At a time when the general populace seems to be growing more and more distrustful of science and the term "intellectual" is thrown around as an insult, a film like "The Martian" may hold the potential to tip the scales back in science's favor. Committed to making the science half of their science-fiction tale feel as real as possible, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard ("Cabin in the Woods") focus on the technical details, delivering an ode to human ingenuity and smarts wrapped in an entertaining survival adventure tale. Demonstrating the power of problem solving and making science and math look cool, "The Martian" is in many ways the aspirational film "Tomorrowland" hoped to be.
Based on Andy Weir's best-selling novel, "The Martian" finds Matt Damon playing Mark Watney, an astronaut inadvertently left behind and believed to be dead after a NASA exploration mission to Mars goes awry. Stranded on an inhospitable planet, Watney must improvise to survive, calling upon his skills as a botanist to come up with ways to provide himself with food (potatoes prove crucial), water, and oxygen to survive. He must also somehow contact NASA, knowing that even if he succeeds, it may be four years before another manned mission can reach him. To make matters worse, he only has an endless catalog of disco music and "Happy Days" reruns for entertainment.
As the nerdy Watney, Damon delivers a straight-up movie star turn; the character's sardonic sense of humor makes him a charming and compelling hero. And while "The Martian" is mostly Damon's film, he's supported by cast of ringers. The rest of the Mars crew is rounded out by Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, and Sebastian Stan. Meanwhile back on Earth, we get Jeff Daniels as the Director of NASA, Kristen Wiig as the exec handling this PR disaster, along with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, and Sean Bean as the scientists and engineers searching for a way to get their boy back as quickly as possible.
Offering the singular joy of watching smart, capable people do intelligent things, "The Martian" celebrates the best aspects of humanity, which is something we don't get enough of these days. Even the plot's inevitably predictable outcome doesn't ruin the film's effectiveness. With its hopeful message that however screwed up things get, by working together we can accomplish amazing things, "The Martian" tells us to put some faith in science, intelligence, and the human spirit. And maybe also disco music.