Don’t worry if you leave the theater confused by that unusual involuntary tugging on the sides of your mouth after seeing The Martian. That’s what we call a smile — because if one thing’s certain about director Ridley Scott’s lightest, fleetest, least labored movie in years, it’s that it’s funny, hopeful, can-do, and aims strictly to entertain. Triumphantly nerdy, pro science and smarts, the survival flick is based on Andy Weir’s science-y 2011 novel and it’s been adapted like a boss by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Daredevil). Its setup is so clean and direct, it could come straight from a ‘50s sci-fi movie: The small crew of the Ares 3 Mars exploration mission gets forced into emergency evacuation mode by a hellacious and destructive dust storm, stranding and leaving for dead crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a cocky, chatty, quirky botanist.
Although mourned and presumed dead by his crewmates (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, all good) he isn’t and refuses to go away quietly, picking himself up, dusting himself off, and spitting in the eye of a hostile planet by devising crafty ways of generating water, a food supply, and even a way to signal to mission control that he’s on the case. Things go south, of course, but The Martian, unlike too many other recent outer space sagas, doesn’t sweat trying to awe us visually or emotionally. It’s like a Robinson Crusoe on Mars meets Cast Away meets Interstellar and Gravity, only smaller, funkier, more ragged, self-deprecating and with a ‘70s disco beat — thanks to the only playlist left behind by one of Watney’s crew mates.
Damon proves that he’s just the right guy for what is often a one-man show. He’s spunky, resourceful, vulnerable with a heaping side of craziness. His scrappy confidence powers the movie. The Martian gets a bit shakier back on the ground at NASA HQ, with Chiwetel Ejiofor struggling to make something of his role as the guy trying to bring Watney home, some unnecessary slapstick and pratfalls involving Donald Glover’s offbeat astrophysicist, and the wonderful Kristin Wiig a distraction as a prim and worried PR functionary. But why quibble? The Martian isn’t deep but it’s a sleek, beautifully made, big-hearted wonder machine that will lift you in unexpected ways.