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Astronaut cinema is typically either cerebral or survivalist. The first tradition depicts space travel as a journey that is primarily metaphorical or metaphysical — think of "Solaris" or "2001: A Space Odyssey," narrative laser shows more concerned with inner-space than hard science — and the other fixates on the pragmatic and the purely athletic, the arduous business of endurance that propels high-concept nail-biters like "Apollo 13" and "Gravity." Ridley Scott's latest, "The Martian," belongs firmly to this latter camp, which worried me. My instinct is to avoid stories about clinging desperately to life despite all logical odds. I didn't catch "Open Water," for instance, and have tried hard to forget "Cast Away." Not because they are intense, but because they are exhausting. Survival is dull work. Worse than that — it's uncinematic.
Either I'm going completely soft, then, or "The Martian" manages to avoid this trap. I suspect it's me. In terms of Scott's filmography, it's more "Black Hawk Down" than "Blade Runner." Patriotic and emotionally manipulative, it's of a piece with the latter half of the filmmaker's career, in which he's endeavored to dial back the solemn psychedelia of his iconic early efforts, which strained at the edges of the blockbuster frame. Like Terry Gilliam, Scott used to make films so thickly imaginative and dimensional that they bordered on recklessness. Films like "Legend" and "Alien" were vast and multisensory — they dripped with painterly detail and dank atmosphere, like velvet paintings in the glare of a black light. Scott changed, though, or his budgets did, or the technology did. A lot of things changed. Anyone expecting the director who blissed out to Vangelis and Philip K. Dick might be disappointed this time out. "White Squall" apologists, on the other hand: Welcome home.
Which is not to say "The Martian" isn't gorgeous or immersive or powerful. It's all of those things, and it's even sometimes funny. For that matter, it might be the best movie I've ever seen about disco and botany. The film finds its footing in a Martian storm that's as chaotic and stylized as a gothic charcoal etching, in the midst of which Matt Damon gets separated from his crew and left for dead. The hopelessness of the situation is so total as to be off-putting, but Damon keeps things light-hearted, and Scott declines the opportunity to wallow. Alone on Mars, the astronaut listens to ABBA and watches "Happy Days" and dips potato wedges in Vicodin. The planet is depicted in wide purple and orange landscapes, with a rugged scope that does justice to John Ford and Ansel Adams.
All of this in the service of an essentially nerdy STEM fantasy of epic proportions. An elegy for a space program that no longer exists, it's bittersweet in its earnestness about American industry and the indestructible Protestant work ethic. This is a film in which the deployment of the ASCII alphabet is played for high drama. There are jokes about coffee and J.R.R. Tolkien. Damon scrapes out his survival with duct tape, ersatz fertilizer, ketchup and inexplicable determination. He is the ideal American, hard-working and self-effacing, possessed of endless reserves of ingenuity and gentle humor despite his predicament's cosmic horror. Unusually for Hollywood, neither the erotic nor the romantic ever infringe on his mission. No flashbacks here to the wife he left behind. He's married to the sea, a NASA true believer who measures out his life in math problems. "Tell them I love what I do," he says in an early message to his parents. "I'm dying for something big and beautiful and greater than me."
Whether or not that's true — whether he dies; whether it's greater than him — is an open question than should cast a pall over the rest of the story, but it really doesn't. Scott is always granting the audience reprieves by cross-cutting back to Earth, where NASA HQ, a collection of celebrities chosen apparently at random (Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Donald Glover), gamely attempts to "science the shit out of" each contingency. And in the background, gathering around the enormous screens in Times Square to watch the catastrophe unfold, is the film's most truly science-fiction invention: an unashamed America that still seems to care.