Desperation, anxiety, stubbornly saying yes to survival: If grand struggles are your thing, there are plenty in Ridley Scott's The Martian, based on Andy Weir's novel, which was first self-published in 2011 and then picked up by Crown in 2014 -- itself a rare seedling that took root against all odds. In both novel and movie, American astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when his fellow crew members leave him for dead after a ferocious dust storm. He comes to, alone on a planet indifferent to his existence, and presumes he's simply going to die. But he doesn't: Even on a dust-dry rock, Watney figures out how to make water; using his own excrement for manure, he succeeds in conjuring an indoor potato field. And because he's a scientist -- a botanist -- he keeps a log of his experiences, one that's both specific in its technical detail and cheerfully colloquial. His interior monologues have a "Hey, I might end up dead!” esprit.
Heavy on science patter, The Martian is all about problem-solving; cozy American ingenuity burns brightly in its heart. It's only partly a story about a man in peril; it's mostly a story about men (and a few women) taking control of the uncontrollable. It's confident, swaggering science fiction, not the despairing kind.
That may be why, as elaborate and expensive-looking as The Martian is, it's almost totally lacking in poetry. This is an overwhelming picture, oversized in its scope and ambition, and the actors get ground in the machinery -- except for Matt Damon. His Watney is the only one worth feeling anything for, and whatever The Martian's problems may be, Damon is undoubtedly the best thing in it.