Review: ‘The Martian’ confirms life — and fun — on Mars

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Turns out getting stranded on Mars can lead to a whole lot of fun.

“The Martian” is a rock ‘n’ roll rescue pic designed to make audiences high five over their tubs of popcorn. Forget existential dread, the fifth dimension and anything else Christopher Nolan explored in the drab “Interstellar”; “The Martian” is a rollicking outer space adventure with a classic rock and disco-fueled soundtrack and a good old-fashioned movie star turn from good old-fashioned movie star Matt Damon.

It’s no brain-dead exercise in moronism. “The Martian” packs a surprising amount of science into its script (by Drew Goddard adapted from Andy Weir’s book), but always makes it palatable to the audience. Character A says ridiculously complicated thing involving mathematics, trajectories and actual rocket science; character B explains what was said in terms those of us who don’t have Ph.Ds in astronomy can understand. It makes science accessible and botany cool, no small feat for a trip to the multiplex, where brain cells go to get obliterated.

Damon is astronaut Mark Watney, who, early in the film, gets left behind when a mission to Mars goes bad. From there, it’s up to his fellow astronauts (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña and Kate Mara), the NASA team on the ground (Jeff Daniels heads up the crew, which includes Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor) and several control rooms full of people who burst into applause to bring him home to safety. (If there was a Super Bowl for movies with scenes of large groups of people bursting into applause, “The Martian” would win it.)

Damon carries much of the film himself in stretches where he’s alone on screen, and he beams charisma in a radiant, confident performance. He’s not Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”; he’s surrounded by technology and devises ways to communicate with his command center back home. He feeds himself, learning to farm inside his space station by using human waste to grow potatoes. (The real disaster occurs when he runs out of ketchup.) And he keeps himself sane by filming video diaries and listening to pop music. The film’s use of ABBA’s “Waterloo” may have been director Ridley Scott’s sly wink to his rumored knowledge of the presence of water on Mars far ahead of this week’s surprise announcement.

Scott, whose recent track record is spotty at best (“The Counselor” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — anyone?), is firing on all cylinders here. (He tends to do well in outer space. See: “Alien”) However, he stays at the party too long. One of the great pluses of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” for example, was the way he wrapped things up in a taut 90 minutes, but Scott can’t resist stretching “The Martian” out well past the two-hour mark. There’s one big action set piece too many, one more disco joke than was needed. It’s not a deal breaker, but it does dull its impact, and Scott should have known better when it was time to come down to Earth.

Still, as far as a good time is concerned, he brings it home. Mission accomplished.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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‘The Martian’

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13: For some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity

Running time: 141 minutes