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Oscar worthy: ‘The Martian’ succeeds because it’s so down-to-earth

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is a hopeful, humanistic vision of the future, from a director best known for his dystopias.

It’s a showcase for Matt Damon but has a large and well-used supporting cast. It’s science fiction with an emphasis on science. It’s funny enough that the Golden Globes mistook it for a comedy, and dramatic enough that it might make you cry a couple of times.

For all those reasons and more, “The Martian” is the best motion picture in this year’s crop of Oscar nominees.

Much of the credit goes to Scott, who wasn’t even nominated. The director has little to prove at this point in his career, so he isn’t afraid to just tell a great story, using visual flourishes and effects only when they’re really needed.

Screenwriter Drew Goddard injects plenty of humor into the otherwise harrowing story of an astronaut abandoned on Mars, ensuring that the tense atmosphere never overwhelms the witty dialogue and character quirks. From Donald Glover’s crazy-brilliant NASA staffer to Jessica Chastain’s disco-loving commander, everyone gets the distinguishing qualities that make good actors want to take supporting roles.

As the central figure, Damon (a best actor nominee) exhibits his astonishing ability to be very smart without being smug, and to seem like a regular guy without turning down the movie-star charisma. He makes you believe that he could figure out how to survive and that you’d want him to. Damon’s acting skills are sometimes underrated, but there should be no doubt for anyone who watches him here.

There are some traditional sci-fi elements on display — alien landscapes, daringly improbable rescues, a fair amount of technobabble — but they’re never the most important part of the film.

It may be set on another planet, but “The Martian” is rooted in emotional honesty and respect for the courage and resourcefulness of Earth’s dominant species.

Freelance reviewer Loey Lockerby reviews film and theater for The Star.

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