The Martian ****

Matt Damon headlines an all-star cast in this fantastic space epic.  

Is it worth $10? Yes 

The struggles of “Prometheus” (2012) aside, there is no director we’d rather have working in science fiction than Ridley Scott. The man who gave us “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982) knows the genre well and when in top form is capable of creating true classics. Whether “The Martian” joins the echelon of “classic” status remains to be seen, but it is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

The premise starts like a horror movie. While exploring the surface of Mars a group of scientists is caught in a violent storm. Melissa (Jessica Chastain), Rick (Michael Pena), Beth (Kata Mara), Chris (Sebastian Stan) and Alex (Aksel Hennie) are able to escape on their shuttle, but Mark (Matt Damon) is hit with debris, presumed dead and left behind.

But Mark is not dead. He wakes the next sol (each day is known as a “sol” on Mars; see below) abandoned, unable to communicate with NASA, and low on oxygen, food and other supplies. He also knows it will be four years before the next mission to Mars reaches him. To his credit, Mark doesn’t panic. He uses his background as a botanist to grow food on a planet on which nothing naturally grows, and even creates his own water. His intelligence is full of ingenuity and inspiration, and it’s a joy to watch.

Meanwhile, back home at NASA a communications officer, Mindy (Mackenzie Davis), discovers Mark is still alive. NASA suits Mitch (Sean Bean), Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Teddy (Jeff Daniels) try to figure out how to get Mark home safely as the whole world watches.

Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” Damon is alone on screen for most of “The Martian,” meaning if the audience doesn’t invest in his struggle the entire film falls apart. This is a rare and gutsy risk for an actor, and Damon is superb. Mark documenting his actions for the cameras inside his “hab” also informs the audience of his thoughts and feelings, all of which demonstrate how engaging, smart, frustrated and funny he is (you’ll be surprised by how much the film makes you laugh). The rest of the considerable ensemble is solid as well, but make no mistake: The movie does not work if Damon is not at the top of his game.

What’s nice about the script, which was written by Drew Goddard and is based on the best-selling 2011 novel of the same name by Andrew Weir, is that it doesn’t feel the need to create adversity for the sake of adversity. Meaning: Things are hard enough for Mark while he is alone and figuring out how to survive, and we’re fascinated by his ability to survive. Adding more for him to deal with, such as actual martians/aliens, would’ve felt forced and made it a different movie. Kudos to the filmmakers for not feeling obligated to present non-stop action throughout, for it is because we’re engaged intellectually as well as viscerally that the narrative truly shines.

With “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and now “The Martian,” we’ve had three top-notch movies about outer space exploration released in the last three years, all of which have been visually spectacular. Perhaps more importantly, each film showcases the ability of women to not only exist but also thrive in what is traditionally a man’s world (Chastain’s character plays a prominent role here). Let’s hope this trend continues.

“The Martian” is a terrific triumph of great storytelling, wonderful visuals, solid performances, and the sheer perseverance of human will. This is one of the best films of 2015, and arguably the best film director Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) has ever made, which is saying a lot.

Did you know?
One day on Mars, known as a “sol,” lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes. More details, via NASA:

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