The Martian ★★★★½

I'm a computer scientist, not an actor, but I do have one film credit to my name. In 2010 I was a 21-year-old undergrad at Berkeley doing robotics research. This wasn't some four-unit course, it was the entirety of my life: for two years I'd spend upwards of 120 hours a week in a lab, foregoing friends and classes and sleep in service of a purple Linux terminal and a big, slow, laundry-folding robot. Frederick Wiseman and his crew had caught me on a typical Friday night: red-eyed, unshaven, typing in silence til about 3am while the goddamn robot keeps missing his goddamn target because the goddamn calibration is off. When At Berkeley came out three years later, a handful of reviewers commented on that sad student and his monotonous life, his struggle an "amusingly literal parallel" for "the worry that students...are being turned into robots."

I still haven't seen the movie. But what it must have failed to capture -- or, more likely, what I failed to emote -- was how much I loved those boring, sleepless nights. They were some of the best years of my life, and possibly the least robotic. The problem solving, the daily grind, that feeling that this particular question had never been answered before. Forget frat parties. Collapsing on a pillow after five consecutive all-nighters, all to fix one bug 30 seconds before the publication deadline -- that's what hedonism feels like. That's a fucking drug.

The Martian is probably the most joyful celebration of the drug of problem solving I've ever seen put to screen. And it wastes no time getting to the point. Maybe fifteen minutes into the movie, Matt Damon is already stranded on Mars. He's then allotted some five minutes of what I'd assumed would be the crux of the movie: Moon-like despair. Breathe. Look out at Camus' vast, absurd nothing. Then laugh. "No. I'm not gonna die here."

From there on out, the film progresses as pure science porn; outlines of Gravity and Contact painted with a notably giddier brush. Like a point-and-click adventure game, we're perpetually faced with seemingly unsurmountable challenges and just enough items in our inventory to surmount them. The message of the film is the very reason the space program exists: there's always an answer hiding somewhere, and the collective spirit of humanity can never stop looking. To search for reason in an unreasonable universe.

All that probably sounds a bit After School Special, and to a cynical eye, it probably is: everything, from the wavelength of Watney's emotional troughs to the precise balance of gender and ethnicity in the supporting players, is calculated to maximize its positive message. So why turn off that cynical part of me? It has a lot to do with Damon's charisma: like Oscar Isaac from Ex Machina's friendly doppelgänger, he brings the perfect blend of jock-y playfulness, self-deprecation, and nerd cred to the role. It turns the whole thing into a communal experience, complete with the genuine hero worship of classic movies: we, the audience, are huddled around the screen together. We really want to bring our boy home.

I found this movie irresistible. If you're hoping for a bleak, emotional Gethsemane, look elsewhere: this movie isn't about the lows. But between M Night Shyamalan, Ridley Scott, and Pirate Blonde Beard of ARES III, it's been a great month for resurrections.