The Martian

Astronaut Mark Watney, part of a 6-man mission to Mars, is caught in a terrible storm and left for dead by his fleeing colleagues.  Some time later, he wakes up and finds himself alone on an alien planet.  Uh-oh.

Doesn’t sound very promising, does it?  But this is a terrific movie, one of the best I have seen in a very long time.

One of this movie’s most absorbing features is its approach to problem-solving.  We keep waiting for our intrepid left behind astronaut to panic or give in to despair.  Instead, he looks at his survival as a complex problem to be first unpacked and then solved in stages.  Deal with the most urgent needs first (oxygen – check; stop bleeding from stomach – check) before moving on to figuring out how much food and water you have, and how much you are going to need to survive for several years.  Work that out, and pretty soon, you’re devoting time to figuring out how to transport yourself halfway across the planet, when your only vehicle is a rover powered by a battery with a range of 35 miles. It’s fascinating watching Watney working out answers to each of these problems in turn, particularly since most his solutions are essentially low-tech (no deus ex replicators here).

Eventually (spoiler alert) Watney makes contact with NASA, and then the focus of the action changes to organizing a potential rescue.  Geeks at JPL construct a replica of Watney’s rover, and together they try to figure out how to jury-rig it for a long journey.  But even here, the best engineers are still working mostly with hammers and nails.  Only the astrophysicists use “modern” technology to work out rescue routes — and it’s none too certain.

Matt Damon is terrific as Watney, playing him with just the right balance of sardonic gallows humor and hard-headed science geekery.  The rest of the cast is full of big-ticket actors largely wasted in small roles, although rarely have scientists, engineers and yes, even government bureaucrats been portrayed so sympathetically.  Jessica Chastain is a standout as a mission commander who works by the “feminine” method of consensus, but whose leadership in making the hard calls is unquestioned.  The guy who plays the head JPL geek — large, unkempt and brilliant – is great too.

The cinematography is, as you might expect, outstanding.   I don’t know where they shot this movie (Utah?  Arizona?) but wherever it “really” is, it sure looks like something that might be Mars.

This  movie is almost 2 1/2 hours long, and for most of that time, all you see is one guy on screen talking to himself.  I didn’t look at my watch once.  It’s even a good choice for family viewing — any 8-year old will be able to figure out what is going on, and will probably enjoy the poop jokes more than you.

Run, don’t walk.

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