Last year, Matt Damon’s character in Interstellar got stranded in space and wound up doing some rather rude things to Matthew McConaughey.
This year, Damon’s character in The Martian gets stranded in space, but this time, he refrains from trying to kill Matthew McConaughey (in part because McConaughey isn’t in the movie), opting instead to grow potatoes using his own shit.
Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a fun—and funny—movie that’s lighter than much of the director’s often-dark fare. Yes, it’s about some poor sap getting stranded on Mars, but, no, aliens don’t burst out of 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 results in the evacuation of the rest of his crew. After an attempt by his commander (Jessica Chastain, also a veteran of Interstellar) to retrieve him, the crew leaves, 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 Prometheus), Watney starts trying to find a way to survive. 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 effectiveness of duct tape and tarps, and attempts 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.
Damon’s performance can be compared to the lone-wolf work of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. 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 Courage Under Fire, in which he played an ultra-skinny drug addict). Let the special-effects wizards and body doubles handle the weight loss. It’s important to keep one’s heart healthy when in one’s 40s.
Damon has never been funnier before in a role, with his Watney constantly making light of his situation and using a running series of jokes to entertain himself. One of the storytelling gimmicks involves Watney videotaping messages for mission control, and each one of those messages is entertainment unto itself.
The supporting cast is terrific, from an icy Jeff Daniels (who is as cold-hearted and emotionally streamlined as they come—and he damn well oughta be) to Chastain as the mission commander suffering from guilt pangs after leaving a man behind. Michael Peña provides comic relief as a sarcastic crewmember, while Kristen Wiig does the same as a NASA spokesperson.
Scott has been in a bit of a rut lately, although I liked Prometheus despite all the plot holes and inexplicable behaviors. (By the way, Scott recently announced at least two 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 in which they are chased by a creature with acid for blood.
The Martian could be in play for some Oscar honors. It’s an all-around solid movie with a truly winning performance at its core. Yet again, stranding Damon on a planet and watching him squirm reaps big entertainment dividends.
The Martian is playing at theaters across the valley.