ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

When a storm causes the Ares III manned mission to Mars to backfire, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) disappears during the evacuation and is presumed dead. With the lives of the rest of her crew at stake, mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the hard decision to leave Watney behind and return to their orbiting vessel Hermes. However, Watney survives the storm, and expecting that it will be at minimum three years before the next manned mission arrives, uses his botany skills to survive and keeps a video log to maintain his sanity.

Back on Earth, upon receiving satellite photos from Mars, NASA engineers Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) are stunned to discover that Watney is still alive, and after establishing contact with him, begin planning the difficult task to bring him home.

I hear Twitter hashtags do the trick.

From Alien, Blade Runner, Legend and Thelma & Louise to Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Matchstick Men, director Ridley Scott has earned his place in the pantheon of great filmmakers. But for the most part, the 21st century has not been kind to him. Out of the eight films he’s done since 2003’s Matchstick Men, only two were great – American Gangster and Prometheus. Last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings was decent, but had it’s share of pacing and plotting issues (as well as a bizarre choice to have a kid play God). The rest of his post-2003 filmography ranged from below average efforts like Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies and highly disappointing The Counselor to the punishing slogs A Good Year and Robin Hood.

Thankfully, The Martian is another welcome bounce back up for Scott and his wildly inconsistent career.

Along with writer Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z), Scott weaves together three stories into one: Mark’s fight to survive on Mars, Commander Lewis and her crew’s journey back home to Earth and the tough decision they have to make when they learn Mark’s alive, and the NASA scientists back on Earth working overtime calculating how to bring Mark back home with time not on their side. At times, some of the NASA crew scenes get a little repetitive. They need a certain amount time to finalize a plan, only to get a fraction of that, then wash, rinse and repeat when the first plan backfires. Still, that’s nitpicking there, and despite the few repetitive spots, the film never dawdles during its 140-minute run time.

You don’t have to be a NASA engineer to figure out what the outcome might be, but the journey getting there, particularly the final 20 minutes, is what makes it intense.

It’s no surprise that Scott knows what it takes to make a great sci-fi flick. As diverse in genre as his career is, his two best films to date, Alien and Blade Runner, are sci-fi. Unlike those two, and also Prometheus, which are dark, cold and haunting in atmosphere, Scott changes gears by handling The Martian with a warm, positive touch, a stylistic approach that’s aided by Dariusz Wolski’s beautiful cinematography. Not that it’s all sunshine and roses. Once in a while, Scott reminds us that space can be just as terrifying as it is awe-inspiring. The stakes are high and the urgency is there, but at its core, this is about the best in humanity setting aside their differences to bring one man home.

And doing so without getting all “We Are the World” on us.

Though in no way whimsical, The Martian, with its series of problem-solving (which are treated intelligently by Goddard and not given the dumbed-down blockbuster treatment) and themes of American resolve and “can-do” optimism, is the film Tomorrowland tried and ultimately failed to be.

It also taught me to never ever take duck tape for granted again.

What’s surprising here is just how funny this film is. Goddard touches up his screenplay with appropriate moments of comic relief that serve Matt Damon’s character well and counterbalance the problem-solving banter by lightening the mood without altering the tone or distracting viewers from the overall seriousness of the situation (some well-placed soundtrack choices play a part in the humor in a slightly on-the-nose, yet knowingly so, way).

Following in the footsteps of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Will Smith in I Am Legend and Sam Rockwell in Moon, Matt Damon carries this film on his own, though support from a stellar cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor in small but pivotal roles helps (their strong performances are enough for you to overlook that a space crew that young wouldn’t even be manning a bottle rocket, let alone a mission to Mars).

Damon is as good as he’s ever been, perfectly capturing the fear, isolation and desperation in the harsh times, as well as the sheer joy in his breakthroughs made on the planet. Given that a miscast could’ve had the humor fall flat no matter how good Goddard’s moments of sharp wit are, his performance is key in selling the film’s comic relief. Above all else, though, no amount of first-rate special effects can save this film if we don’t care about Mark Watney. Without that character attention, the film goes nowhere, but Damon keeps us invested in his survival from beginning to end.

Smart, exciting and surprisingly funny, The Martian is a beautifully shot, thoroughly satisfying sci-fi adventure that’s anchored by a terrific Matt Damon and an equally strong supporting cast. Though his career has been extremely hit-or-miss as of late, director Ridley Scott proves he still has plenty to offer as a filmmaker, giving his normally bleak and dark approach to sci-fi a break to fashion together a refreshingly optimistic story of one man’s fight to maintain hope in the face of insurmountable odds.

I give The Martian an A (★★★½).

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