I guess I had a lot of loosely-defined expectations coming into Ridley Scott’s The Martian (based on the book by Andrew Weir). I was expecting it to be more like his other somewhat weighty titles, like Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus, and Kingdom of Heaven, all of which, whatever their merits, remain relatively exhausting in both scope and force. I was expecting it to be emotional and draining, partly because Castaway was emotional and draining, and this was supposed to be Castaway in space. I also had the vague sense that this would be Interstellar Part II and that it would maintain the head-scratching mystique of a Nolan film.

Luckily my expectations were thwarted. The Martian was a nice surprise because it was neither heavy-handed nor overly empowering. It wasn’t, as I suspected, a pitch for the resilience of the human spirit. Mainly it was just kind of funny. Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, gets marooned on the red planet early on in the film and wakes up all alone. You wait for him to freak out, to realize that he will never again see his hometown or eat his grandma’s cookies or get a chance to make amends for all his little sins, but there’s no moping to be found. Instead, his impending death is paired with a strange freedom to poke fun at himself, to get creative, and to do what he loves: “science the shit out of this”–he literally turns excrement into crop fertilizer, death into life. He chops up a wooden crucifix for kindling in order to burn hydrogen and create water before blowing up the entire experiment and recording in his video diary, “I’m stupid!” His pride is swallowed for him, and he tries again. There’s an undeniable pulse of life on Mars.

Meanwhile on earth, our finest comedians (Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig) masquerade as NASA bigwigs, stressed out of their minds having left one of their own on a different planet. In grey half-lit conference rooms they slip and slide through politics, trying to maintain a good reputation despite the Mars/Watney fiasco. Everyone has circles under their eyes and slightly disheveled hair, and any off-hand joke is met with the stink eye. After realizing that he is alive, someone says, “I wonder what he’s thinking up there.” The film cuts to Watney saying, “I’m definitely going to die up here, if I have to keep listening to this god awful disco music–no I’m not going to turn the beat around.” He dances anyways, and between Earth and Mars, it’s pretty clear who’s really living and who’s really dying.

Watney’s sense of humor, despite his circumstances, ultimately steals the spotlight in The Martian. Mockingbird’s newest book, Law and Gospel, explains: “In the realm of the Law, we must keep face. In the realm of the Gospel, we can laugh at our own faces in the mirror.” The earthlings are trapped by the laws of their reputations and expectations; Watney recognizes that he should be dead and is just happy to be alive. Anne Lamott, too, explains that as you realize your own limits, “You begin to get a better sense of humor about yourself. But when you’re desperate, you become teachable, and you become receptive.” The Martian has a great soundtrack, most importantly featuring “Waterloo,” by Abba, the significant line being, “I feel like I win when I lose.”

In the end, The Martian pulls a bait-and-switch and wraps it all up with a one-liner about self-empowerment–classic. Watney delivers one of the closing statements to a group of aspiring astronauts, saying, “If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” But that’s not really true of the movie and that’s not really true of life. You can solve all the problems you want, but nothing is going to prevent that unsystematic storm from blowing through your Mars mission and throwing a rogue satellite dish into your gut. Watney would be more truthful to conclude with something like, “If Jessica Chastain is willing to sacrifice two years of her life to come rescue you, and if she is backed by a team of similarly sacrificial astronauts, and if China is willing to contribute top-secret rocket power to expedite the process, then you get to come home.”