The Martian – 4 stars

Matt Damon anchors this futuristic mash-up of Apollo 13 and Castaway (with a little bit of Gravity thrown in for good measure), and for the most part, the results are positive. Stranded on Mars, Damon must learn to adapt to the planet’s forbidding nature, ingeniously deducing how to grow food, warm himself, and communicate with NASA to effectuate his rescue. This is an Oscar-nominated film and still in the theaters, so I’ll be broad in my comments. Damon – again – elevates a picture. We view him battling the elements and disaster, and he veers between gallows humor, heartfelt wonder when he hits upon an idea that can help him survive, and mental and physical breakdown. He’s a gifted and still, incredibly, underrated actor, often passed by. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. He was the heart of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but everyone was dazzled by Jude Law; he made The Departed tick, but the buzz went to Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and even Mark Wahlberg, who presented a compelling but not particularly difficult tough Boston cop and received an Oscar nod for it. In the Coen brothers re-make of True Grit, he near stole the picture, and I remember his smaller part in Contagion being the most affecting. This is his picture and while DiCaprio was excellent in The Revenant, Damon was more valuable to this movie.

The film is well-paced as Scott alternates between Damon attempting to survive on Mars and the efforts of NASA to rescue him. While we are with Damon, it is consistently compelling. When it reverts to NASA, it tends to become a bit more uneven, pat and pedestrian. It does not help that Jeff Daniels has decided to portray the director of NASA as some sort of mannered Aaron Sorkin archetype. It also does not help that Kristen Wiig is anywhere near this movie (as the director of Public Relations for NASA, she seems to be itching to show us her googly eyes). Finally, Scott is clearly aping Apollo 13 by giving us a picture of the NASA brainiacs as they work to save Damon. Unfortunately, unlike in Apollo 13, the science is less accessible and it is negatively juxtaposed with what Damon is doing on the planet, where he explains to us the science in his daily video logs.

Scott is no stranger to space.  His breakout film, Alien, was set in 2127, where space was industrial, dirty and haunted, and government and corporations conspired to screw the little man. Clearly, he is in a better place today. In 2035, NASA’s kindly counterpart in China subverts its own government to help Damon; the people who work at NASA have a certain blasé “I worked in a Blockbuster and I will never wear a uniform again” mien: and missions to Mars are the kind of endeavors wear crewmates can play kissy face.

My curmudgeonly nits aside, this is very solid entertainment.


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