‘The Martian’: On a lonely planet, Matt Damon thrives

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Finally! A botanist superhero!

What took you so long, Hollywood?

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is arguably the warmest, cuddliest film ever made about the Red Planet, and that’s all the more surprising given Scott’s mastery of beautiful, haunting nearly cold-to-the-touch futuristic movies such as “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and “Prometheus.”

We love those films, but they aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. “The Martian,” on the other hand, is a hopeful love letter to science and math, American resolve, the power of friendship and the dream of a world in which nations set aside their differences to unite to bring one man home.

It’s also a visual stunner, and it features one of our most likable and dependable actors giving a performance that ranks with anything he’s ever done.

“The Martian” is set in the near future, in a world where NASA apparently has kazillions of dollars, and the third manned (and womaned) mission to Mars has set up camp on the Red Planet and is going about its daily business of collecting samples, monitoring the atmosphere and doing other astronaut-type stuff.

Matt Damon is Mark Watney, a brilliant botanist with a corny sense of humor, undying loyalty to the Cubbies, love of deep-dish pizza — and an explorer’s spirit, as evidenced by his joining the Ares 3 team on this mission. Jessica Chastain is the commander, Kate Mara is the computer expert, Michael Pena is the wisecracking, family man, comic relief astronaut. They’re a neat team, and for the first few scenes, “The Martian” feels like it’s going to be a prototypical ensemble-cast space adventure.

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But then a massive dust storm hits harder and faster than anticipated, forcing the crew into emergency evacuation mode. Believing Mark has been killed by a flying piece of a communications tower, Cmdr. Lewis tearfully issues the order to take off.

When Mark regains consciousness, he wakes up to a world of hurt (he has a suffered a severe abdominal injury) and the brutal truth of his circumstances: He’s injured, he’s alone, he has no means of communication and a limited supply of food, and he is almost certainly going to die on Mars.

Not that Mark is the type to give up. “I’m going to have to science the s— out of this,” he says in his running video diary, and in one case he means that literally.

Damon strikes just the right notes of comedy, nerdy tech talk, moments of despair and triumph. Mark cannot believe the music library of Cmdr. Lewis (it’s heavy on cheesy 1970s tunes), or the nerdy video games left behind. When he builds a greenhouse of sorts and successfully engineers actual plant growth, he hops around with glee, calls himself the first Martian and says, “In your face, Neil Armstrong.”

And when he miraculously hears from his crew, he’s overcome with emotion.

“The Martian” is three movies in one:

• The primary story of Mark’s solo adventures on Mars, where he tries to grow food, establish communication, repair a transportation vehicle and simply survive.• Cmdr. Lewis and crew on the ship, well on the way home, and the decision they’ll have to make when they learn their friend is alive.

• A tense thriller of sorts back on Earth. Jeff Daniels is perfectly cast as the head of NASA, who wonders if it’s worth risking lives and spending untold millions to save one man. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the NASA scientist and Sean Bean is the home-base chief of the Ares 3 crew, and in their own ways, both answer yes. Welcome faces such as Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong and Mackenzie Davis have small but pivotal roles.

All three stories work, though we get a few too many scenes of the scientists on Earth saying they need six months to build this or that, only to be told it has to be done in two months, now get to work! (Overall, though, even with a running time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, “The Martian” moves along at a steady clip.)

Damon is terrific. The movie lives and breathes on his performance, and he comes through in every scene.

Chastain is her usual brilliant self in a smallish role, Ejiofor is the guy we’re rooting for to get it done on Earth, and Sean Bean brings that Ned Stark/Boromir nobility to his performance.

You look at the names in this cast and you’d be correct in assuming this is going to be one helluva fun movie to watch.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard, based on the book by Andy Weir. Running time: 141 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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