In theaters Friday, Oct. 2
4 Stars (out of 4 stars)
Matt Damon is whining about the disco music again.
“No,” he emphatically declares as one familiar up-tempo ‘70s song whirls in the background. “I will not turn the beat around!”
It’s an amusing line. But the most incredible part about it is that he’s alone and talking directly to a camera. On Mars.
Yup, The Martian — which premiered Sept. 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival — is that kind of picture. Both surreally funny and a 3D visual stunner, this first-rate film is one of the best of the year.
Damon plays Mark Watley, an astronaut and part of a team of NASA crew members sent to explore the red planet. But after only a few weeks on the premises, a severe storm hits and the mission is quickly aborted. Mark is struck by debris and left for dead as his commander (Jessica Chastain) and the team hightail it back into outer space.
Just one tiny glitch: Mark is alive and well. Fine, “well” is a relative term. He just stapled his bleeding stomach closed. He’s got limited food and water rations on the space station (called a “hab”) on a dry, dusty planet incapable of vegetation. His oxygen is limited. He’s unable to communicate with anyone. And, most damning of all, all he has for musical entertainment is Chastain’s lousy disco music collection.
Any other person would crumble under the circumstances. Not this guy. Damon, in true movie star mode, brings a self-assured confidence to the role. Using a video camera in the station, he v-logs his every move and thought. (Think of the camera as his “Wilson.”) Never once does he panic. Instead, as he tells us, he’s going to “science the s—t” out of his circumstances. To quote another disco classic, he will survive.
His ideas are nothing short of ingenious. A skilled botanist, he uses poop to fertilize and grow a potato garden. He combines hydrogen and oxygen to make water. (For kindle, he takes apart one crew member’s wooden cross.) And soon enough — yes! — he’s able to communicate to NASA via a computer server. MacGyver himself would be astounded. Through it all, he maintains a wry, if exasperated, sense of humor. Mark may be smarter than all of us, but there’s something about Damon’s performance that makes him an empathetic everyman.
The loose tone extends across the galaxy too. Back in Houston, NASA has a problem (couldn’t resist). How in the world can they explain to the public that this astronaut is alive — and then work to get him back home? In a refreshing twist, there isn’t a single scene in which someone gives an overwrought speech or a room full of men breathlessly speak in a mythologized language. No way. Not with Kristen Wiig(!) playing NASA’s cynical media director. She, along with the agency’s director (Jeff Daniels) and Mars specialist (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are wary, tactical, shrewd, and still playful. After the group finally figures out a risky rescue plan, Ejiofor hilariously attempts to decipher Mark’s reaction. Even in the pressure of the moment, he muses if the reply of “are you f—ing kidding me?!” is one of excitement or dread.
With all this snappy fun, it’s easy to forget that this is still a heavy-duty sci-fi film. Indeed, space master Ridley Scott — whose credits include Alien, Gladiator, and Prometheus — directs with effortless aplomb. The orange-red vistas of Mars look rich and textured, while the climactic sequence in space is a nail-biting thrill. Remarkably, he’s able to smoothly shift the action between Damon on that planet, Chastain and the crew in orbit, and the brain trust in Houston without ever losing the film’s exhilarating pulse. (And unlike Prometheus, he’s not saddled with an incomprehensible script, either.) This is his best work in eons; same for his unfettered leading man.
As for the disco music? You’ll learn to love to hear it.
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