Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Martian (2015) ****1/2

It's Oscars-time again, which means opportunities to see lots of “elegantly restrained dramas,” not to mention movies about the Holocaust and gay people. Movies, as Eric Cartman would say, “about gay cowboys eating pudding.” Not that there's anything wrong with that. Many of those movies are actually quite good. It's nice, though, to see a quality picture that is forward-looking, funny, and full of action. I'm talking about a movie that doesn't sit on your Netflix queue while you psych yourself up to sit down and watch it. “The Martian” is that movie!

Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who gets lost, presumed-dead, and left behind in a Martian storm. When he wakes up in a pile of sand to find himself alone on the red planet, the enormity of his situation is evident. Even if he can find a way to signal earth that he is alive, it will take four years to mount a manned-rescue operation, and he only has enough food for a few months. Mark doesn't just throw in the towel, though. He figures out ways to grow food, make water, signal earth, and so on. As he describes it later, “You solve a problem, then you solve the next problem, and if you solve enough problems, you make it home.” Meanwhile, the all-star cast back on earth tries to figure out a way to bring him home.

“The Martian” created a quandary for Golden Globe voters earlier this year. The movie is clearly a drama, but it's so full of humor that it wound up being nominated, and winning, for Best Comedy. Most of the credit for this goes to Matt Damon, who spends most of the movie acting by himself, and just kills it. He's funny, cool, and believable as an astronaut-scientist. He is also able to be poignant at times without sinking into sentimentality.

As good as Damon is, the movie gets a strong assist from its supporting players, including Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The movie also looks great. The scenes of Martian storms, mountains, and canyons are stunning.

As for the science, this is a movie that gets it right. Andy Weir's novel, on which the film is based, is reportedly considered required-reading at NASA. It's remarkable that the book was self-published on Amazon, chapter by chapter, before getting discovered and becoming a best-seller. For the movie, NASA was consulted extensively, and they were probably delighted to be involved. “The Martian” is not just funny and thrilling, it's inspiring. The film really celebrates the adventure and the necessity of space exploration, so much so that I might say it verges on NASA propaganda if I didn't agree with its message so much. As it is, this is a refreshingly positive movie for awards season, a non-cheesy, hopeful movie about what human beings can achieve.

4.5 stars out of 5

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