‘The Martian’ successfully finds its way with personality, science

One of the most difficult tasks to do in any scientific movie is successfully blend human stories with (mostly) accurate technobabble.

There’s no inherent reason why the two should be incompatible, but so often we have to choose between one or another. Last year’s “Interstellar” (a film I managed to enjoy despite its villain literally being named Dr. Hugh Mann) leaned heavily toward the former at the expense of the latter.

“The Martian” is made even more impressive in comparison to that Christopher Nolan magical space bookshelf fantasy. It expertly juggles the human struggle of its stranded colonizer with fascinating, fun NASA problem solving.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on a manned mission to Mars in a fictional near future in which the U.S. government actually commits itself to do. During a terrifying sandstorm, he’s hit by debris and assumed dead by his five crewmates, who abort the mission and leave for Earth without him.

Since it wouldn’t be an uplifting story if he actually died, he wakes up the next day to find himself alone on the red planet with only enough food to last a few months. Unfortunately, there won’t be another manned mission for another four years.

As you might expect, he puts his horticultural skills to good use and manages to start a small potato farm in his oxygenated habitat using Mars soil. This is where “The Martian” gets fun.

The film’s pacing is remarkably snappy despite its two and a half hour length. Watney tells us about his problems through video log narration and immediately shows us the solutions without a bunch of handwringing.

Even as someone with an average level of scientific literacy, it’s entertaining to watch Watney work through his issues because they’re explained in a manner that makes sense to the layman. He does so while injecting a metric ton of personality with constant humorous quips about his situation.

There were several moments throughout the film where my friend and I turned to each other and said, “Oh wow, that’s really cool!” It certainly helps that all of the crucial science is supposedly accurate.

Of course, NASA eventually figures out he’s alive and establishes contact. As you’d imagine, this proves vital when everything starts going wrong and Watney needs to change his plans half a dozen times.

The supporting cast is just great. Jeff Daniels masterfully barks orders as the director of NASA, while the indomitable Chiwetel Ejiofor wears his best problem-solving cap as the mission director.

Excellent additions such as Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Donald Glover (I wanted to just call him “Childish Gambino” but decided against it) round it out.

The only time “The Martian” didn’t work for me was when its attempts at comedy fell flat. It’s largely funny, but Watney telling us “my balls are frozen” because of the subzero temperatures is a bit much.

Still, it’s one of director Ridley Scott’s best recent movies, and an enjoyable time for anyone who likes semi-realistic space drama. It’s probably the best one of these since “Apollo 13.”