Showing a signature flair missing since 'Gladiator' (2000), Ridley Scott returns to mainstream mastery with 'The Martian', a space misadventure turned survivor’s tale. Similarities to 'Apollo 13' and the more recent 'Gravity' will be obvious to anyone who’s ever rocketed into zero-g thrills, but that’s not to say that Scott - who does well by Andy Weir’s science-heavy 2011 novel (smartly streamlined by screenwriter Drew Goddard) - doesn't bring his own spin. A scary storm on Mars swarms the Ares 3 crew in a blizzard of frozen dust reminiscent of the inhospitable planet from 'Alien' (1979). After an emergency evacuation strands Matt Damon's presumed-dead astronaut Mark Watney on his own, his initial wandering of the vacant 'hab' outpost plays like any number of Scott's moody sci-fi classics, from 'Blade Runner' to 'Prometheus'.
But differently, 'The Martian' has spunk in store: 'I’m not going to die,' Watney says in his video diary, and we actually hear a heavy-metal power chord as this chatterbox of a botanist gets to work manufacturing water from hydrogen, creating a greenhouse-enclosed potato farm (fertilised by the disappeared crew’s waste packets) and putting his noodle to contacting Mission Control. Bringing optimism, nerdiness and a touch of crazy to his character's solo ordeal - at one point, scraggly Watney calls himself a 'space pirate' - Damon is the key to the movie’s exuberance. This is his 'Cast Away' and it’s hard to imagine another star commanding the role with such boyish, brainy confidence.
The rest of the film, though, about Watney’s rescue, suffers slightly in comparison. Sometimes it plays rivetingly, via Jeff Daniels's Nasa administrator eyeballing the bottom line and weighing the costs of a public-relations disaster; sometimes, it plays in a discordant, 'Armageddon'-ish comic register, as when klutzy astrophysicist Donald Glover slips on his spilled coffee. (Meanwhile Kristen Wiig's role is brief enough to be a skit on 'Saturday Night Live'.) But mainly, 'The Martian' strikes an invigorating note of let's-work-the-problem cool and saluting a little insubordination as Jessica Chastain’s guilt-ridden orbiting commander decides to go rogue in an explosive finale. A movie about intellect triumphing over fear (and an all-disco playlist that Watney must contend with), it gets the mind racing.