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The prospect of a new Ridley Scott space movie no longer seems foolproof. Twenty-four years after breaking through with his still terrifying sci-fi/horror classic Alien, Scott returned to the world of the Nostromo for 2013's Prometheus, an uneven prequel that’s too pretentious to be any real fun. So The Martian's unabashed pleasantness is a welcome surprise. Up-tempo to the point of being somewhat corny, Scott's latest intergalactic film is shamelessly designed to please crowds and complement popcorn. And it’s hugely successful on both fronts.
Based on Andy Weir's originally self-published, and too dryly written, novel of the same name, The Martian is essentially Cast Away beyond the stars. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut left behind by his fellow Mars explorers—led by Jessica Chastain—after a flying debris levels him during a storm. They think he’s dead, but he’s not. Alone on Mars, Watney "sciences the shit" out of his predicament and, since he’s also a botanist, manages to stretch his minimal resources into multiple years' worth of sustenance. Back home on Earth, meanwhile, NASA's top-ranking officials, including Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor, are working overtime to safely retrieve Watney and avoid a public relations hell-storm.
The Martian succeeds primarily because of three people. First, Scott's willingness to drop the coldness of his last few efforts lends the film a persistent cheeriness; he's not above pushing a running joke about cheesy disco songs to its limit, even playing Gloria Gaynor’s so-on-the-nose-it's-kind-of-endearing "I Will Survive" over the end credits. Second, screenwriter Drew Goddard, who’s one of the game’s best genre manipulators (see: The Cabin in the Woods), makes The Martian’s hard science easily accessible—the actors energetically play with the textbook-friendly dialogue as if they’re discussing sex in a Judd Apatow movie.
The third, and most important, MVP is Matt Damon, who gives one of those quintessential "movie star" performances. Much of The Martian requires the solo Damon to speak directly into the camera for long stretches and bounce around in a bulky spacesuit on Scott’s vastly rendered Mars terrain, and he's endlessly watchable. Like how Tom Hanks was once able to make talking to a volleyball seem charming, Damon turns conversing with potatoes and NASA equipment into sincere comedy.
It's a shame that Damon has been suffering from extreme vomit-of-the-mouth syndrome lately, from insensitively shutting down Dear White People producer Effie Brown on Project Greenlight to this week's comments how about gay actors should stay in Hollywood’s large closet—The Martian ranks with Damon’s best work. He and Ridley Scott have made the most enjoyable science fiction movie in years, an all-smiles antidote for Gravity's one-sided intensity and Interstellar's alienating denseness. As it turns out, The Martian's setting is perfect for Damon: in space, no one can hear you stick your foot in your mouth.