Life on Mars

But no little green men in Ridley Scott’s thrilling space epic

Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels. Directed by Ridley Scott. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Just to be clear—there is no Martian in The Martian. That may sound like a spoiler, but it’s not. Ridley Scott’s spectacular new sci-fi/space-travel epic has plenty in the way of surprises and over-the-top story twists as it is, and the film “explains” the title’s significance only indirectly, as part of the interplanetary banter streaming from its lost-in-space protagonist (Matt Damon).

Botanist/astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is stranded on Mars after a hurricane of space debris forces his fellow crew members, who believe he’s been killed, to return to Earth without him. That sets up a kind of space-age Robinson Crusoe story for Watney, who must find ways to survive in a place where nothing grows, while also trying to cobble together the means of communication and travel from the scavenged remnants of technology.

And the realization that Watney is still alive pushes Mission Control (and, eventually, the crew on the ship headed back to Earth) into some rapidly evolving scenarios of high-pressure risk-taking in science and technology. If that sounds overly technical, rest assured that The Martian (adapted by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel) frequently pairs its scientific seriousness with the rambunctiousness of some of its characters.

The stranded Watney’s early declaration—“I’m gonna science the shit out of this!”—is emblematic of the film and its determination to put an audience-friendly spin on its science and its fiction. The ultimate instance of this off-the-wall approach to science and heroism comes via a solitary and otherwise oblivious math whiz (played deadpan by Donald Glover) who tosses off the mathematical miracle that will save the day.

Apart from Damon and (more briefly) Jessica Chastain, the large and impressive cast has little to do apart from playing to type. (For the record, Chastain is commander of the expedition crew that includes Michael Peña and Kate Mara, while Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor are at Mission Control.) But no matter—the action is spectacular throughout.