When it’s not politically inconvenient, there is no limit to how far our country will go to retrieve one of our own. Take for instance actor Matt Damon. In 1998, director Steven Spielberg dispatched Tom Hanks and company to retrieve him in the epic WWII drama, “Saving Private Ryan.” Christopher Nolan sent Matthew McConaughey through a wormhole to rescue him in the 2014 sci-fi thriller “Interstellar,” even though he later proved unworthy of the sacrifice.
Now, director Ridley Scott has Jessica Chastain and her crew do a 180 to go back to the red planet to collect the botanist they thought had perished in a violent storm in “The Martian.”
In what is probably the first serious Oscar contender of the year — unless you were a fan of “Mortdecai,” in which case, uh, yeah, sorry, this is still the first serious Oscar contender of the year — Damon finds himself marooned with help, if at all, four years away. Thanks to uncharacteristic cooperation from China, out-of-the-box thinking and some major corner-cutting, NASA manages to shorten the time to about a year and a half, which is still a year and a half longer than Damon has provisions for.
Like Sandra Bullock in 2013’s “Gravity,” he needs to first find the determination to live, which here he readily does. Ingenuity follows. For example, in a combination of Mars soil and manure (don’t ask) he grows potatoes. Believe it or not, duct tape comes in handy up there, too. Hey, it’s not rocket science … well, actually I guess it is.
Damon’s resourcefulness and indomitable spirit carry most of the film, which is engaging from its opening moments and combines some of the best elements of the likes of “WALL-E,” “Cast Away” and “127 Hours.”
On the big screen, the Martian landscape is spectacular, though less can be said of the soundtrack; apparently Chastain’s character’s favorite genre: disco. But unlike Jay-Z’s atrocious score, which ruined Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Great Gatsby” in 2013, here the lowest form of pop plays for laughs predictably culminating with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” (Whatever happened to her, anyway?)
Great writing, cinematography and outstanding performances by all, including Jeff Daniels and in smaller roles Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and the always impressive Michael Peña.