Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain
4 (out of 5) Globes
Did Ridley Scott just make a feel-good rabble-rouser with an ABBA montage? It’s often easy to forget that the director’s name is even on “The Martian.” Scott tends towards the doom and gloom, even when making blockbuster entertainments; his last two were the particularly despairing Cormac McCarthy outing (“The Counselor”) and a drab and earthbound Moses movie (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”). His latest — set, like the pitiless “Alien,” in space and, like the downer “Blade Runner,” in the (near) future — meanwhile, is downright upbeat, even utopian, encouraging us to cheer and whoop, and usually to laugh. In a way it’s the most surreal movie of the year.
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Then again, look deeper and it’s not that cheery, starting with the corker premise. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars after a freak storm seems to have left him dead. Like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” he’s a man alone, with no way — in the first half, at least — of communicating with the team back home. The difference is Mark is more can-do, with a mordant sense of humor, especially when it looks like will almost certainly die a horrible death. He has real pluck, delighting in finding practical ways to, say, grow potatoes on the Martian sand. (Amazingly, some of his more outlandish tactics reportedly more or less pass scientific water.) And he has tech: he fends off isolation by recording video logs and the silence can be always be filled by one crew member’s old playlist, even if it’s all disco.
Damon’s good vibes go a long way to masking what a harsh and dispassionate film this is. It’s unabashedly pro-science in a way that’s hugely happy-making; at one point Mark even excitedly crows, through a beamed smile, “I’m going to science the s— out of this!” But it also understands that science is hard, that it takes time, that experiments routinely fail miserably and often succeed through excessive trial and error. And it understands that nature doesn’t give a toss about the organisms living amongst it. Not only does Mark struggle to survive on Mars, but the NASA brainacs on Earth — including Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and a ticky Donald Glover, plus Jessica Chastain and others as Watney’s old crew, still floating through space — have no easy time getting him back home. Once they belatedly discover he’s alive, it takes not only great willpower and uncommon genius (and what looks like billions of dollars) to get him home, but it takes forever — forever to construct vessels that may work, then another forever for to embark on the slow, slow, painfully slow trip through outer space.
Throughout all this hardship and frayed nerves, Scott keeps “The Martian” light and zippy and fun, rarely turning down a disco-laced set piece and always spinning failures and disasters, no matter how intense, into dark comedy. If it doesn’t seem like the brooding Scott of old, that Scott’s still there, bubbling underneath, ensuring this never turn too unrealistic or is anything less than a sloppy valentine to the total radness of science. (Early on in his stint, Mark is seeing grasping a crucifix. We might think he’ll turn to faith; instead he burns the metal down to help create a contraption that will create a food supply. Jesus saves.) It’s another tough, merciless, godless Ridley Scott movie about the indifference of the world. It’s just fun about it.