Directed by Ridley Scott (2015)
Ridley Scott does "big" better, and in a far less insulting manner, than 90% of his contemporaries. It's why I'll usually go see a big-budget, big-name, big-spectacle film made by Scott and ignore most of the others. I mean, this fella made "Black Hawk Down", "Blade Runner" and "Alien", so he's earned enough cred no matter how many "GI Jane"s he's also pumped out. I felt there was sufficient generated goodwill and enough advance-word praise for "THE MARTIAN" to merit a $15 visit to a local movie emporium to see it. In fact it's easy to say the same for the stars of the film; Matt Damon, no matter what choices the guy's made in his filmography, is infinitely likable and he was outstanding in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (one of the great not-discussed-enough films of our time); Jessica Chastain is strong in just about everything she's in, no matter what moldering dialogue they write for her in some of her bigger-budget flicks.
"THE MARTIAN" is being hosanna'ed from many corners for actually deigning to use actual scientific formulas to solve conundrums - like how an astronaut marooned on Mars for over a year might keep himself alive - and I suppose that given the preposterously fantastical nature of much modern large-screen entertainment, we ought to take a small win where we can get it. Yet really this film is a triumph of storytelling. Scott and his cast take a somewhat believable predicament and, for 2 hours and 20 minutes, milk simultaneous and vast streams of both dread and goodwill as you (and everyone sitting around you) roots hard for astronaut Mark Watney to somehow make it back to earth alive.
It doesn't hurt that "The Martian" is visually gorgeous, with a Martian topography that's akin to your best memories of Wyoming & Utah national parks run through mind-blowingly vivid red filters. Watney was left in this eye candy playground by his fellow astronauts, who, thinking him dead and not wanting to perish themselves in the sandstorm they thought had killed him, take off. Resourceful botanist Watney uses every scientific trick in the book to fertilize and grow his own food; repair 1990s-era communication technology that had been buried in sand; and, ultimately, set into motion the forces that might actually get him off of Mars and back onto his own planet. It's a survivalist tale that, fantastic as it is, almost seems plausible every step of the way.
So while some very conventional 21st-century tropes are employed in the service of advancing the script (such as hopeful crowds of thousands in every major city on earth gathered in public spaces to watch Watney's rescue attempt on communal big screens), Scott never condescends too badly, and has amazingly made a gripping, tense, taut film that's not only family-friendly, but intelligent and at times even quite funny. Damon, on camera for most of the film, remains one of Hollywood's linchpin stars who easily carries just about everything he's in, and most of the large well-known and lesser-known cast is just as swell, except for Kate Mara, who's become my 2015 annoying pet peeve actress for both her ubiquity and her laughable, overbaked unbelievability in virtually every role she plays.
"The Martian" may be a slight tier below Scott's best stuff, but it's blockbuster material that plays well to just about any audience, from cynical cineastes to the hoi polloi.