Prometheus wasn’t a bad movie, not by any stretch, but it clearly left a bad aftertaste in the mouths of many of sci-fi maestro Ridley Scott’s most ardent fans. It was beautiful and well acted, but it was bloated and confusing — and it left too many damn questions unanswered.
His latest, The Martian, is unencumbered by the Alien mythos, and, without the weighty expectations or complex philosophizing, Scott delivers his most enjoyable film since 2007’s American Gangster. The Martian is also light years less jumbled than last year’s divisive space epic, Interstellar, with all its black holes and mystical bookshelves.
At its core, The Martian is a crowdpleaser, delightfully retro and reminiscent of ‘90s sci-fi blockbusters like Apollo 13, Deep Impact, and Armageddon in its devotion to convention and accessibility (yes, that’s meant as a compliment). You can expect obligatory shots of flag-waving crowds cheering rescue efforts on huge billboards in Times Square, and — unless you lack a heart — it will make you happy.
The premise is simple: A NASA crew gets walloped by an unexpected storm while on a mission on the red planet, and during the chaos, one of the astronauts, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is presumed deceased and left behind. He’s not dead, but he is royally screwed, as it will take NASA more than a year to return — if he can survive that long on meager food supplies and mad botany skills. The film then pivots, dividing time between Watney’s efforts to harvest potatoes and “science the s–t” out of the situation, as he puts it, and various rescue plans from both NASA’s earthbound teams (with a lively supporting cast that includes Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover) and Watney’s still-orbiting crew (captained by Jessica Chastain).
With space enthusiast Damon (The Martian marks his third intergalactic outing in as many years after Elysium and Interstellar) spending most of the story by himself, the film has license to let him explain his every move, one of the many ways the thriller avoids its own narrative black holes. But The Martian is not dumbed down. Based on a popular novel by Andy Weir and expertly adapted by screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), Scott makes sure the film consciously blends drier and more complex scientific elements with levity and one-liners — with a dash of disco.
It’s too early yet to see how Scott’s sci-fi faithful and the scientific community respond to this approach (you’re on the clock, Neil DeGrasse Tyson), but as pure entertainment, The Martian is fun, it’s thrilling, and it won’t make your head hurt.
The Martian opens Oct. 2. Watch the trailer: