Since he burst onto the scene with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon usually seems to play some version of that titular character. He’s had many a memorable movie and role in his decades-long career, but they almost inevitably come from the same mold of a loud, often brash man’s man. Damon might be one of the best at his particular brand of swagger, though it comes at the cost of getting caught up in an individual creation of his.
That changes for Damon with “The Martian,” a movie that reminds us of his star power since he’s tasked with essentially carrying it all on his shoulders. While boasting a terrific ensemble, the heart of the story is a one-man show. Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, gets stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead in a dust storm by the rest of his crew.
Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or James Franco in “127 Hours,” Damon rises to the occasion of keeping things moving and interesting with no one to act opposite. This challenge actually brings out the best in Damon, as a matter of fact. For an actor who often draws strength from being the most powerful person in a given scene, not having anyone to beat makes him turn inwards. The result is one of his most heartfelt, moving performances to date.
While he focuses on survival, all of NASA works tirelessly on Watney’s rescue. This goes far beyond his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s steely yet humane Captain Lewis. Entire new spacecrafts must be built and engineered, which brings out the best in both jet propulsion lab head head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Donald Glover’s young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell. (Yes, Childish Gambino.) China also gets involved in the humanitarian mission, making sure that NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) earn their salaries.
If any of this sounds belabored or complex, it never feels as such for a second during “The Martian.” The movie’s nearly two and a half hour runtime breezes by on the strength of Ridley Scott’s sturdy direction and Drew Goddard’s excellently structured adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. They even manage to make the science intelligible without dumbing anything down for the average moviegoer!
“The Martian” finds that rare balance between humor, action and drama that seems to elude most films with a budget over $50 million. The rescue mission, whose climax may very well be one of the most exhilarating movie moments of the year, makes for great suspense, good fun, and some challenging ethical questions. But the film never loses focus on the core of its story, Watney relying on ingenuity and tenacity just to stay alive in an impossible scenario. A planet away, Damon finds his most grounded and least alien role in recent memory. A- /