Lawrence Toppman

‘The Martian’: One heck of a science project

Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney in 20th Century Fox's “The Martian.”
Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney in 20th Century Fox's “The Martian.” 20th Century Fox

One of my favorite lines from a science fiction film pops up early in “The Martian,” as stranded astronaut Mark Watney tries to solve one of many daunting obstacles to survival on the red planet.

“I’m gonna have to science the s--- out of this,” he says calmly, with the dry humor he shows through most of Drew Goddard’s screenplay.

That attitude remains the great strength and slight drawback to the story, which comes from Andy Weir’s novel. As Watney tackles problem after problem, we marvel at his adaptability and ingenuity without getting to know him deeply as a person.

Unlike “Cast Away,” whose protagonist he resembles after growing a scruffy beard, “The Martian” appeals more to the brain than the heart. On those terms, though, it’s compelling.

It takes place in three realms. The first is Mars, where Watney must find some way to extend his food and water supply, not freeze to death and transport himself to the spot where a future mission will land a long time later.

The second is space. The crew that left him behind, thinking him dead in the crippling storm that threatened to destroy their ship, learns en route to Earth that he survived. They must decide whether to come home or disobey direct orders, risking their lives on the tiny chance they can reverse course and collect him in a craft that wasn’t designed to do so.

The third is Earth, specifically NASA and related laboratories. There engineers seek ways to get supplies to Watney or send a rescue rocket, while their bosses handle a media blitz that galvanizes the world for more than a year. (Not likely, that. A few months, perhaps, given 21st-century attention spans.)

Director Ridley Scott abandons the obscure philosophizing of “Prometheus” for a down-to-Mars look at daily life under harsh conditions. As Watney copes with crisis after crisis, we admire his grit and ingenuity, though without feeling much suspense about the outcome.

“The Martian” celebrates both the indomitable human spirit and the belief that our species can, with patience and common sense, think its way out of almost any problem. If the film occasionally preaches, its message strikes home.

Good actors fill almost every role, from Jessica Chastain as the captain of Watney’s ill-fated mission to Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA official with a troubled conscience. It can be a bit distracting to see famous actors – Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Kristin Wiig – pop up in so many supporting roles, but they all perform well.

Damon makes an excellent impression as Watney, because you believe three crucial things about this character. First, he’s unflappable enough not to come apart when menaced by Nature. Second, his wry outlook allows him to stay sane where others might not.

Third, he’s smart in a practical way, not merely a theoretician or a philosopher. You get the sense that, if we could clone Mark Watney, space colonization might be possible, after all.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Martian

Cast: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara.

Director: Ridley Scott.

Length: 141 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (some strong language, injury images and brief nudity).