (his prior movies include Blade Runner, Alien and Blackhawk Down).
Obligatory mayhem aside, though, The Martian becomes an almost transcendent experience after Watney comes to on the planet's surface and slowly realizes he is now more alone than any man since Adam. Though computer generated, the vast landscape of Mars creates a compelling visual canvas for that isolation. But it is Damon's deftly understated performance that communicates his profound solitude — and his determination to survive a situation that is, on the face of it, unsurvivable.
Watney wastes little time feeling sorry for himself. As he remarks in a video diary he keeps, he needs to figure out how to grow food, create water and alert NASA he's still alive. Applying his skills as a botanist, Watney uses the crew's vegetable stores to plant a potato garden, fertilizing the sterile Martian soil with compost. Then he MacGyvers himself a water generator, crowing without fear of contradiction, "I am the greatest botanist on this planet!"
That seemingly endless font of good humor endears Watney to us from the start. Scott doesn't bother to set up situations of such peril that we wonder if our hero will survive — from the start, we have no doubt Watney will somehow walk on terra firma again. Rather, the joy of The Martian comes in seeing Watney face one challenge after another, then devise a way to overcome it. Failures are viewed as temporary obstructions, not dead ends. Watney is one sharp wafer for sure, but Damon and Scott let us in on his thinking so thoroughly that we become convinced that we, too, could resurrect an old Mars rover to send an SOS back to Earth.
While Watney makes Mars his own, we also see his colleagues, now alerted to his predicament, hatching schemes to beam him up. As NASA's chief administrator, Jeff Daniels pays cursory lip service to the notion that it's unwise to risk several lives to save one, but he and we all know where this is heading: Like a parent who forgot his kid at the grocery store, the mother ship will make a big U-turn and pick up the straggler. All he has to do is stay alive for two years, until they pull up to the planetary curb.
The Martian is no cautionary tale. It dispenses no pat lessons about international politics (though the Chinese do lend a technical hand), delivers no lectures about the dangers of technology run amok, wags no fingers about corporate greed.
Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.