What does a fellow need to survive on Mars?
In a word: Science!
And other words as well …
Not to mention …
Duct tape! And … disco!
But above all: Science!
So important is Science! to the long-term survival prospects of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in “The Martian” that he even turns the term into a verb. To wit: “I’m gonna have to science the (expletive) out of this.” Said when ill fortune leaves him stranded and alone on Mars with only his wits and his knowledge of, well, you know, to keep him alive until a rescue can be mounted.
As a botanist and an engineer, Watney is well-equipped with the brain power needed to overcome the many obstacles director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard strew in his path on the Red Planet. The fact that he’s kind of a wise guy as well makes him a relatable hero.
Damon is perfectly cast to play a smart-alecky Everyman, which is how he’s presented in the Andy Weir best-seller upon which the movie is based. Daunted when a freak sandstorm injures him and forces his crewmates to blast off from the planet, believing he’s been killed, he quickly blows past despair and goes into “let’s work the problem” mode. That quote is one of the most memorable utterances in “Apollo 13,” a movie that “The Martian,” with its NASA-centric story and its all-hands-to-the-pumps, cooperation-is-key vibe, resembles more than just a little.
Back on Earth, the world, with NASA leading the charge, is gung-ho to help plucky, persistent Watney and bring him back alive. There are no villains here, no dark forces conspiring against the good guys. And that makes it a most atypical Ridley Scott project. The last thing you’d expect from the maker of “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Prometheus” is an unfailingly positive story like this.
The fact that Scott was brought aboard relatively late in the movie’s development (screenwriter Goddard was originally chosen to direct) may have had something to do with that. For whatever reason, it’s pretty sunny and often funny, a space oddity for a director not known for pictures with a sense of humor.
Quite a bit of the humor arises from the incorporation of disco tunes into the story, an element directly lifted from Weir’s book. Alone on Mars, the only music Watney has to listen to are disco hits left behind by his departed commander, played by Jessica Chastain. Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” are employed to great effect, underscoring and commenting on the action.
Oh, and duct tape? Used to make lifesaving fixes in critical busted components. Funny.
☆☆☆☆out of 5
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Director: Ridley Scott.
Running time: 2:21.
Rated: PG-13, for some strong language, injury images and brief nudity.