Although technically science fiction by virtue of its being largely set on a neighboring planet, this smartly made adaptation of Andy Weir's best-selling novel is more realistic in its attention to detail than many films set in the present, giving the story the feel of an adventure that could happen the day after tomorrow. Constantly absorbing rather than outright exciting, this major autumn Fox release should generate muscular business worldwide.
Scott has famously been up in space before, thrillingly in "Alien," far less so in "Prometheus" (a sequel to which he is currently preparing). This time, he's telling a survival story, pure and simple, of an American astronaut, thought to be dead, who's left behind on Mars when an enormous storm compels his five fellow crew members to hastily cut short their extra-planetary visit. It's "Robinson Crusoe on Mars," but without the monkey and aliens.
When Mark Watney (Matt Damon) regains consciousness after having been impaled by an errant antenna and knocked out, he quickly assesses the situation: He's millions of miles from home and, based on the food supply, concludes that he's got a month to live. But he's by nature a can-do, optimistic kind of guy, a botanist by profession possessed of a sardonic, self-deprecating sense of humor, and decides that he has no intention of dying, even though the next Mars mission from home isn't due to arrive for another four years.
Most of the early-going is devoted to the man making calculations as to how he can maximize his time on the arid planet, beginning by growing more potatoes from the ones he's got (in part by using his own homemade manure). Living in the relatively spacious quarters he and his colleagues set up, Mark cannibalizes everything he can, carefully apportions his rations and settles in for the long term; at moments the biggest threat to his sanity is the exclusive collection of '70s disco music left behind by one of his former astronauts.
The claustrophobia and solitariness of Mark's situation is shortly broken up by events back on Earth. After Mark's tragedy has been duly mourned by the public, a sharp-eyed NASA technician notices ground movement in her surveillance of the Martian surface that could only be Mark moving around. Communication is duly re-established, which ignites both elation at his survival and frantic assessments of what it would take, and cost, to launch a rescue mission.
Weir's book is heavy with technical assessments of food and oxygen supplies, mechanical capabilities, flight duration and the physics of inter-planetary travel. Screenwriter Drew Goddard ("World War Z," "Cloverfield") has respected all these details while whittling them down to manageable and comprehensible levels. Officials at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (represented by a lively and individualistic cast including Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover) do everything they can to develop a feasible rescue plan and are ultimately helped out by a surprising foreign partner.
But ultimately it comes down to the willingness of Mark's astronaut colleagues (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) to place themselves at great risk by attempting a long-shot rescue attempt, a decision that raises the provocative moral dilemma of whether it's correct to put five lives at great risk for the remote reward of saving one life.
Scott does generate a degree of suspense in this climactic stretch, but the film's overall tone is dominated by the characters' collegial humor, mutual respect among professionals and smart people being tested by an unprecedented challenge. The director and screenwriter downplay the conventional melodrama inherent in the situation in favor of emphasizing how practical problems should be addressed with rational responses rather than hysteria, knee-jerk patriotism or selfish expedience.
The result is an uncustomarily cheery and upbeat film from Scott, a number of whose works range from the despairing ("Thelma and Louise," "Black Hawk Down") to the nihilistic ("Hannibal," "The Counselor"). There is also a insinuation that the meticulous sense of resourcefulness, the upbeat get-the-job-done attitude exemplified by Mark is very much akin to the director's own, to the point that the optimistic lining common to both the novel and the film seems at one with the story itself and not an artificial, Hollywood-induced spin.
In significant measure due to his character's mordant humor, which Goddard has slightly amplified from the book, Damon provides comfortable company during the long stretches when he's onscreen alone, and the actor's physicality makes Mark's capability entirely credible. The scenes back on Earth provide a hectic, densely populated counterweight to the Martian aridity, which is magnificently represented by exteriors shot in the vicinity of Wadi Rum in Jordan, not far from where great stretches of "Lawrence of Arabia" were filmed.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski turns the neat trick of providing the film with a fundamental documentary reality while also making a thing of great beauty. Extra attentiveness is amply on display in all creative departments.