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“The Martian” – smart, funny science fiction.

I wasn’t sure I could ever trust Matt Damon in space again after Interstellar (that betrayal still smarts just a little). But Damon’s character in The Martian, astronaut Mark Watley, is just so incredibly likeable – the kind of guy who’s the best friend/boyfriend/brother/colleague you’ll ever want. With this film (based on the bestselling 2013 novel of the same name), director Ridley Scott (of Alien and Blade Runner fame), has re-established himself as a science fiction god, following the lukewarm Alien prequel, Prometheus, and the embarrassing Biblical action-adventure, Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The Martian opens with a scene on the Red Planet, where a team of astronauts are busy collecting soil samples. NASA warns the commander of the crew, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), of a massive approaching dust storm. As the spacewalkers try to make their way to their ship to leave, Watley, the team’s botanist, is hit by a large piece of debris that tears through his suit and disables the sensors that monitor his vitals, and that link him to the rest of the team. Lewis tries to find him, even as the ship is about to launch, but with no communication from Watley, and the sensors showing no signs of life, the crew presumes him dead and leaves.

The next day (or “SOL” as Martian days are called), Watley wakes up in the red dust. Alone. With serious-sounding bleeps telling him his oxygen is about to run out. It turns out even though the sensors on his suit had been disabled, the debris that lodged itself between his ribs prevented decompression and blood loss. The spaceman drags himself to the compound his team had used as an artificial habitat and patches himself up. Then, he realises he’s royally screwed because the storm had destroyed the communications system that would have linked up with NASA. The next scheduled manned mission to Mars is three years away, and he only has a couple of months’ worth of food.

But, Watley is an eternal optimist. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” he declares with a smile, and sets about cutting up potato pieces, and planting them in organic soil he creates using the human faecal matter from the habitat’s sanitation system (yes, yuck). He makes water by combining Hydrogen and Oxygen in a highly flammable process, all the while recording humorous video logs to keep up his spirits.

Back on earth, NASA has already sent out condolences to Watley’s family and held a number of press briefings, when an engineer reviewing satellite images of Mars, notices how massive objects around the compound have been inexplicably moving around. When the space agency realises what’s happened, and NASA spokesperson, Anne Montrose (Kristen Wiig), discovers what a PR disaster this is, a rescue plan is hastily assembled. NASA manages to make contact with Watley using a remote controlled rotating camera from an old probe left on Mars, pointing it at letters of the alphabet.

It becomes a race against time for NASA to launch a probe to re-supply Mars, and keep Watley alive while he waits for the next manned flight. Inevitably, things go wrong and there are major complications. But, through it all, Watley manages to maintain his sense of humour and adventure. He dispels the loneliness by listening to Commander Lewis atrocious collection of disco music, and by holding conversations with himself. “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially ‘colonised’ it. So technically, I colonised Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!” he tells the video log.

Watley is one of the most likeable characters Hollywood has created in a very long time, particularly in science fiction. Every time the cynical film critic in me tried to be dismissive or to find the film sappy, I’d find myself smiling, laughing, tensing up, and rooting for Mark Watley in every way imaginable.

Damon gives a cosmically grand performance. The supporting cast are all magnificent and include Chiwetel Ejiofor as engineer Vincent Kapoor and Jeff Daniels as NASA director Teddy Sanders.

There is enough science in The Martian to satisfy the geeks, though of course it’s not perfect. Scott must have been a bit disappointed at the salt water discovery on Mars this week, which messes with the plot a bit. The CGI of dusty Mars and outer space is beautiful enough to warrant watching it in 3D. But mostly, it is an immensely enjoyable, funny, and adroit film about what it means to be human, to have compassion, and to be brave.

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wigg

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Martian is out in SA cinemas on 2 October 2015.

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