It's a bit like “Cast Away,” except on Mars. Matt Damon plays the American astronaut named Mark Watney, who was part of a crew that landed on Mars and conducted some soil experiments before having to return home a little early because of a vast, unexpected storm. Mark Watney was lost in the storm, and the crew, assuming he was dead, was forced to leave without him. Except Mark Watney wasn't dead, he was just knocked out, and seriously wounded. But now he has bigger problems: he's stranded. Marooned on a hostile planet, inside an artificial domicile that is not equipped to sustain him.
To make this anywhere near interesting, as in “Cast Away,” the main actor is going to have to possess more than star power. He's going to have to be so fascinating that we viewers are going to want to look at him for most of the movie, talking to himself (or, as Director Ridley Scott would have it, talking to a video that no one else is monitoring). But somehow, Matt Damon makes this work. Which means that his personal magnetism is as powerful as the emotions generated in this movie.
The scenes that don't contain Matt Damon are, by contrast, urgent and interactive and high-tech, from the Nasa launch-watch room to the remaining astronauts on their spaceship, even to a riotously jubilant crowd at Times Square, witnessing “live” the rescue of Astronaut Mark Watney. Yes, of course he's rescued; they wouldn't make a movie of his just perishing alone. But the suspense is all in how it happens.
Fortunately for Mark Watney, he's a biologist, so the first priority to somehow manufacture water is actually do-able, and after that, to take Martain soil and enhance it, with, ahem, locally-produced fertilizer, and raise...potatoes in a greenhouse? Well, since this is Hollywood, we can make this almost believable. The astronauts “flying” around the inside of their spaceship, learning to manuever in weightlessness, is also very convincing, in addition to downright exhilirating.
But the best part is the way the whole world is watching and rooting for this one astronaut to be rescued and brought home. Even if China has to offer its own booster rocket to help (wouldn't that be great?). And even if a brilliant underling somewhere in NASA has to come up with the grand plan that does an end-run around his superiors. (Well, it's one of the few ways we can be a little naughty here.)
There's a little bit of language, which is natural given the extreme circumstances, and some parents might think it's too intense for younger children, anyway. But otherwise, this is one of those adventurous family films that nearly everyone will enjoy. I smell Oscars.