The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott

Matt Damon entertains with his cherubic optimism at being abandoned on the red planet, four years before he knows he can possibly be rescued from the mistake made by his manned mission mates at leaving him for dead on the arid wastes of Mars.

Most fortuitously, Damon, playing astronaut Mark Watney, is a botanist. So lucky, huh? So, very shortly after he finds himself stranded inadvertently, he manages quite well, as he says, be “Sciencing the hell out of  the situation.” Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, trusty Jeff Daniels and a bunch of other people fulfill roles that in the real NASA they would not be occupying, as 95% of NASA is white guys and many Chinese, lots of Jews, and a couple of Others.

Coming to mind with this premise are other kindred entertainments: Cast Away (2000) and Apollo 13 (1995 ) -- both, Tom Hanks vehicles; Gravity (2014) and, of course, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), which started it all.

Sadly, when I hung out at NASA down at Cape Canaveral a few years ago, NASA was a shadow of its former self, as the Obama Administration cut its budget, and its mission goals, to bare-knuckle withers. I saw only Caucasians everywhere. Male. But poetic license: We’ll forgive the fact that Kristen Wiig seems to be in the background, grimacing appropriately, without any real job to do, and Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara seem unduly dewy and unscience-y to be in the positions they represent.

Actually, on this point, this is a family friendly movie, with a strong math and astrolabe component. Kids will be influenced to pay attention to their math classes and their botany, geology, agronomy and engineering classes, as these play a big chunk of the proceedings.

Kudos to the location scouts, who found somewhere in New Zealand the proper cratered, nubbled and craggy topography, aided by red gel screens for the proper planetary authenticity. Though the film has its share of suspense, we know Damon, even full of sores, and concave-starved after a year on quarter-rations, won’t be sacrificed to the gods of expediency and verisimilitude. Despite his pickle, the film offers quite a bit of humor salting up all the dire near-extinction tropes being leveraged.