United States. Directed by Ridley Scott, 2015. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong. 144 minutes.

So one of the things you’ve probably notice me bemoan is the lack of epic, big-budget, thought-provoking science fiction that actually bothers trying to look like it’s getting the science right. The indie scene has had some success over the last few years producing thoughtful, low-budget SF; films like Upstream Color, Under the Skin, and this year’s very own Ex Machina have all stood amongst the best films of their respective years. But even the best recent tentpole science-fiction has been more about exciting the audience with awesome effects and action rather than evoking the wonder of science. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: I loved Star Trek, Looper, and Pacific Rim. But sometimes I ask myself, “Self, is Hollywood capable of producing something along the lines of 2001?”

I wouldn’t necessarily say The Martian is in the same league as 2001, but it’s a step in the right direction. Adapted from Andy Weir’s 2001 novel by director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) evokes the real-world verisimilitude of hard sci-fi without turning into a college seminar, and thrills and excites the audience without dumbing down the science.

Key to its success is Scott and Goddard’s interpretation of Weir’s protagonist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist attached to a six-person team studying Mars from the “Hab,” their base located at the Red Planet’s Acidia Planitia region. A severe dust storm forces the team to abort the mission, but when Watney becomes injured and lost in the storm, his crewmates, believing him dead, return to their orbiting vessel and begin their journey back to Earth. Yet Watney does survive, and with no way to contact either his crew or NASA, realizes his only hope of making it home depends on surviving long enough to meet up with the crew of the follow-up mission–four years hence at a landing site two thousand miles away.

The film puts the audience on Watney’s side immediately, granting him an indomitable, endearingly nerdy personality who pledges to “science the shit out of” his predicament and vows that “Mars will come to fear my botany powers.” The immense challenges he faces excite him, not overwhelm him, and if he dies, he’ll do so knowing he was a pioneer, the first human in history to have an entire planet to himself. This is the sort of role that Matt Damon was born to play. His performance, which he tackles with his trademark confidence, is so effortless you often don’t notice what a good job he’s doing.

The fantastic characterization and acting aren’t limited to Mars, as the story intercuts between Watney’s plot and three others: NASA management handling the fallout of the botanist’s “death” and coordination of efforts to bring him back when they discover he’s alive; the actual work of the science teams; and his crewmates’ journey home. These plots feature performances equal to Damon’s, especially from Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, and the great Chiwetel Ejiofor as the NASA managers; Jessica Chastain as the mission leader; and Community‘s Donald Glover as a scene-stealing, eccentric astrodynamicist.

If there’s one flaw in the script, it’s that it never quite convinces the audience that there’s any real chance of Watney not making it back to Earth. Yet Scott keeps the suspense high, partly through Pietro Scalia’s perfect steady pacing, but mostly through effectively communicating the scale of everything. Between the cinematography and the effects work, The Martian looks like Scott filmed it on location on, well, Mars, not a soundstage with a green screen. The script also consistently reinforces the vast distances the astronauts must brave.

The Martian earns its place among recent science fiction classics not just through its visuals or its story, but by inspiring a sense of wonder in its audience, and by embodying a faith in the human spirit that may seem corny on paper but is intensely moving in its execution. This is what science fiction, as a genre, is for. One of the best of the year.

THE MARTIAN poster.

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