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'The Martian' Is A Gripping, Out-Of-This World Space Saga


This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "The Martian" is based on a novel by Andy Weir, the son of a particle physicist and an electrical engineer who immersed himself in the mechanics of spaceflight and the environment of Mars while working as a computer programmer. The story first appeared in installments on his website. It became a best-selling book. In the film, directed by Ridley Scott, Matt Damon plays a marooned astronaut with a stellar supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "The Martian" is the saga of space botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who's left for dead on the Red Planet and tasked with keeping himself from starving before NASA can bring him home. Cynical as I am about the predominance of monster budget blockbusters, I can't imagine grounds for not liking this one. It's photographed, designed, computer-generated, even written on a level that makes most movies of its ilk look slipshod. The excellent 3-D brings out Mars's mountainous textures. You might think you're seeing the real planet. The movie is even more ingratiating than Andy Weir's best-selling novel, a guileless, un-crafty piece of storytelling that holds you anyway because its young writer is so absorbed in how things work on a lifeless planet that you can't wait to see Mark solve the next problem. Even NASA folks, who found the movie "Gravity" scientifically ridiculous, sat up and saluted this book. Both the novel and the movie are testimonials to learning science, the banner line coming when Mark encounters an obstacle and announces, I'm going to science the bleep out of it. The movie, directed by Ridley Scott from a script by Drew Goddard, has the advantage of filling thin characters with charismatic A-list actors, among them Jessica Chastain as the commander who watches Mark, punctured by debris amidst a mission-killing storm, and makes agonized decision to get the hell off the planet without his body. For a while, no one knows he survived. But "The Martian" doesn't unfold in silence, even when Mark is by his lonesome. He keeps a video diary. By the way, astronauts and NASA people don't say, day 34 or day 106, I'm assuming because days aren't the same length on other planets.


MATT DAMON: (As Mark Watney) Our service mission here was supposed to last 31 sols. For redundancy, they sent 68 sols worth of food. That's for six people. So for just me, that's going to last 300 sols, which I figure I can stretch to 400 if I ration. So I've got to figure out a way to grow three years' worth of food here, on a planet where nothing grows. Luckily, I'm a botanist. Mars will come to fear my botany powers.

EDELSTEIN: It's an emotionally irresistible moment when, a few sols later, a NASA monitor sees evidence that Mark is alive and alerts mission director Chiwetel Ejiofor, who alerts NASA PR director Kristen Wiig and NASA head Jeff Daniels, who alerts the world. Suddenly, everyone in "The Martian" is problem-solving, including Donald Glover as a zany science student with a weird idea when all seems lost. Even the Chinese get into the act. Are these great roles? No. There's little indication of the actors' stature, which especially saddened me in Ejiofor's case because back at the end of August, he gave a performance in the little-seen, post-apocalyptic drama, "Z For Zachariah," that's about the best I've seen all year. Oh, well, I hope the paycheck helps Ejiofor do more indie films that stretch him. It was strange to see the credit, directed by Ridley Scott, over a shot of space at the end. I instantly flashed back to the same credit over a shot of space in Scott's sci-fi classic, "Alien," a cold, cynical, icky film. "The Martian" flips "Alien" on its polar axis. It could have been called "Friend" because in this space, everyone can hear you scream and cares. Mark is an amazingly resourceful guy, but the film still says, it takes a village. And I couldn't help thinking as I watched, I'm a part of that village. It's like clapping for Tinkerbelle. The rollicking climax makes you want to believe that space bends to the human will.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR...


DONALD TRUMP: Excuse me, sit down. You weren't called. Sit down. Sit down.

JORGE RAMOS: No, I'm a...

TRUMP: Sit down.

BIANCULLI: Donald Trump's confrontation with Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos was many Americans' introduction to the Mexican-born journalist. On the next FRESH AIR, Terry Gross talks with Ramos about his conflict with Trump, his life and working as an immigrant journalist in the U.S. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.