We're familiar by now with the standard attributes of the space disaster genre. "The Martian" checks them off one by one: astronaut marooned in the reaches of outer space, desperate struggles to survive, ingenuity overcoming dire circumstance, people back on Earth trying frenetically to puzzle out a solution, more unexpected setbacks, more spontaneous improvisation, death licking at the protagonist's heels, salvation.
What's different is the tone and the approach to storytelling. "The Martian" is exhilarating, joyous -- and surprisingly funny. If it's possible to make a feel-good movie about cheating death, then this is it.
Based on the novel by Andy Weir, the film is part "Gravity" and part "Cast Away." It leaves Matt Damon stranded on Mars, where he must survive for months and potentially years with limited resources. He wanders deep inside his own head, talking to himself constantly -- ostensibly for the station's video logs but mostly as a way to keep himself sane. Then the second half is about the effort, undertaken seemingly by the entire world, to rescue him.
What's interesting is that director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard don't make any attempt to get to know the characters before disaster strikes, jumping right into the mayhem. Much like "Mad Max: Fury Road," the story allows the characters to reveal themselves gradually over the course of a harrowing journey.
There's a mission on Mars -- third in a series of five, we're told -- and botanist Mark Watney (Damon) and the others are waylaid by a massive storm that requires they blast off early and return home. Watney is whacked unconscious by some debris, the others believe him dead, and have to leave before they themselves are killed.
From here the story turns to Watney's efforts to survive long enough to greet the next Mars landing, four years hence. But how to make his energy, oxygen, food, etc. last until then? He comes up with some pretty brilliant strategies, which I'll not reveal.
Damon is charismatic and grounded, in one of his finest performances.
Meanwhile, the NASA folks, having declared Watney dead to the world, must get things together on their end. How to establish communications with Mars? Should they devote their limited resources to saving one man? Should they tell the astronauts on their way home their comrade is still alive? They devise their own extravagant plans, a combination of altruism and covering their own asses.
On the ground, the key players include Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission leader, passionate and aggressive; Benedict Wong as the beleaguered head of the engineers, called repeatedly upon to do things in the half the normal time; Kristen Wiig as the savvy PR gal; Sean Bean as flight commander, always advocating for the astronauts; Donald Glover as the young whiz kid with bright ideas; and Jeff Daniels as the stern NASA chief, balancing noble goals with miserly realities.
Eventually, of course, Watney's crewmates learn of his fate and must decide if they should risk their own necks to turn around and go back for him. Jessica Chastain is the decisive-yet-doubting commander; Kate Mara is the comms expert, keeper of others' secrets; Michael Peña is the pilot and resident smartass; Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie are the generic utility guys.
The two pieces of the movie, survivor's soliloquy and mass rescue endeavor, fit surprisingly well together. We spend the first hour getting to know Watney, growing to admire his grit and streak of humor. (Forced to commandeer some equipment while noodling around with the shadings of international maritime law, he declares himself "Mark Watney, space pirate.")
Having established in the audience's minds that Watney is worth saving, we're entirely caught up in the logistics of trying to bring him home. I think you can guess what the outcome is, but it's still a white-knuckled thrill ride getting there.