You won't find a space epic that's more fun to geek out at than The Martian. Director Ridley Scott rediscovers the light touch he's been missing in recent misfires such as Prometheus, The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott's film version of the bestselling debut novel by space nerd Andy Weir fires on all cylinders, fueled by a heroically entertaining performance from Matt Damon. OK, it's not a deep-think piece like Interstellar (in which Damon had a malevolent cameo) or 2001: A Space Odyssey. And there are no little green monsters busting out of human cavities like in Scott's Alien. But The Martian, with a you-are-there script by Drew Goddard, works you over without a hint of dystopian doom in all of its bracing 142 minutes. This suspenseful survival tale, smartass to its core, slaps a smile on your face that you'll wear all the way home.
"I'm pretty much fucked" are the first words Weir puts in the mouth of astronaut Mark Watney (Damon). After only 18 sols (a sol is a day in Martian-speak), this NASA botanist has been left for dead on the Red Planet. His crew, including Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan, all under the command of a no-bull Jessica Chastain, believe he died in a freak dust storm, his spacesuit and torso punctured by a flying antenna. So they abort the mission and head back to Earth, where Watney is mourned as a martyr.
Cue the complications. Satellite photos reveal that Watney is still alive, using botany ingenuity to survive. He even grows potatoes — you'll never guess whose manure he uses as fertilizer. But how is he going to "science the shit out of" his plight and stay alive for the four years it'll take to land a rescue mission (he has enough food for only a month)? You do the math. Actually, you don't have to, since the NASA director (Jeff Daniels), his Mars expert (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and their harried PR guru (Kristen Wiig, of all people) are back home sweating out a solution. Will the original crew members, still in transit to Earth, risk their lives on a rescue mission? I'll put it this way: The space program hasn't had a propaganda boost this effective since Apollo 13. As he was in Saving Private Ryan, Damon is again a symbol of the American determination to leave no man behind.
Cornball? Maybe. But The Martian is a hell of a joyride. Kudos to Scott, his FX team and the gifted cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, shooting in Jordan to rep Mars. Nice touch, too, having the diversion-starved Watney forced to rely on a collection of disco hits left behind by his commander. Some things really are unforgivable. Going nearly two years without company (think Castaway, or a longer Gravity) with only the occasional "fuck you, Mars" to show frustration, Watney comes close to coming apart. Luckily, Damon — a fine actor with the magnetism you only find in a true movie star — keeps you glued to the film. You're with him all the way.