Based on The Martian a sci-fi novel by Andy Weir, this movie tries to build a narrative around how the scientific method is the only thing that will save humans, when in space. Astronaut Mark Watney is marooned on Mars due to a dust storm, which causes his team to think that he’s dead. They’re already heading back towards the earth and now he must fend for himself on the red planet.
There are a myriad of factors that Mark Watney must account for to ensure his own survival. The first of these is inhalable oxygen and the exhaled carbon dioxide, followed by water and then immediate sustenance. The next thing to tackle is long term residence, which includes cultivation of crops and figuring out a renewable source of water. Soon after handling those, we see him planning excursions so that he may establish communication with the Earth. This includes a recon mission to retrieve the Pathfinder drone and establish a communications link with the Earth. After establishing contact, they coordinate on a plan to slingshot the spaceship around Earth so that it may conserve enough fuel to make the journey to Mars and back again. Meanwhile, Mark must travel to this other ascent vehicle which is 90 sols away from his current location. After reaching there, he must also lighten it so that it may fly into the orbit and correctly rendezvous with the returning spaceship from Earth. As if all this wasn’t enough, after climbing into the atmosphere and seeing the Ares spaceship in sight, we realize that the lift is not enough and the rocket by itself will not reach the Ares craft. To cover this last bit of distance, Mark must puncture his suit so that the depressurization can propel him towards the waiting craft. This series of feats is performed over a two year period on Mars, which is like coming back from the dead.
Given that Mark Watney’s plot must singlehandedly hold the audience’s attention, the screenplay has the very important task of generating empathy for the character. It does this by making Watney an “active” protagonist, i.e. there is no story without him. We see him take on many hardships like having to cauterize his own wounds, compost his own waste, handle dangerous chemicals and even deal with a massive explosion that destroys all of his precious potato crop. Throughout all this we see him maintain his composure and calmly take stock of the situation. This ensures that by the end of the film, the audience is as invested in seeing him succeed as he himself is.
In terms of screenplay, there are a few things that could’ve been done better. The surface habitat depressurization takes the audience completely by surprise. Since the movie is primarily from the perspective of Watney, the explosion happens exactly halfway through the film, essentially acting as the “twist”. But the audience is never given a chance or enough information to predict this beforehand, neither is there any foreshadowing. As a result the blast feels sad, but it fails to build tension and the audience also feels like it was cheated, even after doing everything right. I think the book handles this well, by describing the entire journey of the faulty piece of fabric from manufacture to the time of failure.
There is also the subplot where Watney’s crew is feeling guilty for abandoning him on their journey back to the Earth. NASA’s unwillingness to inform them of Watney’s survival only aggravates the situation. This pays off later when the crew finds out that Watney is alive. They stage a mutiny and decide to go back and rescue Watney themselves, thereby redeeming themselves. This too is fraught with supply issues, but the Chinese space program’s benevolence and assistance in the resupply helps alleviate the problem. However China is never mentioned again before or after that singular event in the entire film. It is obvious pandering to that specific market in order to sell real world tickets.
The Martian landscape is unlike any other setting and the movie does a good job of portraying the difficulty of surviving in space, the excruciatingly long travel times and the importance of science for survival amidst all this. Of course not everything is correct, but it is an amazing approximation which is enjoyable and intriguing at the same time.