That said, I don't think there's any need to dwell on the plot as it's not a particularly deep film. Set at some unspecified point in the near future, Matt Damon gets left for dead on the Red Planet as a dust storm swoops in on a NASA landing site. The next couple of hours are spent trying to get him back home while Damon has to "science the shit" out of his meagre supplies and technology to stay alive. Okay, scraping up vac-packed faeces and mixing it with Martian soil might not produce the kind of potato crop we see in the film, at least not straight away, but it has enough pseudo-realism for it to be plausible. And puncturing one's space suit to use it for propulsion is a bit iffy, but again, it sounds just about right for it to work.
It goes without saying that the wide panoramic shots of the Martian desert (i.e. Jordan) are stunning, yet the sense of desolation doesn't overcome the film, nor is Mars the "real star". Throughout Matt Damon does a good job of playing Matt Damon, so don't expect much in the way of brooding and existential angst. Thankfully his ubiquity doesn't get tiresome as his adventures in the habitat and on the rover are interspersed with ground control action. Overall it's very watchable. Not a masterpiece by any means, but an entertaining enough update of an Apollo 13 (and an Apollo 13)-style space disaster scenario.
The real hero here has to be science. When it suits, which is often, NASA likes to dress its organisation and its mission up as the repository of all that is best about our species. Its official discourse evokes essentialist notions of exploration, that it is in our very nature to strap ourselves atop a rocket and blast off into infinity. And when it's not reworking old American frontier ideologies, it's presented as an instantiation of the absolute, of a manifestation of reason straight from a late 20th century misreading of Hegel. As such, any film that has official NASA involvement - and this does - the agency has to come out of it looking good. Hence Matt Damon was never in any danger.
Putting that aside, anyone whose politics aren't hitched to the primitivist bandwagon has serious respect for the space science NASA does. Even I follow them on Twitter. And that is shown in the best possible light, here. Matt Damon applies his botanist know-how and astronaut training to grow crops, establish communications with Earth, improvise habitat and suit breach repairs, and lots of other gadgety-things. Meanwhile NASA get their heads together to formulate a rescue plan which, in the best tradition of American schmaltz, a lowly underling at the Jet Propulsion Lab manages to come up with. Whenever a problem presents, all concerned apply ingenuity and the scientific method to arrive at a solution, even if the bounds of credulity take a little stretching.
Nevertheless, this is more than just pro-NASA propaganda. The Martian sets its face against the contemporary wave of dystopian sci-fi that delights in creating misanthropic situations to subject our descendants to. Much harder is to produce a compelling, successful, believable film that ignores the zeitgeist. It shows we have the tools and know how to fix seemingly intractable problems, and that our efforts can be successful. In a world haunted by social problems and looming environmental disaster, give me that message over fashionable fatalism any day.