At no point in The Martian does the guy discover water on Mars. Isn’t this supposed to be scientifically accurate?
Based on the hit 2011 novel, the film tells the story of NASA botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is left for dead on Mars after his crew leaves early during an unpredicted storm. With no hope of rescue for several Earth years, Watney is faced with the task of learning to farm on the red planet.
The Martian has brilliant fundamentals and sucks viewers into its story like a funnel. This is the kind of story that hangs completely on whether or not the main character is likeable, and the film knocks that out of the park with good dialogue and a sure-handed performance from Damon.
The film also does a fantastic job of impressing what impossible odds he’s up against — he doesn’t have enough food by a margin of years, the water and oxygen recycling equipment isn’t designed to last as long as he’ll need them to and any of his facilities could explode for, like, no reason. In the very first scene of Watney’s isolation, he withdraws a piece of satellite from his abdomen and has to staple the wound shut. This sets the tone as he breaks down his food, water and communications predicament in simple, foreboding terms.
The subtle but extremely sound execution on these two aspects — making the character likable, then making his task daunting — is all this film, or any other, really needs. It gets to a point later that they can have entire gut-wrenching scenes in a matter of seconds. One, set after an airlock bursts and Watney has had to create an air-tight seal with a tarp and Duct Tape, is simply a shot of Watney wincing every time the wind rustles the tarp, thinking about how he could be undone in an instant. In another, very late in the movie, there’s a shot of Watney’s naked body ravaged by the minimal rations he’s been forced to keep to. Again, it’s only a moment, but that’s all it takes because of the way viewers will already feel for the character and his predicament.
The comparison everybody has been making for this is Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, and that’s a pretty accurate summation, but The Martian takes so many ways those stories don’t work very well and turns them on their heads. Instead of his main contact being a volleyball, Watney is constantly making videos of himself for the record and eventually makes contact with NASA, whose agents are discussing his plight the entire time once they realize he’s survived, so there’s plenty of human interaction and conflict here. Where Apollo 13 sort of gets lost and starts talking about heroism and the human spirit, The Martian puts it all on display the whole way through.
The comparison I want to make is to Gravity and Interstellar. The Martian is the third similar space movie in three years, and the suddenly emerging subgenre has proven to be extremely profitable. Gravity and Interstellar raked in $274.1 million and $188 million domestic, respectively, and The Martian is looking at almost $50 million this weekend, which is within striking distance of Gravity’s $55.8 million, which is the record for October opening weekends. It’s unclear what’s spawned this sudden onslaught of scientifically accurate space survival dramas, all of which pay close attention to how physics works and what is within humanity’s capabilities right now, but they’ve all been awesome. More importantly, they’ve all made a ton of money, so we’re only going to get more of them from here on out.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I’m gonna get a Peeple account and give everybody I know five stars for everything. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.