By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer
"The Martian" opens with six astronauts on the surface of Mars, conducting routine research as part of the ARES 3 space mission. Fifteen minutes later, only one remains, inadvertently abandoned by his crewmates after being seemingly killed in an intense dust storm.
This astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is stranded with extremely limited resources on a planet incapable of supporting life, and no clear method of communication with Earth.
Most would literally and existentially crumble under the hopelessness of the situation. Watney's thoughts on his likely demise light-years from home? "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."
Watney is a both a world-class botanist and an extremely innovative mind, allowing him to MacGyver his way into growing plants, creating water, as well as eventual contact with NASA, which begins to organize an urgent rescue.
Despite his ingenuity, he will ultimately run out of resources, turning "The Martian" into a race against the clock, with Watney's life on the line.
Although "The Martian" is very predictable, that's as far as I'll go with plot details, since much of this film's appeal is derived from witnessing the narrative firsthand.
If there's one attribute that truly sets "The Martian" away from the rest of the space-disaster genre ("Gravity", "Apollo 13," etc.) it's the film's great sense of humor. Some of the best laugh-out-loud moments of the year happen here, and situations that would be considered catastrophic in any other movie are rendered hilarious through Watney's honest and flippant attitude.
Although it is very funny - even a bit excessively so - it isn't fair to say that "The Martian" is a comedy. Director Ridley Scott never lets us get quite comfortable with our laughter, keeping the tone constantly dark by throwing disastrous and tense moments at us. However, many of these moments feel a bit predictable, depriving us of the extreme shock that the characters are experiencing.
The success of "The Martian" inevitably rests on the shoulders of Matt Damon, who proves himself yet again with a great performance as Mark Watney. Damon skillfully balances the dramatic and comedic sides of his character, maintaining his dark optimism without ever seeming truly hopeful.
The ensemble cast in "The Martian" is simply amazing, in both scope and quality, with Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover all delivering strong performances.
"The Martian" also marks the return of Ridley Scott to prime form, following nearly a decade of critical misfires. Scott manages to flesh out his entire cast, giving the audience a strong connection with each character, but never forcing any single one into a definite supporting role since Watney always remains the priority.
Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard do a great job of translating Andy Weir's novel of the same name to the screen, slimming down some of the more cumbersome portions and making the very technical text accessible to all audiences. Small ticks, such as how Watney narrates his actions to various onboard cameras, doubly inform us on his biological marvels and emphasizes his absolute solitude.
However, this same practice can sometimes make his character feel a bit overly dumbed down to help process the information onscreen for the audience - the same man who makes life on a dead planet shouldn't have to transcribe H-O-W-A-L-I-V-E into 'How alive?'
Although not as aesthetically breathtaking as some earlier space films, the visuals in "The Martian" are gorgeous in their own right, juxtaposing the vast craters and deserts of Mars with the meticulous organization of NASA's control rooms and the chaotic clusters of earthly cities.
The soundtrack of "The Martian" is also this year's "Guardians of the Galaxy," giving the seemingly bleak film a '70s disco undertone that works better than I expected.
While "The Martian" does fault in its occasional overuse of humor and over-explanation, it remains the return of an iconic director to his peak element, one of the best ensemble performances of the year and a great film with a triumphant story that smiles in the face of certain doom.
In space, no one can hear you scream, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to laugh.