“The Martian” opens Friday at Point, Palace, AMC Fitchburg and Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 2:22, three and a half stars out of four.
I’m going to be a sucker for any movie that includes a shoutout to ’80s Infocom text adventures. But, “Leather Goddesses of Phobos” aside, “The Martian” is a terrific piece of entertainment, awe-inspiring and suspenseful in all the ways you would expect, funny and loose in all the ways you wouldn’t expect.
The easiest part of Andy Weir’s unlikely blockbuster novel to transport to the big screen was the plot, as the story of a lone astronaut stranded on Mars and trying to get home is tailor-made for IMAX screens and Dolby Atmos sound systems. In the hands of director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Prometheus”), the film expertly conveys the immenseness of space and the desolation of Mars — spring for the 3D upgrade if you can.
Harder to translate, though, is the dorky charm of Weir’s novel and his protagonist, Mark Watney. Watney is no square-jawed superhero, but a rather geeky botanist with an almost zany sense of humor. I was a little worried when, left for dead on the Red Planet by his crew after a wicked sandstorm, Watney (Matt Damon) steels himself and intones “I’m not going to die here.” But when the next scene features Watney, after a hard day of shoveling space dirt, sigh and say “Fuck you, Mars,” I knew we were in good hands here.
Survival on Mars for Watney doesn’t involve feats of derring-do, so much as just working the problems — how to grow water, how to grow food, how to contact Earth. (A solution to the communications problem, using just a rotating still camera, is pretty genius.) Every solution leads to two new problems for Watney to, in his words, “science the shit out of.” Damon fares far better as a stranded astronaut than he did in “Interstellar,” seeming to relish the chance to underplay Watney’s heroics, quipping away to his video log as he motors across the barren rust-colored planet.
Actually, those Infocom games are a pretty good template for “The Martian,” as Watney works the problems, one by one, while back on Earth the folks at Mission Control (including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig) work through the options to try and save their missing astronaut. Somewhere in between is the ship with Watney’s crewmates (including Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Michael Pena), who take matters into their own hands when they learn their compatriot is still alive.
“The Martian” undeniably builds suspense and momentum, its 142-minute running time moving like a rocket. But there’s a cheerfulness underlying the tension that you don’t necessarily expect. Science is, after all, a resolutely human endeavor, and “The Martian” celebrates the problem-solvers who work the numbers on whiteboards and the backs of their arms. There’s a beautiful sequence, set to David Bowie’s “Starman,” which cuts between Mars, Earth and the spaceship in between, everyone working towards a common goal. Everything is at stake, and yet the mood is almost . . . jubilant.