Review: Matt Damon leads a smart ensemble in sincere and sharp ‘The Martian’

“The Martian” is a perfect example of why Ridley Scott drives me nuts.

Working from an aggressively smart and funny screenplay by Drew Goddard, adapted from the also smart and funny book by Andy Weir, “The Martian” is so confident, so relaxed, and so completely sure-footed that it almost looks effortless. It takes a genuine master craftsman to take something as complex and difficult as this and make it look easy, but it also takes an artist with a great ear to take something as dense with exposition as this is and make it practically sing.

So how does the guy who fumbled “Prometheus” and “Exodus” so hard that it felt like he was trying to sabotage the studio turn around and absolutely nail this in terms of tone?

Such is the unsolvable riddle that is Ridley Scott. In the end, what matters is that there are very few filmmakers who have the skill set required to make a film that so completely transports us to another planet in a way that feels both mundane and fantastic at the same time. There have been a number of movies about Mars in the past, and enough of them have been straight-up terrible that there's been a “Mars curse” as far as the studios are concerned. Here at last, we have a great film set largely on Mars, and while the easy urge is going to be to describe this as “'Gravity' meets 'Cast Away,'” that reduces the film to mere formula, and it's much better than that.

Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, a botanist who is part of NASA's Ares III mission, and as the film opens, he and the rest of his crew are at work on the red planet. Maybe the biggest buy-in that the audience has to make in the whole film is the idea that there will be a time when we're ready to send a whole series of manned missions to Mars. God, I hope that's true. We've got a lot of things to fix on Earth before we can start using resources that way, but I certainly hope we get there. Very quickly, NASA calls in an approaching storm, the Ares III team tries to evacuate, and Watney is blown away and evidently killed. The rest of the team leaves the planet, and Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) gives the order to head home, furious with herself for getting someone killed.

What she has no way of knowing is that Watney is alive and just beginning an ordeal that would cause most people to simply give up and die. Literally. Watney's a fighter, though, and a scientist, and he is unable to get himself to give up. There mere idea makes no sense to him. He's a scientist first, and like many scientists, he's damn near genetically programmed to solve problems. What I found most bracing about the film is how it is a constant celebration of being smart, of using your brain, of thinking your way through things. The film is often funny, and I feel like that's the disarming tactic that Weir (and subsequently Goddard and Scott) used to make it easy for people to digest the rest of it. Donald Glover, for example, makes a late entrance in the film as one of the thousands of people at the JPL working on parts of the problem, and from the moment he shows up, he's jittery and slightly freaked out, a combination of lack of sleep, way too much caffeine and the basic lack of social graces that can result when someone is used to working alone. it's a performance with a number of big comedy choices, but he's not playing a fool. It's that combination of comedy with big blocks of hard science that makes this feel unlike any of the films that might seem like precursors to it.

I prefer this film, both in story and in tone, to last year's “Interstellar,” and it's because there's no point where they suddenly just dump the science to start talking about the “power of love” or other such silliness. Instead, they keep everyone engaged in trying to find a real solution to the problem. And even as he keeps everything grounded, Scott isn't afraid to find some visual poetry when the opportunity presents itself. There's a gorgeous quiet moment in the film where Watney's driving his Rover through a large plain while Martian dust devils are blown up all around him, and that's one of those touches that I doubt anyone else would have included, or that they could have pulled off with the same delicate touch.

The entire ensemble cast is very good, although some people are given more to do, more to play with better-written characters. It feels like Goddard didn't fall for that trap where everyone has to have their “big moment,” whether it makes sense or not. Sebastien Stan's character never really takes off, but he's fine. Same with Kate Mara. Aside fro Damon, who is as good as he's ever been playing Watley, his own keen intelligence shining through, there are some other players who really register. Kristen Wiig has plenty of good small moments, and Sean Bean is not only very good as the NASA guy in charge of crew welfare, but he also gets to deliver a sly “Lord Of The Rings” joke that made me belly laugh. Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie, Jeff Daniels, Mackenzie Davis, and Jessica Chastain all have moments to shine, and Chewitel Ejiofor makes a strong impression as the mission leader.

Dariusz Wolski, working with the FX team, has found a way to bring Mars to rich and visual life that I found completely absorbing. Arthur Max's production design is very real-world and functional. Henry Gregson-Williams does a great job of making the score feel urgent and emotional without overwhelming anything. There are a number of strong and interesting uses of visual effects in the film, but the main thing I took away was how clearly it feels now like I've seen what Mars coud be.

Ridley Scott's “The Martian” is a smart person's blockbuster, with just enough emotion to make it all feel like it matters, but not so much that it undermines the genuine intelligence and resourcefulness of these characters. While tense, “The Martian” is ultimately affirming because it is a reminder of just what we, at our best, can accomplish as a people. It's a theme that ran through today's movies for me, and I'll have more on Michael Moore's “Where To Invade Next,” a mix of incendiary anger and wide-eyed optimism.

“The Martian” opens in US theaters on October 2, 2015.