Review: "The Martian"

Based on the immensely popular novel of the same name, "The Martian" serves as more than your average sci-fi intergalactic go-around. It's also marginally better than the most recent sci-fi intergalactic go-around that somehow also involved Matt Damon being stranded on a desolate planet. This film is a tremendous return to form for director Ridley Scott, which seems weird to say, but lest we forget the drastic missteps that "Exodus" and "The Counselor" were. It's also incredibly smart, deliberately funny, and perhaps the best showcase for Matt Damon's talent that we've seen since…his last turn as Jason Bourne, all the way back in 2007? Hard to say, but it's anything but hard to process what this film was able to do.

Damon stars as esteemed astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, a remarkably self-sufficient and driven individual who is struck by space station debris while plodding around Mars, presumed dead, and left for just that by his sorrow-stricken crew. Spoiler alert: He's not though. He's actually just begun to live. (I need to start applying for tagline-writing jobs)

Once Watney takes a few days to collect his marbles and take inventory of each of the remaining supplies stored within the team's base camp, he remains committed to staying alive and gives way to some of the more delightful montages we've seen played out on the silver screen in recent years. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the entirety of the film's runtime could have been filled with Damon happily bouncing in between homemade potato plants against a backdrop of ABBA's greatest hits and I still would have enjoyed it.

After a while, NASA stumbles upon a realization that their golden boy may not be dead after all, and have no choice but to start dreaming up elaborate rescue plots, despite the fact that a manned mission to the planet would take four years to even arrive on Mars. The organization is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), a stoic, and rather unrelenting man who is consistently accompanied by his spokesperson/PR specialist Annie (Kristin Wiig) and inspired mission director Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Both individuals serve as perfect foil for Sanders' decision-making process. Annie does seemingly everything in her power to present the negative consequences which present themselves with each new plan, while Vincent and his extended team of nerds socially inept scientists work around the clock to create feasible solutions.

It's moments within the feature like this one where credit is most certainly due to both Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard. It takes work to make a series of scenes that boil down to nothing more than "this won’t work because X, Y, and Z, try something else" eminently watchable. Each interaction between Daniels, Ejiofor, Wiig (and jet propulsion lab head Benedict Wong) introduces something new that's somehow still the same. No single note is hit twice, and yet, not one of these scenes serves as filler. It all carefully builds up to something great (an unexpected and completely distracting supporting character turn by an actor with a presence that is simply too big for the role). But seriously, there's much more to it than that.

Unfortunately, each character besides Damon's does ultimately plateau as the film reaches its third act. That's the real shame of it all, because we still haven't even rounded out this stacked cast list. Back on board Watney's former space ship that's now Earthbound is mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), a character played by only the most talented actress in Hollywood today. And oh yeah, top notch character actors Sean Bean and Michael Pena are along for the ride in various capacities too, emphatically cementing this project as the best 2015 had to offer in terms of casting prowess.

But just having everyone there doesn't always guarantee the best performances across the board. Not that any were particularly bad, but Damon is really the only one who has to do anything at all. Everyone else just sort of fits into a certain slot to keep the film chugging along at a nice enough clip; which is fine, but isn't going to raise the bar for getting the most out of an ensemble.

One last casting note I want to include, only because two days later I'm still chewing on it. While we don't have access to the studio's character wishlist, who would have guessed that the search for the role of a stiff, smug, know-it-all a-hole in 2015 would begin and end with Jeff Daniels? Between this and "The Newsroom," I'm not sure I want to live in a world where the sappy, emotional goofball from both "Dumb and Dumber" and "Fly Away Home" is becoming typecast for that sort of persona.

What "The Martian" may lack in awe-inspiring performances it makes up for with its fast-paced plot that places a premium on intelligent people saying intelligent things. However, unlike "Intestellar," it manages to do that without 65% of the dialogue going completely over the heads of its audience. The emphasis is clearly on the science, and the fun and practical ways to problem solve from one day to the next. There isn't a scene of Damon constructing a make-shift ecosystem that isn't inherently interesting, and the same can be said for the NASA scientists back on Earth pulling their hair out to come up with a single workable idea. The movie knows when to make a joke, and there are plenty of jokes, to keep the mood light regardless of just how dire Watney's situation really is. It takes great care by a film's creative team to be given a storyline that's fairly dry (man is stuck in remote location, is left to wait and wait and wait to be rescued) and turn it into something so rich and full of life.

The film pushes the intensity meter up to 10 for the final twenty minutes or so, and while I hesitate to say that makes it the *best* part of the movie by default, the payoff is well worth the slow build that preceded it. I don't know what, realistically, this film's Oscar chances will end up being. It's far too early yet, but there's certainly nothing else like it showing now, nor do I think we'll see for a long while.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5 no-condiment potato dinners out of 10