‘The Martian’: Matt Damon’s Merry Mission-to-Mars Movie

October 2, 2015 Updated: October 11, 2015

NASA is still trying to put a man on Mars. Which is quite noble. But, you know, sometimes I think maybe we might all be better served if NASA put its considerable resources toward helping to contain Fukushima. All hands on deck for that, right? It’s not inconceivable that we’ll all die of radiation (or at least irradiated tuna) before NASA figures out how to fly the human race 34 million miles from the blue planet to the red planet. Meanwhile we’ll soon be seeing three-headed turtles.

Well, Hollywood likes to put us on Mars right now (via their fictional NASA) so we can forget about Fukushima for two hours, and stick our collective heads in the Martian sand. Of which (like Eddie Murphy said in “Trading Places”), “There’s plenty, you know?”

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is an instantaneous, thrilling American space classic about ingenuity, courage, and all-for-one-and-one-for-all teamwork—definitely the most fun you’ll have screen-wise in October. Scott’s transcended the slump he was in, and there’s really nothing we don’t enjoy watching Matt Damon in.

‘Spaceman-genuity’

There’s a space crew on Mars, outside their module sample collecting, when a Martian haboob (Mars looks very Hindu Kush-like; “haboob” is Arabic for storm) blows up: red sand everywhere, blocking out the sun.

(L–R) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars (Twentieth Century Fox /Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
(L–R) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars. (Twentieth Century Fox /Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Due to an equipment malfunction, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney gets skewered with a flying antenna. While he’s down for the count, lost in the haboob, his crew abort the mission, blast off, and leave him for dead.

You can shoehorn even our most annoying, ickiest pop songs into a movie, and have the mash-up create a weird kind of wonderful atmosphere.

But he’s not dead! And he’s a botanist! So he jerry-rigs and MacGuyver’s up a greenhouse! And ransacks the collection of space-crew freeze-dried poo-packets to make some, ahem, in-a-pinch—fertilizer! It’ll be four years before anyone can conceivably get to him, so he’d better grow some tasty vittles. Such as bushels of pootatoes (not a typo).

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his ingenuity to subsist on a hostile planet.(Giles Keyte/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his ingenuity to subsist on a hostile planet. (Giles Keyte/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Ground Control to Maj. Mark

Back on earth, Watney’s given a hero’s farewell, and then the satellite-monitoring NASA scientists discover he’s still alive. What to do? Tell the crew? Nah—they need to concentrate on getting home safe. But is there any hope for a rescue?

First order of business, more low-tech jerry-rigging: Watney treks (in the Martian dune-buggy) a long distance to a buried piece of communication equipment from a previous mission, and with much duct-taping, a rudimentary spelling gizmo is hatched. Now Mark Watney, extraterrestrial, can phone home.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet (Twentieth Century Fox/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet. (Twentieth Century Fox/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Some of this jerry-rigging is reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr.’s lab-tinkering on the “Iron Man” suit, replete with an explosion that blasts him across a room and bounces him off a wall; it’s the same gag and almost as funny. It’s a sure bet Ridley Scott was inspired by “Iron Man”; there’s more than a little Iron Man-like maneuvering involved in Watney’s rescue attempt—hey, great artists steal.

Supporting Cast

Jeff Daniels plays the no-fun, budget-and-image-conscious NASA director, while Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the head of NASA’s Mars missions; much more in touch with the astronauts and scientists.

Donald Glover plays the rudimentary-life-skills-challenged super-geek who does the mega-math and masterminds a classified, high-risk meta-rescue involving a Chinese missile.

Kristen Wiig plays NASA’s director of public relations. Audiences immediately laugh, just looking at her, so conditioned are we to seeing Wiig wigging out, doing funny stuff. Which she does here in muted form.

Annie Montrose (Kristin Wiig), NASA's media relations director, and NASA's Director of Mars missions, Dr. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), do everything they can to bring home an astronaut stranded on Mars, in "The Martian."
Annie Montrose (Kristin Wiig), NASA’s media relations director, and NASA’s director of Mars missions, Dr. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), do everything they can to bring home an astronaut stranded on Mars, in “The Martian.” (Twentieth Century Fox /Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Sean Bean plays a NASA flight director. Look for a nice grouping of “Lord Of The Rings” inside jokes in his presence.

And then there’s Michael Peña. Peña’s in everything lately, and it’s a good thing too, because there is no more imminently watchable actor these days than Peña. It’s a rare actor who can fully own both extremes of the comedy–drama spectrum.

Disco Infernal

In American pop-culture, if you let enough time go by, you can shoehorn even our most annoying, ickiest pop songs into a movie, and have the mash-up create a weird kind of wonderful atmosphere.

Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns, it calls me on and on across the universe
— Lennon–McCartney

The barrel-bottom dredging of ’70s AM-radio musical cheese for movie soundtracks, happening in “The Martian,” undoubtedly has “Guardians of the Galaxy” to thank. It features disco “classics,” ABBA, and the fluffier David Bowie cuts jammed in there under the pretext that they will ship Capt. Melissa Lewis’s (Jessica Chastain) personal stash of tunes.

Will they drive Watney mad, should he discover them? Will they drive you mad? You may discover that the hearing of songs that normally provoke in you a knee-jerk flailing at whatever source is playing them (“Turn it off!!!”), here … they’ll make you feel strangely happy.

Funny Farm

Damon is the man for this role of the astronaut/farmer-as-standup-comedian, the only flaw being that the situations and set pieces telegraph lower-hanging-fruit jokes with obvious punchlines. Then again, it’s nice to see Ridley Scott, creator of creatures who bite your face off (“Alien”)—going for some laughs.

All for One and One for All

“The Martian” really boils down to the dedication of teams; people who signed on for come-what-may because it’s their calling—in this case ingenious jerry-rigging creativity and the brain-power to handle the math behind the astrophysics. And to use their talents to save one of their own; they can’t get enough of that. Neither can we.  

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet (Twentieth Century Fox /Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet (Twentieth Century Fox /Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

It seems apropos to end with a Beatles lyric more fitting for the film than, say, ABBA’s “Waterloo”: “Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns, it calls me on and on across the universe.”

Now somebody call the real NASA and tell them to help fix Fukushima before the world’s oceans turn red, creating two red planets in the universe, thereby rendering future Mars missions redundant.

‘The Martian’
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Péna, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes
Release date: Oct. 2
Rated PG-13
4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch