Matt Damon in The MartianTHE MARTIAN

If you, too, are a devotee of Ridley Scott's Alien, you'll no doubt remember how its title came into view during the opening credits: as a series of vertical, diagonal, and horizontal white lines that slowly appeared, beginning with the "I," one or two at a time until the capitalized "ALIEN" was wholly spelled out. Thirty-six years later, the title for Scott's sci-fi tale The Martian is revealed in the exact opposite manner: as a full, capitalized "THE MARTIAN" that gradually fades away, one portion at a time, until only the "I" remains.

Obviously, that disappearing act is a decidedly minor touch, especially in a film that runs just shy of two-and-a-half hours. But it might also be Scott's most quietly clever touch, and not merely because The Martian's chief narrative concerns an "I" that winds up left all alone. By offering a literal reverse of his 1979 achievement's opener, Scott seems to be suggesting, with an wink, that his new endeavor will be 180 degrees removed from the claustrophobic, stomach-bursting horror of Alien, and that proves decidedly to be the case. While this adaptation of Andy Weir's bestseller (with its script by Drew Goddard) does share some of Alien's themes, principally the life-and-death imperatives behind deep-space problem-solving, Scott's latest is expansive instead of spare, chatty instead of terse, heartening instead of nihilistic. It's also, far and away, and from beginning to end, the most sheerly likable movie Ridley Scott has yet made - an exciting, moving, and altogether glorious sci-fi bear hug that leaves you feeling almost ridiculously happy. Given a career that's found him exploring every conceivable shade of dark, it turns out that Scott looks pretty great in the light.

He also, in The Martian's first minutes, starts things off with a bang - one that, during a violent windstorm on the surface of Mars, sends researcher Mark Watney (Matt Damon) careening away from his fellow NASA travelers, his gut punctured by a flying metal rod. Presuming him dead and knowing they're in equal danger, the remaining crew members (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie) mournfully depart the red planet. But we've been trained by Interstellar to know that an abandoned Matt Damon isn't necessarily a deceased Matt Damon, and Watney, it's soon revealed, is alive. After trudging back to NASA's outpost on Mars - the planet's gravity established with photographic and visual effects so subtle you could easily miss them - the man tends to his wounds, realizes he has no way to communicate with either his crew or the Johnson Space Center, and takes an inventory of his dwindling supplies of food, air, and water. Recording an entry on his video log, Watney says it's likely that he'll either starve, dehydrate, suffocate, or, if another storm causes his outpost to depressurize, implode. There's only one possible way, he logs, to survive: "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie in The MartianThe rest of Scott's film is, in fact, all about everyone on-screen science-ing the shit out of things: smart, dedicated professionals intent on solving seemingly unsolvable problems. There's Watney, of course, who has to learn to make water and grow food ("Luckily I'm a botanist" he says, and that is indeed lucky), sustain his air supply, and find some means of contacting NASA. But there's also the NASA brain trust itself, whose cameras, early on, detect movement on Mars that could only be Watney, and whose employees - played by, among many others, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, and Jeff Daniels - must come up with a quick, feasible, and preferably on-budget rescue scenario. Between the Mars and Earth sequences, The Martian hums with the wonderfully satisfying sights and sounds of active, inventive minds at work, and Scott's and his actors' authority is so strong that you don't spend undue time questioning the logistics of the science on display. (At least I didn't, although I'm sure there are already numerous blogs, if not actual Web sites, humorlessly devoted to everything author Weir and screenwriter Goddard got wrong.) Blessedly, the movie also hums with extraordinary humanity, a feat no doubt accomplished by everyone's collective understanding that they were frequently allowed, and probably encouraged, to be really funny.

Roughly a half-hour into the film, during his first attempt at blending hydrogen and oxygen to make water, Watney accidentally causes an explosion in his outpost, one that sails him backward singed and bruised. Under the circumstances, this should be the height of peril. (Did the blast compromise the cabin pressure? Did it destroy valuable tools and supplies? Is Watney okay?!) But at the Martian screening I attended, as soon as the explosion occurred, my fellow patrons and I exploded with laughter - and were, I'm convinced, completely right to do so. By that point, Damon had already invested his role with recognizable life force and lovely, understated good humor; his situation may have been harrowing, but it was a pleasure to be in his company. (The ultimate can-do, glass-half-full guy, Watney indulges in only a few moments of early panic regarding his circumstances, and immediately gets cracking on survival plans.) Yet Damon and the script make clear that Watney is also something of an endearing egomaniac - at least he is under these conditions - and his log entries find him so deservedly proud of his botanical skills and cocky about his scientific prowess that the H2O explosion feels, just for a second or two, like amusingly just desserts.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor in The MartianIt's extra-amusing because it comes immediately after Watney, thinking his experiment a success, lets out an overjoyed "Whoo-hoo!", and the whole movie is filled with beautifully timed - and, thanks to Pietro Scalia, crisply edited - jokes. (You don't put Wiig and Glover in your cast if you don't want some levity.) The running gags of Watney having only his commander's cheesy disco tunes to listen to and old Happy Days episodes to watch keeps paying higher and higher dividends, and Ejiofor and Daniels, especially, deliver perfect, comically incredulous reaction shots whenever anyone recommends a rescue strategy that's obviously impossible, and inevitably tried anyway. The Martian's overall tone remains so upbeat and friendly that when further disaster strikes, and it certainly does, it's all the more wrenching; considering the triumphs you share with him, Watney's defeats feel unmistakably personal. Big-budget Hollywood thrill rides are frequently called "roller coasters." It's rare, in this genre, to find a roller coaster of this sort that's also an emotional one.

You could contend, as some have, that the film is too blatant a commercial for NASA, and that it's overlong by 20 minutes, and that some of its comedy is so obvious it wouldn't look out of place on Happy Days. (When Ejiofor bemoans the marooned Watney's plight and morosely says, "One can only imagine what he's thinking up there," there's a smash cut to the astronaut looking refreshed immediately post-shower, contentedly humming along to "Turn the Beat Around.") I wouldn't argue with any of that. But I also can't recall the last movie its director made that I had this much fun at - maybe 2000's Gladiator, maybe even 1991's Thelma & Louise - nor one that I was so antsy to revisit. It's been a long time coming, but after many years of underwhelming offerings, we finally have, in The Martian, a return to great Scott.

 

Emily Blunt in SicarioSICARIO

Director Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, a Spanish term for "hitman," casts Emily Blunt as Kate Macer, a stalwart FBI agent recruited by an apparent conglomeration of American governmental agencies to spy on and help eradicate a Mexican drug cartel. By the film's finale, this intelligent, capable agent will have learned that illegal means are occasionally employed to suss out illegal activity, that her superior officers are perhaps not always to be trusted, that corruption and disregard for moral order exist on both sides of the law (and both sides of the border), and that the war on drugs may be unwinnable. Question: Has Macer never seen a movie? Or even an episode or two of Breaking Bad? It's impossible that any federal agent could ever be as easily aghast and hopelessly naïve as screenwriter Taylor Sheridan makes his lead here. Yet in scene after scene, Blunt is forced to act shocked - shocked, I say! - at the heinous behavior of both the cartel's criminals and, more significantly, the supposed "good guys" she's working for, and by the film's end I just wanted this Pollyanna to lock herself in a room with a Blu-ray of Traffic and not come out until it made sense. (I'm sure co-star Benicio Del Toro had a copy he could've loaned her.)

This isn't meant to disparage Blunt herself, who does fine, serious work with what she's given, and Josh Brolin acquits himself equally well as her apparent boss, even though his shadiness is too readily telegraphed by Brolin's omnipresent grin, constant gum-chomping, and affection for flip-flops. (That's a reference to footwear, not untrustworthy politicians.) But I found Sicario a deathly frustrating experience, because Villeneuve's directorial finesse and Roger Deakins' typically fantastic cinematography are continually forced to disguise mediocre material that wears its Social Significance on its sleeve but never tells us anything new or insightful or even vaguely interesting. It's every routine, south-of-the-border drug thriller you've ever seen gussied up with loads of visual and verbal portentousness, and even Del Toro's beautifully hushed magnetism doesn't supply enough reasons to care about the movie he's outclassing. Given the mostly rave reviews Villeneuve's latest has amassed, and the hefty per-screen box office it's thus far taken in, you should definitely consider this a minority opinion. I'm just hoping those plaudits and dough don't result in my one day having to sit through Sicario: Agent 47.

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