The Martian: Damon-led sci-fi film best in several years

Don’t make the mistake of skipping a trip to your local theater to catch “The Martian.”

There’s too many reasons not to miss out on what likely will go down as one of the premier science fiction films of the decade – thought everything right about the movie starts and ends with Matt Damon.

As with all films about the stranded or marooned, a film requiring one man all alone to spend several cinematic years on another planet requires a phenomenal performance from Hollywood’s elite class of actors – and “The Martian” has that in spades with a tour de force effort by Damon.

In Mark Watney, Damon exudes the everyman qualities of an actor like Tom Hanks, melding it with the wry humor of George Clooney and the lovable charm of Leonardo DiCaprio to create a dynamic, layered character that audiences actually enjoy watching all by his lonesome for over an hour.

Damon’s engaging portrayal of Watney, along with some creative editing from director Ridley Scott and his team, keep “The Martian” interesting for much longer than the film’s premise might suggest.

Audiences have seen a lot of variety in Damon’s work over the past two decades. While his work in the Jason Bourne franchise and as the lead in “Good Will Hunting” – which he co-wrote with Ben Affleck – are probably the most iconic Damon performances in the minds of casual moviegoers, his turn as Watney has to vault into the same stratosphere.

Viewers can’t help but root for Watney in a way that hasn’t been seen since Hanks covered a volleyball with blood to help stay sane in “Castaway,” which arrived in theaters more than 15 years ago.

“The Martian” is Matt Damon’s movie through and through and is quite possibly the best work he’s ever done, no small feat in an illustrious career.

It would have been easy for Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard  to just let a top-notch performance stand on its own two feet, giving Damon ample room and the full 142 minutes of running time for a one-man show.

However, they rightfully opted to stay true to the source material – Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name – and included both Watney’s fellow astronauts and NASA flight crew as pivotal members of a strong, talented ensemble cast led by Academy Award nominees Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

More than half of the supporting actors – Chastain, Ejiofor, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig – have the talent to carry their own films, but willingly sacrifice their own screen time in deference to the movie’s needs, which benefits the audience more than Damon or Scott. With Chastain leading the way in space and Ejiofor on Earth, every single scene has the same impact even if Damon’s not involved at all.

As much as viewers want to see what’s going on with Watney on Mars, there’s no drop off in scenes without Damon – something that couldn’t be said for a classic film like “Apollo 13,” where you just wanted to get back to Hanks floating around the moon as soon as possible after the scene cuts away to Earth.

“The Martian” also proves to be a big comeback for Scott after missing big with “The Counselor,” “Prometheus” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Everything seems to click all the way through for Scott, who’s able to blend numerous top-notch acting performances with beautifully shot cinematography from Dariusz Wolski and the most visually dynamic computer graphic imagery this side of “Gravity.”

“The Martian” represents Scott’s best work in more than a decade, harkening back to 2001’s “Black Hawk Down” and 2000’s “Gladiator.”

Though the film is based on a science-heavy fiction novel, it’s not necessary for moviegoers to have read the book previously or earned a degree in astrodynamics to enjoy “The Martian” as the cinematic masterpiece that it is. It’s also unnecessary to go out of your way to catch the film’s 3D version as the 2D experience is just as compelling – a recommendation that cannot be made about either “Everest” or “The Walk,” films that are must-sees in the in-your-face 3D format they were intended to be viewed in.

For science-fiction drama, “The Martian” is exceedingly funny, with a number of pop culture references and a “Lord of the Rings” Easter egg joke to boot. The film does include more heavy language than your average PG-13 film and brief male rear nudity, though younger moviegoers allowed to watch films with cursing are likely capable of handling the science-heavy material, thanks to Goddard’s viewer-friendly script.

Though an upcoming sequel in the “Star Wars” franchise still has yet to way in, “The Martian” is by far the best science-fiction film since Oscar-winner “Gravity” and a definite must-see in theaters.

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