There has to be a new trend in Hollywood. The space epic is back, and no, this doesn’t include the reboot of the Star Trek franchise or the eagerly anticipated new Star Wars movie. Instead, we’re getting films that actually deal with space and the hardships that go with exploring it. (Then again, if astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson can be a superstar, then anyone can.) The latest installment in this new zeitgeist is “The Martian”, an adaptation of the book of the same name by Andy Weir. Held up against the other space epics of this age, it doesn’t have the claustrophobic intensity of Gravity, but it’s thankfully free of the mind-bending philosophy of Interstellar. Instead, it’s an entertaining, well-made, enthralling movie that reminds us why Matt Damon is one of Hollywood’s best leading men.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist and part of a NASA space exploration team on Mars, but they’re forced to evacuate when a brutal storm kicks in. Watney, however, is presumed dead when a large chunk of debris hits him. However, he miraculously survives the ordeal but now has to contend with living on Mars long enough in the hopes that he’ll make it back to earth. Also, when it’s discovered that Mark’s alive, NASA and a motley crew of scientists and his teammates hatch plans to bring him back.
As far as space epics go, this one doesn’t stretch its ambitions too greatly. It occupies the same area as Gravity and Apollo 13 more than Interstellar. It also makes room for humor and a surprisingly light tone, aided by an excellent soundtrack that combines Harry Gregson-Williams’ appropriately sweeping score with a string of 70s classics ranging from David Bowie to ABBA to Donna Summer. The fact that Watney hates disco makes it even better.
Even for a space epic, there are some things that require suspension of disbelief. When Mark attempts to create water using a flame to combine hydrogen and oxygen, he ends up making a fireball that somehow doesn’t turn him into Freddy Krueger. Plus, all of the intricacies that go into bringing Mark back are perhaps far from anything that could happen in real life if such a disaster struck.
Regardless, “The Martian” is an excellent Hollywood movie. The creation of Mars is seamless, and director Ridley Scott keeps the story grounded in enough human drama that we continue caring about Mark and the attempt to bring him back home. The cast is uniformly excellent as well. Jessica Chastain shows that she’s in her element when she’s playing no-nonsense women who are strong leaders. Jeff Daniels turns in another fine performance as the embattled head of NASA. Kristen Wiig continues her evolution into the antithesis of the SNL-cast-member-turned-actress as a rather confused spokesperson for NASA. Chiwetel Ejiofor pulls off an excellent American accent and helps cement his place as one of today’s big stars. Donald Glover, AKA the rapper Childish Gambino, provides some laughs as the astronomer who provides the plan for how to get Watney back home more quickly. And this is the Matt Damon we know and love: charismatic, funny, emotional, he’s practically the definition of a Hollywood leading man.
“The Martian” is stellar viewing, and it’s is good enough to hopefully survive Damon’s unfortunate gaffes as of late. Bad PR aside, this film should pick up at least a few nominations, and you’d be hard pressed to find a film that has a better chance of snagging the Best Visual Effects Oscar. This one is worth it.