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Space Odyssey

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    Matt Damon in 'The Martian'
    Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.
    (from left) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars.

A highly enjoyable, zestfully acted team-building exercise, with Matt Damon playing the team of one, director Ridley Scott’s "The Martian" throws a series of life-or-death scenarios at its resourceful botanist-astronaut, stranded on Mars but making the most of it. It’s one of the most comforting science fiction films in years. 

"I’m not gonna die here," Damon’s character, Mark Watney, declares early on to the camera. Left for dead by his crew amid a monstrous windstorm, in which he’s thought to be killed by flying debris, Watney must solve a crazy array of challenges, beginning with finding a way to signal his survival to grief-stricken NASA colleagues back home.
Rated: PG-13
*** 1/2
Opens today
His extended solo improvisation exercise finds Watney keeping a video log of sorts. (It’s a movie, so he has to; he can’t write things down and hope we guess what he’s thinking about.) What to eat, for example, once the prepackaged pouches of NASA food run out? The answer: Learn to grow potatoes in soil not hospitable to growing potatoes. The making of "The Martian" preceded this week’s news that definitive signs of liquid water have been located on Mars’ surface.
Based on Andy Weir’s diary-form novel, "The Martian" serves as a less fraught (if also less visually arresting) bookend to Alfonso Cuaron’s "Gravity." Watching it, you feel you’re getting useful lessons from a hardy life coach in accentuating the positive and not panicking under duress. Or how to fake it, anyway.
Despite some similarities to "Gravity," Scott’s film is very different in its tone and in its inclusion of "meanwhile, back home" stories, all of which become part of a global effort to retrieve the guy left behind by accident. The time is a few years in the future, at which point the U.S. government has somehow found the money and the interest in a manned Mars space program. Jessica Chastain plays the stalwart commander of the six-person crew of the Hermes spacecraft, wrapping up the third-ever mission to Mars. The commander must decide: Do we all die attempting a rescue of our colleague, Watney, who’s almost 100 percent certainly dead, or do we save the others?
NASA officials (Jeff Daniels plays the head; Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays the Mars missions director) are the first to learn Watney is alive. They’re reluctant to inform the surviving Hermes team, making the long trip home to Earth. In "The Martian," loyalty, plus guilt, counts for everything. The expansive, nicely fleshed-out script by Drew Goddard keeps introducing lively new characters that become crucial to Watney’s fate.
This is no zippy-skippy time frame, a la "Gravity," which managed to imperil (and imperil and imperil) its astronaut protagonist and ultimately save her in a narrative matter of hours. Watney’s a wiseacre, which helps pass the time — for him and for the audience — when, at one point in his multi-year improv lesson, he embarks on a 50-day road trip. Some of the jokes in "The Martian" are pretty corny, many of them involving Watney’s resistance to a crew member’s penchant for disco. Those who prefer their science fiction more dour, and dire, may resist the film’s fuzzy humanist impulse. I found it refreshing and sincere. Even the tightly wound NASA public relations maven played by Kristen Wiig has something like a human pulse. And that is Damon’s enduring appeal as both a movie star and as an actor. He has a way of making a superhumanly cool-headed cucumber feel like a relatable earthling.
Review by Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
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