Though it takes the form of a flashy, effects-driven science fiction epic, director Ridley Scott's "The Martian" has relatively humble origins. Andy Weir's self-published 2011 novel envisioned the plight of an American astronaut stranded on Mars in the not-so-distant future, using his command of physics and botany to survive for months, while his Earthbound colleagues cobbled together a rescue plan. Weir compensated for a lack of commanding prose with hard science that, in retrospect, makes Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" look like pure fantasy. Scott's movie follows suit, in many ways unfolding — in ways both good and bad — as a kind of anti-"Interstellar": Rather than mirroring Nolan's attempt to combine awe-inspiring cinema with tangible theories of other worlds, "The Martian" is rooted in this one (and its not-so-distant neighbor).
Weir's story, adapted to the screen by Drew Goddard, remains more or less intact: At the very beginning, Ares 3 astronauts exploring Mars' empty red landscape suddenly make a break for it when a dust storm overtakes their camp; in the chaos, Watney (Matt Damon) gets knocked to the side, and his bereaved captain (Jessica Chastain) assumes the worst. But while Weir jumped into the aftermath of these proceedings, opening with Watney's diaries, "The Martian" allows Scott to establish this seemingly doom-laden scenario in spectacular visual terms.
Mirroring many of the sights and sounds that distinguished the spaceship maneuvers in "Prometheus," Scott shows the crew — which also includes bit parts for Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Michael Peña — shooting devastated glances at the one empty chair of their vessel as they rocket to the heavens. The image goes a long way toward setting the stage for much of the action, which involves Watney alone on Mars, alternately babbling to himself and engaging in "MacGyver"-like tactics to stay alive.
From growing potatoes indoors using his own waste as fertilizer to tracking down an old NASA lander in a bid to regain communication with Earth, Watney's tactics offer a constant sense of excitement. The innovations rapidly pass by, but the details feel just coherent enough to create the elements of a genuine survival story.
Following the beats of Weir's novel, "The Martian" broadens its terrain when NASA discovers the interplanetary castaway via satellite and must brief the world. While dyspeptic NASA chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels, frowning on autopilot) attempts to weigh the various risks involved in bringing Watney home, ambitious project manager Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) dashes from one workstation to the next, crunching numbers and constantly changing course.
Meanwhile, the other astronauts remain oblivious to Watney's ongoing state — until they're not, at which point "The Martian" adds yet another set of strategists to its stacked deck. In this swirling cast of intense figures attempting a bold gamble, "The Martian" sometimes struggles from too many moving pieces. The massive ensemble makes room for enjoyable bit parts by a deadpan Donald Glover as an ultra-geeky computer genius, Mackenzie Davis as a satellite analyst and the ever-impressive Sean Bean as a wayward consultant, but Scott never manages to shake the sense of stock characters tossing around technical language with no semblance of interior lives. Intrusive title cards identifying each new face only further the impression of an overly busy picture.
Of course, Scott's best work involves stories with immediate hooks, and "The Martian" certainly offers plenty. Its strongest moments find Watney journeying through his barren surroundings while his colleagues watch helplessly from afar. The scope of these scenes, shot by regular Scott collaborator Dariusz Wolski, convey massive scale and isolation in a single elegant frame. Watney, meanwhile, remains the best-realized character, with his smarmy one-liners elevating the otherwise constant uncertainty surrounding his fate. For every complex assessment of his next plan comes another throwaway gag about the awful disco music left behind by his captain.
Further stabilizing the material, Goddard's script tacks on an epilogue clearly intended to polish off the novel's rough edges. As commercial entertainment, "The Martian" delivers on expectations of a "smart" blockbuster even as it adheres to the formula of a relatively simple feel-good drama. Though "Interstellar" aimed for more ambition, "The Martian" plays it safer: It's a brainy studio effort that sticks to familiar ground in more ways than one.
Even more noteworthy than its daring zero gravity finale is the movie's tone, which strikes a cheery contrast to Scott's usual ominous routine. In the last few years, the 77-year-old filmmaker has endured his own castaway story, stranded in a no-man's land of troubled projects. But like Watney, Scott is a keen survivalist, and "The Martian" proves he still has a few tricks left.
"The Martian" premieres this week at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens nationwide on October 2.