MartiancoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2015, 144 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury imagery, and brief nudity
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Amazon link

Once is an incidence, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

It’s official, then. Hollywood has re-discovered NASA.

First came Gravity (2013), then Interstellar (2014), and now The Martian (2016), which is just as compelling a film as the first two—so good, in fact, that you wonder if it and the others will help to promote an American space program that has lapsed into relative obscurity. Gone are the glamour days, but a still-active NASA has been quietly concentrating its efforts on the International Space Station, as well a program to launch exploratory surveys of Mars and other planets.

It’s hard to say whether this renewed interest will have any effect, but like the first two space films in Hollywood’s rediscovery mission, The Martian makes space travel look both harrowing and heroic. And it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Martianscreen1The Martian isn’t the first foray into space for Matt Damon, who plays an astronaut stranded on Mars in this film and also starred in Interstellar—nor for director Ridley Scott, who previously thrust beyond Earth’s gravity to make Alien and Prometheus. You sense a confidence at work in this production.

Don’t be misled by the Golden Globe nomination it received in the Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy. The Martian is neither. There are probably a half-dozen funny moments, but The Martian is mostly a one-man survival drama in the manner of Castaway or The Revenant that’s broadened by intercut sequences involving a Mars mission in space and mission control back on Earth.

Except for the language it’s mostly a family movie, but there are a few adult moments—as when botanist Mark Watney, (Damon), left for dead after the crew saw him felled by a massive object during a nasty storm, pulls a projectile out of his stomach and staples himself while in great pain. Or when we briefly see his buttocks as he strides through the station on Mars, or when he talks about using his own “shit” to farm inside the station to provide enough food to survive until rescue comes.

Martianscreen2Jessica Chastain plays the mission commander for Ares III (Ares was the Greek name for Mars, god of war), and other crew members who had to abort their mission and left Watney behind were the pilot (Michael Peña), systems operator (Kate Mara), flight surgeon (Sebastian Stan), and navigator (Aksel Hennie). Sean Bean plays the mission commander on the ground, with the believably bureaucratic Jeff Daniels taking on the role of NASA chief administrator Teddy Sanders. Kristen Wiig is also on the ground, and maybe that’s why people automatically thought this must be a comedy. But she doesn’t even get any of the funny lines.

The famed Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, with its red-orange sand and stark, towering rock formations, is a believable stand-in for Mars, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean) does a fantastic job of shooting visuals to match the mood, the atmosphere, and the action.

Mostly, though, The Martian is compelling because of the story, and it stands as yet another tribute to American ingenuity and world cooperation—since China also gets involved in the rescue mission. It’s also just plain fascinating to see how a person would survive alone on another planet, and it proves the adage that necessity really is the mother of invention. Like Tom Hanks before him and Leonardo DiCaprio, Damon doesn’t shrink from the burden of being alone onscreen for so much of the film—he owns it, which is why he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination to add to the film’s seven. I’m still not sure why The Martian won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical, though music is a running gag. And unless your sense of humor is as dry as the soil on Mars, it’s tough to fathom why Damon’s performance was entered in the Best Actor—Comedy or Musical category. But he won, and despite the spuriousness of the category, he deserved at least one honor. The Martian is his best performance since Good Will Hunting. Recommended for families with teens.

Language: A surprising number of f-bombs, mostly bleeped or mouthed, plus a few other curse words
Sex: Mild innuendo and one brief long shot of a man’s buttocks
Violence: The storm sequence and its aftermath is the only violence
Adult situations: Other than the above and general peril, not much
Takeaway: If I had to watch only one of the three recent space movies over and over again, it would be The Martian, because of the wonderful details