Matt Damon’s confident performance energizes ‘The Martian’

Cameron Osmond

Recent hits such as “Gravity” and “Interstellar” explored the blunt brutality of space and planetary travel, but rarely has a sci-fi spectacle carried the pleasure and wit that fuels “The Martian.”

The mountainous backdrop of Mars serves as the setting of Ridley Scott’s latest directorial effort, an adaption of the best-selling debut novel by Andy Weir. At the heart of the story is a tale of human will and ingenuity.

The film begins with Scott’s camera sweeping over the red landscapes of Mars, providing a glimpse at the barrenness that will challenge future hero and astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon). The central base of Ares 3 is shown, the crew digging in the ground and Watney determining if the foreign soil is viable for colonization. With a similar introduction to “Gravity,” “The Martian’s” initial calmness turns south in a heartbeat. After a surprise colossal dust storm threatens the safety of the crew, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) elects to leave the planet, ordering the crew to proceed to the launch ship. On the way, Watney is struck by a ruptured antenna, forcing the crew to leave him behind.

Damon plays Watney, the world-class botanist and wisecracker, with ease. When Mars’ harsh climate and unpredictable nature begin to heighten the gravity of the storyline, Watney sweeps in, offering a sharp one-liner or off-beat remark to relieve the tension. Damon’s Watney offers statements such as “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” reminding the audience that science, and humor, can power his survival attempt. However, Damon’s comedic charm acts as a double-edged sword. The constant banter occasionally takes away from the brutal danger that Mars offers. It all looks a little too easy for him.

Coming off the critical failures of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Counselor,” Ridley Scott provides precise direction that stays clear of unnecessary visual flair. Seamlessly switching back and forth between Watney’s complications on Mars and NASA’s dilemmas in Houston, Scott doesn’t stray off path of the film’s narrative: the survival and rescue of Watney.

Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s reluctance to stick to the source material prompts the star-studded cast to be unrealized at times. Jeff Daniels gives a superb yet brief performance as the director of NASA. His stern leadership and domineering attitude are reminiscent of his days leading the HBO show “The Newsroom.” Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the director of Mars Operations for NASA, and Chastain are both used minimally, despite their acting pedigrees. Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) and Benedict Wong play two brilliant NASA scientists who manage to steal nearly every scene they’re in, despite the extensive list of A-listers they’re acting beside.

Right as the audience begins to warm up to these characters, they’re returned to Watney’s bouts on Mars. Each supporting character serves their purpose to the story and provides laughs. They aren’t given the screen time to explore their characters. Damon, though, is given liberty, and the pay-off is substantial.

“The Martian” is Damon’s best work this decade, as he gives a confident lead performance evocative of his early work in films such as “Good Will Hunting” and “The Departed.” The film itself has the deliberate pace and story structure of “Apollo 13,” but lacks the sense of peril that its recent space counterparts provided.

“The Martian” is a mightily enjoyable film, attributable to Damon’s persistent and cool performance, and the film’s ability to make science fun on the silver screen.