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'The Martian' review: Strong science, weak fiction

Matt Damon in

Matt Damon in "The Martian." Credit: AP / 20th Century Fox

The most fascinating sequence in Ridley Scott's science-fiction survival epic "The Martian" comes when NASA astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on arid Mars, decides he must grow food. Using a plastic tarp, a flame and a bucket of self-produced fertilizer, Watney creates not just a small potato farm but enough water to sustain it. When the first green shoots emerge from the soil, Watney, played by an enthusiastic Matt Damon, realizes he has performed a modern miracle: He has made a lifeless planet habitable.

Does it take anything away from Watney's fictional achievement that NASA recently announced signs of flowing water on Mars? Well, yes and no. What's fun about "The Martian" -- based on Andy Weir's self-published, deeply researched novel -- is its ferocious dedication to scientific plausibility. Watney can solve just about any problem using math, chemistry, physics, botany and computer science. Damon helps makes this space-based MacGyver a trustworthy figure: We rarely doubt that whatever he's doing can actually be done. Any errors based on suddenly outdated information can be forgiven.

Science, however, is the only thing fun about "The Martian." Tension mounts as Watney's supplies dwindle and the weird beauty of Mars turns menacing, but this movie has nothing even resembling a plot. Watney's former crewmates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña and others) struggle with guilt over leaving him behind, while NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) seems to be hiding something from his press officer (Kristen Wiig). These notes of mystery, however, are abandoned to make room for even more scientists (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover) who solve even more problems in order to rescue our hero.

Damon's Watney is a likable figure, but unlike Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland in "Cast Away" he has no inner life and nothing urgently calling him back to Earth (aside from obvious reasons like oxygen). Screenwriter Drew Goddard ("World War Z") could have fleshed Watney out, perhaps with a family, a backstory, a terrible secret, something. Instead, the character exists in -- well, a vacuum.

In a sense, "The Martian" is too much fact and not enough fiction. "I'm going to science the heck out of this," Watney announces (though he uses a stronger word than heck). That one line is essentially the entire synopsis of "The Martian."


Four More: They all played Martians

Matt Damon stars as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet in "The Martian." And while the title refers to his character, here are four performers who did play Martians, often in movies that weren't out of this world.

PIA ZADORA -- The '80s sexpot was still pretty green -- both for her acting ability and her complexion -- when she made her film debut in 1964 as a Martian child in the laughable "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians."

TOMMY KIRK -- After making his mark in Disney hits like "Old Yeller" and "The Shaggy Dog," Kirk wanted to graduate to more "mature" fare, and wound up playing a Martian in two less-than-stellar offerings -- "Pajama Party" (1964) opposite Annette Funicello and "Mars Needs Women" with TV's Batgirl Yvonne Craig.

ROB SCHNEIDER -- The comic made his auspicious movie debut in the role of Voyeur Martian in the alleged 1989 comedy "Martians Go Home" that starred Randy Quaid as a songwriter coping with some unearthly visitors.

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD -- The actor best known for his eccentric roles in "Taxi" and "Back to the Future" tried to follow in Ray Walston's antennae as a man from Mars in 1999's "My Favorite Martian," a big-screen version of the '60s sitcom.


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