Red planet stepchild

"I'm gonna build the best sandcastle anybody's ever seen!"

"I'm gonna build the best sandcastle anybody's ever seen!"

Rated 4.0

Last year, Matt Damon’s character in Interstellar got stranded in space and wound up getting a little space madness and doing some rather rude things to Matthew McConaughey.

This year, Damon’s character in The Martian gets stranded in space, but this time he plays a character who refrains from trying to kill Matthew McConaughey (who actually isn’t in the movie), opting, instead, to grow potatoes out of his own shit.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a fun and funny movie that represents lighter fare for the often dark director. Yes, it’s about some poor sap getting stranded on Mars but, no, aliens don’t burst from his belly after breakfast.

Damon spends a lot of time onscreen by himself as Mark Watney, a botanist on a manned mission to Mars who becomes the unfortunate recipient of a satellite dish to the gut during a storm, a violent squall that mandates the evacuation of his crew. After an attempt by his commander (Jessica Chastain, also a veteran of Interstellar) to retrieve him, the crew bugs out thinking Watney has bought the farm. (Yep … that’s a botanist pun I just dropped right there.)

Watney awakens to find himself alone on the red planet with a piece of metal stuck in his gut. After another Ridley Scott directed self-surgery scene—reminiscent of that yucky self-surgery scene in Scott’s Prometheus—Watney commences survival mode. He fashions fertilizer out of jettisoned poopy packs, finds a way to make water, and is soon up to his ears in potatoes.

The Martian has fun with science facts involving things like the creation of fertilizer, the surprising need and effectiveness for duct tape and tarps on Mars, and trying to make fire out of mostly fire-retardant materials. Scott and his writers present these overtly nerdy aspects of the movie with great humor and the right amount of intelligence without making things too complicated.

Damon’s performance can be compared to the lone wolf work of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Mr. Hanks lost a lot of weight for that role, while Damon settles for an emaciated body double and digital overhauling in The Martian. It’s forgivable. Damon has done all kinds of body antics for prior films (most notably in Courage Under Fire where he played an ultra-skinny drug addict). Let the special effects wizards and body doubles handle the weight loss. The heart remaining healthy in your 40s is an important thing.

Damon has never been funnier, with his Watney constantly making light of his situation with a running line of jokes to entertain himself. One of the storytelling gimmicks is Watney videotaping messages for Houston, and each one of those messages is entertainment unto itself.

The supporting cast is terrific, from the icy Jeff Daniels, who’s as cold-hearted and emotionally streamlined as they come, and he damned well oughta be, to Chastain as the mission commander with guilt pangs after leaving a man behind. Michael Pena provides comic relief as a sarcastic crewmember, while Kristen Wiig does the same as a NASA spokesperson.

Scott has been in a little bit of a rut lately, although I quite liked his Prometheus, even with all the plot holes and inexplicable behaviors. (Scott recently announced at least two more sequels to Prometheus, so get ready for some more Noomi Rapace outer space shenanigans.) The Martian affords Scott a nice chance to play around in his science fiction sandbox while telling an optimistic story about humans, rather than one where they are chased by a creature with acid for blood and a taste for Harry Dean Stanton’s head.

I expect this one could be in play for some Oscar honors. It’s an all-around solid movie with a winning performance at its core. As it turns out, yet again, stranding Damon on a planet and watching him squirm can reap big entertainment dividends.