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Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his ingenuity to subsist on Mars after he is left behind.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Martian
Written by
Drew Goddard
Directed by
Ridley Scott
Starring
Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain
Genre
Scifi
Country
USA
Language
English

On Monday, NASA surprised the world by announcing it had found water on Mars. To the jaded and conspiracy-minded – who are drawn to stories about the space agency like flies to the lights of Capricorn One – the reveal seemed less like a bit of great news in the annals of science and more a dastardly Hollywood marketing trick to promote Friday's release of The Martian. But Ridley Scott's sci-fi drama doesn't need any PR stunts: It's pure blockbuster cinema, expertly engineered to appeal to the widest audience possible. Mere word of mouth, not secretive schemes, will ensure its box-office success.

Of course, the movie is also the best advertisement NASA could ever hope for. Unlike recent films that portray space travel as a terrifying ordeal (Interstellar, Gravity, Scott's own Prometheus), The Martian makes the outer limits and the scientists who explore them not only fun, but smart, sexy and cool. Hell, I'm scared of simply sleeping outdoors and I walked out of the movie with just the tiniest daydream of strapping myself into a rocket and shooting for the stars (ideally with Matt Damon as my co-pilot).

Most radically, though, it's not brawn or quips or deus ex machinas that save the day in The Martian: it's simple intelligence and ingenuity. There's a central hero here, sure, but the film is not meant to celebrate the efforts of one man. Instead, the saviour of the day is science. I doubt a single blockbuster over the past decade could say the same thing.

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Credit for this wild diversion from the status quo chiefly goes to Andy Weir and Drew Goddard. The former's self-published novel is not only an expertly written thriller, but a love letter to the stirring heights of the human brain. (After selling 35,000 e-book copies in three months, Crown Publishing purchased the rights for a proper hardcover version.) In the wrong hands, a big-budget adaptation could have turned Weir's witty and technically sound, prose into plodding sci-fi gobbledegook. Thankfully, Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) is one of the smartest screenwriters working today and instead smoothed Weir's words into a tightly crafted ode to creativity.

The story starts in the near-future, where a manned mission to Mars is quickly abandoned because of a massive storm. In the chaos, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, who can be very charming when not mansplaining things in the press) is struck by flying debris and presumed dead. His comrades leave the red planet for their long journey back to Earth; yet, Watney wakes up just a few hours later, injured, alone, with few supplies and virtually no way of contacting home.

Instead of giving up, though, Watney starts racking his intimidating brain to, in his words, "science the shit" out of his situation. Soon enough, he's communicating with a gang of equally resourceful geniuses back home (played by a murderers' row of character actors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig), growing potatoes, hot-wiring land rovers and generally humiliating anyone who ever majored in English.

It's one thing to bask in the glories of science, though, and another to make it so much damn fun. And here is where Scott, with a huge assist from Goddard, shines. With expert pacing, sharp dialogue that never dumbs things down, and a cheeky disco soundtrack (yes), The Martian is nearly all things to all audiences: a ticking-clock drama, an intimate character study, a sci-fi comedy, a rollicking space adventure. It's almost impossible to dislike, which is perhaps its only flaw. When a huge film reveals its eager-to-please intentions from the get-go, the stakes evaporate awfully quick.

Still, that shouldn't discount the immediate pleasures of The Martian, nor its hopefully endearing after-effects. If everyone can get excited about an improbable NASA-Hollywood-Mars water conspiracy, surely we can also embrace a film that only wants to highlight our better, smarter selves.

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