Hollywood has made approximately 29 movies about planet Mars. The five most recent sagas about Mars—“Mission to Mars” (2000), “Red Planet” (2000), “Doom” (2005), “John Carter” (2012), and The Last Days on Mars (2013)—failed to recoup their budgets. Among the notable films about Mars that most moviegoers may remember are the four-minute silent film “A Trip to Mars” (1910), the Soviet silent epic “Aelita” (1924), “Flight to Mars” (1951), “Conquest of Space” (1955), “The Angry Red Planet” (1956), “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” (1957), “Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1962), “Total Recall” (1990) and its’ remake “Total Recall” (2012). “Mission to Mars” surpassed “Red Planet” while “John Carter” wasn’t abominably bad. Halloween” helmer John Carpenter has probably made one of the least compelling pulp movies about Mars entitled “Ghosts of Mars.” Happily, the latest movie about Mars appropriately entitled “The Martian” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) ranks as probably the best movie ever made about the fourth rock from the sun. Apart from its unwieldy 141 minutes that starts to drag about three-fourths of the way through, “The Martian” is a believable sci-fi film. Anybody who has read Andrew Weir’s bestseller will be pleased with director Ridley Scott’s largely faithful adaptation penned by Drew Goddard who wrote the abysmal “Cloverfield” but the brilliant “The Cabin in the Woods.” Ostensibly, Scott and Goddard only saw fit to omit two major complications from Weir’s fascinating first novel: the short-circuit drill scene when our hero is modifying the second Rover and the tumbling Rover scene on the journey to the Schiaparelli crater. The predominantly first-person narrated novel contains more of astronaut Mark Watney’s acerbic, R-rated personality than the PG-13 film could afford. For example, read the first sentence in “The Martian.” If either it or subsequent sentences with the F-word don’t offend you, you can probably make it through this entertaining book rather rapidly.
When a devastating Martian sandstorm threatens NASA’s Ares III manned mission, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain of “Interstellar”) orders the six-person crew to abandon their work and lift off for their ship, the Hermes, in orbit around the red planet. During their hasty evacuation, one of the astronauts, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon of “Interstellar”), is separated from the crew. Actually, he is struck by an antenna on a communication dish that skewers him in the stomach and knocks him unconscious. Lewis struggles without success to find Watney in the blinding sandstorm. Meanwhile, the sandstorm grows even more treacherous, and Lewis gives up her search because the high winds are tilting the ship that will launch the crew into orbit. Basically, the crew of the Ares III leaves Mark behind to save itself. NASA Chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels of “My Favorite Martian”) reports the news of Watney’s demise, and a funeral is held for him. What nobody knows at the time is that Watney is still alive. After he extracts the spear of the antenna from his stomach, Watney embarks on an ambitious scheme to keep himself alive for the next four years until Ares IV arrives. A major part of Watney’s plan to keep from starving involves the planting of potatoes inside the mission’s artificial habitat. Eventually, one of NASA’s employees, Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis of “That Awkward Moment”), who monitors the satellites around Mars, spots something suspicious in the photos of the Ares III mission site. She alerts Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “American Gangster”) about these curious occurrences. Everybody is suddenly elated when they discover that Watney managed to survive the savage sandstorm. Sanders brainstorms and convenes various NASA experts to work on a rescue plan for Watney, but NASA has no way of contacting our tenacious hero. At the same time, Watney behaves like the ingenious television character MacGuyer. He improvises a way to communicate with NASA that involves cruising in the Mars rover off to the distant site of the Mars Pathfinder probe. Meanwhile, Sanders refuses to notify the Hermes crew because he fears the revelation of Watney’s survival may imperil the mission. Initially, NASA crew supervisor Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean of “GoldenEye”) and JPL director Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong of “Prometheus”) launch a space probe to resupply Watney until the Ares IV mission gets off the ground. The probe blows up not long after launch. If this were not bad enough for Watney, the habitat where he is raising his potato plants explodes when the airlock decompresses. Naturally, nothing goes right for either Watney or NASA, but salvation comes from the least expected place.
“Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott keeps things compelling throughout most of “The Martian” as Watney and NASA encounter one invincible setback after another. Indeed, “The Martian” surpasses the similarly-themed Sandra Bullock & George Clooney outer space epic “Gravity” because the story is related from a number of different perspectives. While Watney is struggling to survive on Mars, Sanders is under incredible pressure to concoct a foolproof plan to rescue him. Every plan that he comes up with requires his team to work so quickly that they cannot take their usual precautions. “The Martian” shifts back and forth between Watney and the various NASA officials working around the clock to save him. Eventually, Sanders allows Henderson to inform the Hermes crew about Watney’s survival. Production values are generally stellar and nothing appears to have been spared. The craggy scenery of Jordan substitutes persuasively for the inhospitable Martian terrain. The part of the action transpires within the massive Hermes spaceship, and the five person crew weigh in on Watney’s fate. Happily, “The Martian” isn’t a dry, straightforward, documentary style sci-fi thriller. Although he doesn’t appear on screen every minute, Matt Damon dominates “The Martian” and Watney’s irreverent sense of humor. The inspirational finale when Watney decides to imitate Iron Man is amusing. Not only did NASA embrace author Andrew Weir, but the space agency also reportedly cooperated with Ridley Scott more than it had on previous movies to ensure accuracy. Altogether, “The Martian” qualifies as a gripping intergalactic spectacle.