Matt Damon gets lost in space in the riveting sci-fi drama ‘The Martian’

Space man: Damon contemplates the enormity of the universe in The Martian.

Four stars

The Martian Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

A science-fiction movie with an emphasis on the science, The Martian manages to be triumphant and inspirational while focusing primarily on nerdy problem-solving and organized teamwork. That’s not to say the movie isn’t emotional, but its heartwarming (or heart-stopping) moments come in the context of smart people working together to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems, with a practical but optimistic outlook.

On the surface, its story sounds similar to Gravity, another movie about a lone astronaut trapped in outer space. But while Gravity relied mainly on visceral thrills and one person’s inner strength, The Martian finds its suspense in a series of more small-scale (albeit no less critical) dilemmas, which ultimately require the cooperation of people literally spread across the solar system.

It’s all in service of rescuing Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist and NASA astronaut who’s left behind on Mars when the rest of his team believes him dead in a massive storm. Stuck with barely enough food for a year (if rationed strictly), a busted communications system and a four-year wait before another mission is scheduled to arrive, Mark has to figure out how to survive and how to let his colleagues know that he’s not lying dead in a crater.

Meanwhile, on the ground, NASA scientists led by the organization’s director (Jeff Daniels) work on solving the problem from their end. Although his situation appears beyond dire, Mark retains a sarcastic sense of humor and an upbeat attitude, using his botany knowledge and his NASA training to improvise the tools he needs to survive and eventually get home.

Damon carries the film with an excellent performance that conveys Mark’s mix of ingenuity and loneliness, and screenwriter Drew Goddard (working from Andy Weir’s bestselling novel) and director Ridley Scott effectively balance the surprisingly strong humor with the serious danger and uncertainty. The supporting cast is full of great actors even in small parts, and Jessica Chastain stands out as the captain who’s racked with guilt for leaving a crew member behind.

Some of the action back on Earth flags a bit when the movie spends too much time away from Mark, but it all comes together in a spectacular climax that’s as visually dizzying as Gravity’s nonstop motion and as fulfilling as the end of Apollo 13. Like that fact-based drama, The Martian makes furious calculations and engineering simulations into gripping, can’t-look-away drama.

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