Astronaut-in-peril movies make great drama. Since Tom Hanks’s Jim Lovell uttered the famous words “Houston, we have a problem” in Ron Howard’s riveting 1995 cinematic account of the Apollo 13 mission, there has only been one other such movie, Alfonso Cuarón’s phenomenal multiple Oscar winner ’Gravity’ starring Sandra Bullock (Reviewed here: http://www.moviesaccordingtodave.blogspot.com/2013/10/houston-were-fucked.html). That is, until now. In ‘The Martian,’ Matt Damon delivered one of his best performances to date as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist who became stranded on Mars after his fellow Ares 3 crew mates mistook him for dead while evacuating from the Red Planet due to a severe storm.
Adapted from the 2011 bestseller by Andy Weir, ‘The Martian’ is another fine addition to the astronaut-in-peril subgenre. What’s compelling about these movies is that we get to witness American innovation and ingenuity first-hand in solving challenging practical engineering problems (like “fitting square pegs into round holes,” to use another ‘Apollo 13’ reference) under extreme life-and-death situations. While the pace of ‘The Martian’ is more measured than that in ‘Gravity,’ it is in many ways superior to the 2013 seven-time Oscar winner, thanks largely to Damon’s bravura performance. His Watney is a fascinating character who’s at once engaging, charismatic, clever, optimistic and full of wry humor, a true “MacGyver in space” who elicits chuckles from such witty observations as being the first Mars colonist because he grew crops or a “space pirate” since he’s hijacking the Ares 4 Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) when international maritime laws apply. The movie gets away with “breaking the fourth wall” by having Watney maintain an ongoing video log while speaking directly to the camera in order to chronicle his experiences for posterity, which provides the audience with a more "personal" viewing experience.
With an excellent ensemble cast including Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and what had to be the two prettiest astronauts to ever fill a spacesuit on-screen, Jessica Chastain (Ares 3 mission commander/disco lover Melissa Lewis) and Kate Mara (specialist Beth Johanssen), ‘The Martian’ is the latest tour de force from acclaimed director Ridley Scott, arguably his best since the Roman swords-and-sandals epic ‘Gladiator.’