It's becoming an annual tradition: A-list director and A-list movie star make movie about astronaut lost in space. And so after 2013's Gravity and 2014's Interstellar we have 2015's The Martian. It's less suspenseful than Gravity, less ambitious than Interstellar, but enjoyable stuff, balancing serious science with Hollywood hokum.
Matt Damon is Mark Watney, an easygoing astronaut on a manned mission to Mars, presumably mankind's first. When a giant Martian storm sends his crew scurrying for the escape rocket home, Mark bites the dust, literally, and is left for dead. This all happens in the first ten minutes of the film. The rest of the story intercuts between Mark's struggle for long-term survival and NASA's strategy to bring him home – you can't just send the crew back a day later to pick the guy up, because technology doesn't work like that.
What works best about The Martian are the fun little moments where Mark's scientific know-how – he's a botanist – come into play, saving his life and propelling the story forward. No surprise when you consider that Andy Weir, whose self-published 2011 novel serves as the basis for the film, is a software engineer who worked hard to make his story scientifically accurate.
However, Weir doesn't have a clue as to how government works – and neither do director Ridley Scott nor screenwriter Drew Goddard – for the film depicts NASA and JPL as organizations run, quite free of red tape, by two benevolent despots. (Much of their dialogue goes something like this: "Can you do this in three weeks?" "Yes, if we had the money." "Don't worry, I'll get it for you.") Well, who wants to agonize through bureaucracy dragging its feet while a lonely man faces death on the Red Planet? I do, for one, because it would have added more realism to the plot, and increased the suspense as well. As it is, the movie keeps chugging forward to its inevitable conclusion with only a couple of setbacks for the characters, all too easily overcome.
But no matter. The Martian is refreshingly upbeat and has an infectious can-do attitude. Damon is thoroughly likable. Scott, as usual, doesn't convincingly depict the passing of time, and I do wish the story could be as all-around smart as it is in so many individual moments. You'll have a good time anyway. It's no classic, but it's satisfying, and in this case that's enough.