WASHINGTON — Hollywood loves sending brave Americans to save Matt Damon.
Tom Hanks lead the charge in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), rescuing Damon from Nazi Germany.
Matthew McConaughey blasted off in “Interstellar” (2013) to find Damon on a distant planet.
Now, it’s Jessica Chastain’s turn to find him on Mars in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.”
This time around, Damon is sarcastic astronaut Mark Watney, who’s left behind on Mars during a major storm after being presumed dead by his fellow crew members (Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie). Alone on the Red Planet, he must use his botanist skills to cultivate a potato garden, his math skills to ration the remaining food, his communication skills to make contact back with Earth, and his survival skills to maintain enough warmth, shelter and oxygen.
Back at mission control, NASA’s chief (Jeff Daniels) debates whether to send supply loads to keep Watney alive or conduct a full-out rescue mission, encountering both obstacles and inspiration from his brilliant colleagues (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davis). After all, is it worth risking the lives of a half dozen astronauts just to save the life of one?
Based on a book by Andy Weir and adapted by screenwriter Drew Goddard (“Lost,” “Cabin in the Woods”), the film is intermittently intense, surprisingly funny and admirably human. It does what “Tomorrowland” (2015) tried to do, only better: inspire a young generation to dream big, think beyond our earthly realm, and study science as a means for mankind’s eventual saving grace.
Just this week, NASA announced the best-ever evidence for liquid water on Mars’ surface, surely making the drought-ridden Los Angeles jealous. As John Huston’s “Chinatown” villain said, “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring the L.A. to water.” In this case, NASA is bringing Hollywood to the water on Mars, tipping off Scott about the discovery months before making the news public. Unfortunately, the news came too late for Scott to change the script so drastically.
Even without the H2O, NASA should get a massive boost from these cinematic thrusters. The film breathes new energy into the space program, making science cool again. These untrained eyes have no idea how much of it is plausible — surely fellow astronauts will make their critiques in Popular Mechanics — but moviegoers will want to run out and buy twenty rolls of duct tape (or what filmmakers call gaffer tape), which is almost magical currency for Matt the Martian Macgyver.
We never become lost in the jerry-rigged engineering because Damon walks and talks us through it all with direct-address comments to a NASA webcam. His charming quips, self-deprecating observations and well-timed curse words are guaranteed to leave the audience in stitches. Imagine if Michael Scott from “The Office” turned to the camera to do his best Buzz Aldrin impression and you’ve got “The Martian,” only I have a feeling we’re not in Scranton anymore, Toto.
Damon is one of the few actors — save for Hanks — charming enough to pull this off. It was a passing of the torch when Hanks famously told Private Ryan, “Earn this,” and Damon has done just that, from “Good Will Hunting” (1997) to “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) to “The Departed” (2006), “The Oceans Trilogy” (2001-2007) to “The Bourne Trilogy” (2002-2007).
Move over, Star Lord. There’s a new space hero, only he admits his favorite superhero is Iron Man. Like last year’s sleeper hit “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), “The Martian” infuses an array of disco songs similar to Chris Pratt’s “Awesome Mix Vol. 1,” only sometimes it’s too cute for its own good. Do we really need to hear “I Will Survive” in the end credits? Can’t you be slightly more creative?
While Damon jams to extraterrestrial disco, a few other moments ring false at mission control. At one point, the talented Daniels gets good news on a phone call, only to lean back with a vocal fist pump, “Yes!” His right-hand-woman throughout the film is Wiig, whose performance is a series of concerned reaction shots. Someone please cut together a mashup of this. I beg of you.
These cutesy moments veer the film away from claims of an “artistic masterpiece,” settling instead for the realm of “popcorn entertainment” and “genuine crowd pleaser.” You can almost hear Scott shouting to his critics like Maximus: “Are you not entertained?!?” “The Martian” won’t win Best Picture like “Gladiator” (2000), nor will it win a Best Director Oscar like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013). But that’s not to say Scott’s visual imagination is lacking — it’s precise down to every detail.
His carefully-storyboarded compositions of red rock formations across baron desert landscapes will remind you of John Ford’s best Monument Valley vistas, from “Stagecoach” (1939) to “The Searchers” (1956). Then again, many of our best sci-fi flicks have long carried the title of “space westerns.”
From a pacing standpoint, “The Martian” is justifiably superior to “Interstellar” (2013), which also teamed Damon with Chastain. Both films drag a bit in the middle, but “The Martian” sticks its landing far better. It’s a fun ride that brings the genre back to the ingenuity of Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” (1983) and the lovable humanism that Ron Howard crafted so well in “Apollo 13” (1995).
Like Howard, Scott’s career has proven incredibly versatile, be it dystopian future cities in “Blade Runner” (1982), feminist desert chases in “Thelma & Louse” (1991), Ancient Roman battles in “Gladiator” (2000), doomed military warfare in “Black Hawk Down” (2001), violent gangster crime in “American Gangster” (2007) or Biblical fantasy epics in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014).
But Scott has always felt most comfortable in space, dating back to his breakthrough science-friction hit “Alien” (1979), which birthed Sigourney Weaver’s legendary heroine Ellen Ripley, and continuing with his engrossing prequel “Prometheus” (2012), which cast Michael Fassbender as an automaton. Fassbender will reprise his role in Scott’s “Alien: Paradise Lost” (2017) before the story connects back to “Alien” in the third or fourth prequel. How fitting that Fassbender plays Steve Jobs next week, as it was Scott who directed Apple’s famous “1984” Super Bowl ad for Macintosh.
Thus, Scott remains eternally fascinated by the interplay between programmable technology and living, breathing humanity — right down to the creation of Replicants. You could say that’s been the secret to Apple all along: creating cutting-edge tech that is still affectionately user friendly. You could also say that’s been the secret to Scott the filmmaker: never forgetting the human touch.
First, he taught us the glorious tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Now, he teaches us a new lesson: “In space, everyone can hear you cheer.”
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