If last year’s Interstellar was director Chris Nolan’s philosophical call-to-arms about achieving impossible dreams out in space through the power of unbridled imagination, then Ridley Scott’s The Martian stands as both it’s thematic opposite and cinematic brother-in-arms: a wildly thrilling testament to how nothing but hard science braininess can overcome the most improbable odds in our celestial quest (Provided you have some good jokes and a vacuum sealed bag of your own feces).

Based on the bestselling book by Andy Weir, this energetic space adventure follows Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist/mechanical engineer part of NASA’s first manned mission to Mars. Midway through their stay on the red planet though, a hellishly violent storm forces the crew to abandon their mission and return to Earth. But during the evacuation, Watney is struck by flying debris, becoming separated from the group with all signs pointing to him having died. Faced with their own possible death-by-high-speed-dust-storm if they tarry to try and find him, the crew reluctantly abandon their fellow astronaut’s fallen body and set off back to Earth.

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But when the red grit and grime eventually settles in the lower Martian gravity, it turns out that Watney is not dead but impaled on some debris with a malfunctioning spacesuit. After patching himself up and making the arduous trek back to their hastily abandoned habitat Watney realizes his earth-shattering (or is that Mars-shattering?) predicament: He has no way of telling his old crew or the NASA command back on Earth that he is alive, and even if he could, it would take more than a year for anybody to reach him, during which time he would have to survive with next to no food and water on a planet that has none. Luckily for him, Watney is sort of a scientific genius.

And luckily for us, he’s also bloody entertaining. In his novel, Weir decided to not take the obvious navel-gazing “woe is me” approach when creating Watney, and screenwriter Drew Goddard has kept that alive in his adaptation. Watney is sassy, potty-mouthed and in no way humble about his skills or ambitions, but through a performance from Damon that is charm personified, he’s also completely human.

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It’s that tactile humanity that makes him such a great lead, keeping you grinning as much as you are perching on the edge of your seat, constantly rooting for him to make it out of this seemingly impossible situation. It also totally helps to sell all the scientific exposition Watney has to do, explaining step-by-step exactly how he intends to get out of his seemingly hopeless situation without it ever getting even remotely classroom-y.

And with Damon’s charismatic turn, coupled with some masterful pacing from Scott and Goddard, there’s never a dull moment to be found in the film’s 141-minute long running time. In turns, it’s both hugely funny – and surprisingly, it is funny a lot! – and invigoratingly suspenseful as Watney sets about solving a series of ever-escalating, ever-more cerebral problems, all the while keeping up his hilarious running commentary.

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He’s not the only one doing the solving though, as The Martian intercuts Watney’s efforts with those of the NASA officials/engineers back on Earth and his old crew flying home in their spacecraft, who eventually realize that their man is still alive and fighting for his life all by himself when their satellites pick up his movements. But how do you save somebody that is 54 million km’s away with no proper form of communication? As Watney so eloquently puts it: You science the shit out of it, that’s how!

Back on terra firma, the cast is rounded out by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Kristen Wiig, who all have to juggle transparent public relations alongside a rescue operation the likes of which the world has never seen; while the astronaut crew, riddled with guilt for having left their compatriot behind, are comprised of Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie. And there isn’t a bad link to be found among them, as the entire ensemble cast brings their acting A-game to the table.

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Most importantly – and here’s that description again – they’re all very much human. There are no comical mustache-twirling villains all for the sake of dramatic theatricality here. Characters behave like rational, intelligent adults and even when “wrong” decisions are made, they are made with solid intentions. A lesser movie may have felt the need to fabricate an antagonist, but Scott and co realize that they already have a big red planet doing its best to indiscriminately kill off the hero in this fable.

And Scott certainly frames his “villain” beautifully, making use of effectively realized but not overbearing 3D and faultless visual effects to completely sell the arid, alien landscape. The same wholesale production design brilliance can be seen throughout, with scientifically accurate sets – stuffed with the most geektastic attentions to detail – being the order of the day. And I must emphasize the “scientifically accurate” part, not just for this tale’s physical backdrops but throughout its incredibly story. For his novel, Weir vigorously researched everything from Watney’s “crappy” down-to-earth solution to Martian farming to the film’s white-knuckled explosive finale worthy of any big budget summer blockbuster, making this film (paradoxically) as unbelievable as it is plausible.

The last time Ridley Scott took us on a trip into space was the frustratingly uneven Prometheus, a movie made famous by its litany of supposedly brainy people mostly acting like walking brain donors when faced with a crisis. The Martian though is a tour de force return to form for the veteran filmmaker, waving the flag of human ingenuity and remarkable inventiveness at every turn. Refreshingly it’s also almost completely free of cynicism, as Mark Watney’s hope-filled yarn stands as a celebration of our ability to overcome any seemingly insurmountable with the right mindset. Oh and a roll of duct tape.

Last Updated: October 1, 2015

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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