The Martian – 4 stars

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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, as usual, 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, too often overlooked. 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 played a stock tough Boston cop and received an Oscar nod for it. In the Coen brothers re-make of True Grit, Damon near stole the picture, and his smaller part in Contagion was the most affecting.

The film moves rapidly as director Ridley Scott alternates between Damon attempting to survive on Mars and the efforts of NASA to rescue him. While we are with Damon, the picture is consistently compelling. When it reverts to NASA, however, it becomes 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 negatively juxtaposed with what Damon is doing on the planet, where he actually explains to us what he is doing 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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