Will Oscar voters embrace Ridley Scott's new sci-fi survival tale, "The Martian"? Maybe. They should. It's a strong, smart movie, though silly at times in its humor, which will probably ding it with academy members who prefer to confine themselves to movies that take themselves very, very seriously.
But you know who will most definitely love the movie? Neil deGrasse Tyson. Bill Nye the Science Guy. And Henry Winkler. (More on the last in a bit.)
"Martian" star Matt Damon says the film's writer, Drew Goddard, pitched it to him as a "love letter to science." And that it most certainly is. Damon plays an astronaut forced to rely on his mad scientific skills after his crew leaves him behind on the Red Planet, believing him to be dead.
"Mars will come to fear my botany powers!" Damon's character, Mark Watney, boldly proclaims early on. It's a magnificent line, funny and indicative of the pride Goddard's screenplay takes in the power of knowledge.
The 130-minute movie basically follows Watney outlining the problems he faces and then solving them one after another. Confronted by the limited range of his Mars rover, Watney grits his teeth and says, "I'm going to have to science the ... out of this." And he does!
It plays like a profile of a Mars-based MacGyver ditching the Swiss Army knife and secret agent stuff for detailed forays into code hacking and the occasional "Lord of the Rings" joke.
It's also a thrilling piece of work. There are some scary moments and a couple of scenes of quiet desperation. But Scott keeps "The Martian" light on its feet. Kristen Wiig has a prominent role in it, for goodness' sake, playing NASA's PR director, and Scott's not afraid to make use of her comedic talents. And Damon's full range of gifts are always on display. He's charismatic, sympathetic and often very funny as the optimistic lead character.
One running joke has Watney bemoaning the ship commander's (Jessica Chastain, good as always) horrible taste in music -- disco. She's gone and all he has left to keep him company on Mars is Donna Summer and Abba. She -- or some other crew member -- apparently loves "Happy Days" too. We see Watney watching a clip from the '70s sitcom early in the movie.
Initially, I didn't buy that of all the TV shows in history, "Happy Days" would be the first one playing on Mars. But Damon imitating Winkler's the Fonz makes perfect sense within the context of "The Martian." Who better to emulate? Two thumbs up, a can-do spirit and the ability to repair a jukebox with a well-placed bang of the hand? Aaaaaaaay! Why not?