In 2011, novelist Andy Weir self-publishes his science fiction novel, “The Martian.” The book becomes an Internet sensation in the self-publishing world. By 2014, Weir gets a legitimate book deal with Crown Publishing and the story is sold to Hollywood who enlists Ridley Scott to direct the film adaptation — with Matt Damon as the star. Quite the proverbial rags to riches story for Weir, and it’s an example of a good yarn being shepherded to the big screen in a successful way.
The plot of “The Martian” is fairly conventional: astronaut and botanists, Mark Watney (Damon), is one of six astronauts sent on a scientific mission to Mars. When an intense storm hits the site where the astronauts are surveying the landscape, they decide to abort the mission and leave the planet because the intensity of the storm is so high that it would destroy their spacecraft and leave them either dead or marooned on the planet. While making their way to the ship, Watney is hit by flying debris, sent flying, and knocked unconscious. His fellow astronauts try to look for him, but can’t find him in the sandstorm. Thinking he’s dead, they leave the planet and head back to Earth.
Of course, Watney is not dead. He quickly realizes he’s been left on Mars, and starts a methodical routine of survival through his knowledge of engineering and botany. Watney labors each day to find ways to lengthen his life until a rescue mission can be sent. The first order of business is recovering from a very painful injury, then finding a way to grow food, and then finding a way to contact Earth to tell them he’s alive. The conflicts Watney has to overcome are really about Man vs Alien World where there’s no life — while on Earth the conflict is how to rescue Watney before he runs out of food, water, and air.
Like most movies where the hero faces seemingly impossible odds, “The Martian” doesn’t break much new ground in terms of story structure, but it does break new ground in the way Watney and his colleagues at NASA, the captain and crew of the ship that left him stranded, and rocket scientists at JPL figure out ways to use science to help Watney beat the odds. Damon acts as almost a tour guide on Mars as he periodically records his activities on a video cam. He’s surprisingly talkative for a guy who’s living by himself, but he seems to work best when tackling each problem he encounters by talking it out. Watney is a practical guy who is smart, but doesn’t agonize over failure all that much. He knows his chances of survival are minimal, but he makes the most of his time stranded on the planet to solve problems as they present themselves. That’s not to say he doesn’t get frustrated (he does — and many times), or that his plans always work out (they don’t — and he almost gets himself killed a couple of times). And just when things can’t get any worse, they do. All the while, though, Damon keeps his wits and humor about him as he tries day in and out to make it out this predicament alive.
Like I wrote earlier, while the plot is fairly conventional, “The Martian” is a thrilling, compelling, and ultimately a rewarding film. Matt Damon brings a good deal of humanity to the character of Mark Watney, and Ridley Scott — clearly firing on all directorial cylinders — has made his most smart, compelling, and believable science fiction film since “Alien.” At times, Scott is a director who goes for style over substance, but because Andy Weir’s story makes his central character so believable, it gives Scott a lot to work with in terms of authenticity. Overall, “The Martian” is one of those films that has many surprises along the way — even though the narrative road travelled is a well-worn one.