Movie Review

Hollywood wastes billions of dollars each year trying to figure out how to entertain moviegoers.

In reality, it’s a pretty simple formula: Space travel + ’70s-era radio hits = awesomeness.

It worked last year with the wildly enjoyable “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Now it’s proven successful once again with the surprisingly fun “The Martian,” my favorite movie so far this year.

“The Martian” is so captivating — and such a return to greatness by director Ridley Scott after his past two misfires, “The Counselor” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — that I forgot to take notes during long stretches. So this review should be interesting.

Based on the best-selling novel by former computer programmer Andy Weir, “The Martian” is the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who’s left behind on Mars like an interplanetary Macaulay Culkin.

When a sandstorm hits halfway through their 31-sol mission — that’s science-speak for the duration of a solar day on Mars, which is roughly 24 hours and 40 minutes — Watney is struck by debris and separated from his fellow astronauts. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) knows that with his spacesuit torn, Watney has only 60 seconds to live. And with the storm threatening to topple their Mars Ascent Vehicle and strand her and the rest of the crew — portrayed by Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan — on the distant planet, Lewis reluctantly aborts the mission and begins the months-long return to Earth, having accepted that there’s simply no way Watney could have survived.

Except, obviously, he did.

Once the initial shock and despair pass, Watney vows that he isn’t going to die on Mars. So he hunkers down in the temporary habitat that was designed to last for only the length of their relatively brief mission and begins to assess his plight.

He has enough food for 300 sols and could stretch it to 400 through rationing. But, Watney realizes, it’s going to take at least a couple of years for NASA to reach him — assuming he can devise a way to let mission control know he’s alive. He takes his seemingly overwhelming number of problems one at a time, though, and begins looking for a way to grow crops. But first, he has to make water. (“The Martian” was screened for critics before this week’s announcement that there’s already water on Mars. Way to step on a cool movie moment, NASA.)

The last thing you’d expect from a guy stranded alone some 34 million miles from home is a sense of humor. But, rather than confiding in a volleyball, “Cast Away”-style, Watney records a series of video diaries using the many cameras at his disposal. And, for the most part, they’re hilarious. It simply can’t be reinforced enough what a good time “The Martian” is.

Damon is pitch perfect as Watney, whether he’s boasting of his farming prowess — “Mars will come to fear my botany powers!” — or complaining bitterly about Lewis’ disco playlist, his only source of entertainment aside from a “Happy Days” rerun. Suffice it to say, he’s getting very tired of being told to “Turn the Beat Around.”

Seemingly everyone at NASA, from Jeff Daniels as the agency’s director to Kristen Wiig as its media relations director to Chiwetel Ejiofor as its director of Mars missions, gets to deploy the subtle humor in the script from Drew Goddard (“World War Z,” Netflix’s “Daredevil”).

Donald Glover, meanwhile, blows the doors off during his few scenes as an orbital dynamicist at the California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s this celebration of science while some of the country’s greatest minds work to get Watney home that makes “The Martian” a testament to good, old-fashioned ingenuity — and the wonders of duct tape. It’s the geekiest piece of mainstream entertainment since “The Big Bang Theory.”

The movie’s visuals are immersive and stunning. But the most impressive thing the filmmakers conjure up is a world without cynicism. Despite some occasional doses of reality from Daniels’ NASA director, “The Martian” presents viewers with a better planet, one where international cooperation and billions of dollars are funneled into the attempted rescue of one man as thousands of concerned citizens flock to Times Square awaiting updates on Watney.

As a result, “The Martian” offers up a welcome burst of flag-waving patriotism that never feels cloying.

And if all that happens to be accompanied by Donna Summer, some ABBA and a little Vicki Sue Robinson, all the better.


Movie: “The Martian”

Running time: 142 minutes

Rating: PG-13; some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity

Grade: A