Matt Damon is Watney. He is a botanist stranded on the Red Planet with botanical powers. In just fifty-four days, he has grown green potato sprouts where nothing grows. Fifty million miles away from home, he is psychologically a cool problem-solver. Being left for dead on Mars,he tells us that he is “going to have to science the shit out of this.”
Much of “Martian” shows Damon taking inventory,doubling battery life,moving modules,making H2O by using wood shavings from a crucifix to create fuel and vapor condensation. He is spirited and funny. He needs a radioactive isotope, and he plays Donna Summers disco music, “hot stuff”, “I need hot stuff!”.
If constant communication is the hallmark of NASA,Damon works hard to reconfigure the signal. Using an old 1997 Pathfinder engine,he sets up a still frame camera and a spinning alphabet wheel to send “yes” or “no” answers and crude code. Damon chuckles that there will be no snappy repartee.
Jessica Chastain plays Captain Lewis, the person responsible for leaving Watney behind. She plays responsible well,but is not a very intriguing character. More collegial camaraderie comes from Martinus( Michael Pena),who quips that the Hermes is a lot roomier without Watney.While Watney sprinkles Vicodin crumbles over his baked potato, he videos Lewis to tell his parents that he has done something big and beautiful,bigger than himself. Director Ridley Scott gives NASA a public relations’ boost.
“Martian” is also a great promo for “doing the math”. The ending is much more exciting than last year’s’ space movie “Gravity”. Here a math whiz named Rich ( Donny Glover) in Pasadena adjusts a course that allows the original crew to pick up Mark Watney. With red ribbons flying,the hook-up is intense drama. Smarts and ingenuity win out. Chiwetel Ejiofor,Kristen Wiig and Jeff Daniels support from below, and Kate Mara boosts spirits from above. A film that champions brains and the astronaut training program and an up-beat can do spirit.