Without Matt Damon, the solitary fight for survival on Mars would be lonely indeed. Alone on screen for most of his scenes as an astronaut stranded on the red planet, the Oscar-nominated actor is the winning heart of Ridley Scott's epic space adventure, "The Martian."
With Damon's charm centre stage, Scott has crafted an exciting, hopeful story about humanity at its best: The brightest minds working together for a common goal that bridges international borders and forges a feeling of unity.
Affable and intelligent, playful and determined, Damon's Mark Watney is so endearing and entertaining as a narrator and subject, it's easy to see why the world would want to save him.
The story begins with Watney accidentally left behind during a NASA mission to Mars. When a fierce storm forces an emergency evacuation from the planet, he disappears in the chaos and is presumed dead. He isn't, of course, and as his fellow astronauts mourn him during their months-long journey back to Earth and NASA officials struggle with how to explain his death to the public, Watney wakes up, injured and alone.
But he's incredibly optimistic and resilient. He fixes his wound with minor surgery and immediately goes about prolonging his survival, knowing it could be years before a manned spacecraft returns to Mars. He puts his skills as a botanist and engineer to work, devising a way to grow crops in the arid soil and make water by burning hydrogen. He rewires old equipment from a past Mars mission in hopes of communicating with NASA.
Watney is curious and talkative, keeping himself company by narrating his every move. He tracks his obstacles and progress in daily video logs. He chats to himself in footage from the helmet cam in his spacesuit, cracking jokes he knows no one can hear.
Seeing his efforts through various camera perspectives — the helmet cam, a bunk cam inside his sleeping quarters, a dashboard camera inside his space rover and the video diaries where he appears to talk directly to the audience — adds visual interest, though Damon would probably be just as magnetic talking to a hand-held camera in an empty room.
Meanwhile, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels at his most clinical) and Mars mission chief Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) learn through satellite photos that Watney is alive. As NASA spokeswoman Annie Montrose (a miscast Kristin Wiig) scrambles to protect the agency's public image, the men strategize how to bring the stranded astronaut home.
"The Martian" unfolds in three settings, all spectacularly realized by production designer Arthur Max. There's life on Earth, set inside NASA's sterile Houston headquarters and the lively Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and life on Mars, a dusty, red, rocky expanse where nothing lives (which filmmakers actually found in Jordan). Then there's life aboard the film's elegant spacecraft, from the rugged rover Watney uses to explore Mars to the Enterprise-inspired ship that carries his fellow crewmembers and their commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain).
Unlike other recent big-screen space trips, the science here is presented simply enough that no suspension of disbelief or quantum leap through the time-space continuum is necessary. It all seems plausible, and author Andy Weir, upon whose novel the film is based, insists it is, calling it "a technical book for technical people."
"I had no idea mainstream readers would be interested at all," he said.
With Scott at the helm and Damon leading the cast, "The Martian" is accessible and beautiful, cinematically and intellectually. Even though it's a big Hollywood production, Watney's survival really does seem in question, and audiences will want to join the international crowds on screen in cheering for his rescue.
"The Martian," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity." Running time: 141 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.