The Martian isn't the first trip to space for Ridley Scott, the director perhaps best known for his 1979 breakout film Alien. But unlike the harrowing story of E. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) and their unwelcome extraterrestrial guest in the acclaimed horror sci-fi, Scott's newest space film—despite some scratches, a brush with death, and one grueling skin-stapling scene—reads like a feel-good flick. It's the kind of fun summer blockbuster popcorn fare usually saved for vacation months. Not that The Martian isn't a smart movie. Quite the contrary, actually—despite being marketed under the mainstream bait of a "space movie," The Martian (based on Andy Weir's novel) is, more than anything, a love letter to science, without ever feeling like a boring textbook.
"I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this," Matt Damon's character Mark Watney says, delivering his most memorable line with equal parts despair and hilarity. It's one of those so-dire-all-you-can-do-is-laugh type of situations—being alone on Mars with no means of getting back home. And as promised, he does really science the shit out of his situation.
Damon, Hollywood's It Boy-turned-Problematic Celeb, plays the perfect sassy astronaut (sasstronaut?) as Watney, who, after being presumed dead during a mission gone wrong on Mars, is abandoned by his crew mates (played by the always wonderful Jessica Chastain as the Captain, with Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie). By wonderful coincidence, Watney happens to be the team's botanist, which means if anyone is going to know how to harvest and survive on the foreign planet, it's going to be him. (And yes, that newfound water on Mars has served as amazing publicity.)
What keeps The Martian from becoming a sad, existential lone man film is that Watney does everything with a good dose of humor, sometimes stooping low for the cheap thrills (like gathering his crew mates' shit—literally—for fertility) and other times using the droll humor of a man who may end up dying alone, on Mars of all places. It's like his comedy—much of which he captures on a video diary for record-keeping—is equally a necessity for science and history, as it is a vehicle for self-entertainment. After all, there's not much to keep him entertained out there, other than his captain's disco records, which he begrudgingly puts on and then makes a point to bash any chance he gets. (Ironically, these disco tracks make up a big chunk of the film's fire soundtrack.)
It's in large part to Damon's performance and Drew Goddard's script that, despite the nightmarish premise of being stranded alone on unknown, possibly hostile, territory, The Martian always leans more towards comic than serious. The initial comparisons to Gravity and Interstellar (weirdly, another space movie starring Damon and Chastain) will feel as distant as Mars itself. It's so fun that even science—science!—becomes an enjoyable topic. It doesn't hurt that a manic pixie just-got-out-of-bed Donald Glover does the crazy mathematics, figuring out the most efficient way to save Watney. (Glover's appearance in the film is as unnecessary as it is entertaining.) The plot is as straightforward as it gets—"bring him home," as the tagline reads—but the actual calculations, and the calculated comedy that go into his survival will tug at the hearts of every inner nerd. (And if the botanical or mathematical parts don't do it for you, maybe the casual Lord of the Rings reference made in front of Sean Bean will.)
The Martian is a fun ode to nerds, and thanks to the magic of Hollywood, you get to ogle at astronauts who look like Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain (the stuff of dreams—or, rather, movie make-believe). It also comes neatly packaged in a Hollywood happily-ever-after—a triumph after a near-impossible mission and an inspirational montage in between (this one, appropriately, set to David Bowie's "Starman"). At over two hours long—keeping in tradition with epic-long space films—The Martian never feels toiling. Instead, you'll leave the theater wanting to go home and science the shit out of something.