In addition to the spectacle of characters struggling to outlast the elements, survival-specific adventure films typically involve some sort of additional antagonist. Some guy’s trapped in the woods? There’s probably a hungry bear around. Stranded on a desert island? Maybe cannibals, or some kind of prehistoric lizard. Even Interstellar, a film primarily concerned with the unforgiving vastness of time and space and inevitable loss, went ahead and dragged poor Matt Damon out as a bad guy astronaut
warped by loneliness and regret — as if outer space wasn’t dangerous enough. Damon is marooned yet again in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, but this time not-dying is the only challenge he faces, and that’s more than enough. Damon’s Astronaut, Mark Watley, accidentally gets himself stuck on Mars after a storm forces his crew to leave in a hurry. With limited resources, and in literally the most hostile environment any human has encountered, he has to stick it out on the planet for a few years before anyone can come back for him. Meanwhile, his colleagues back on the ground struggle to pull together a rescue mission.
You can apparently get a lot of mileage out of Matt Damon facing near certain doom with cheerful stick-to-it-iveness
This is essentially an episodic story in which crisis after crisis is solved not by running away from some monster or engaging in some kind of physical battle, but through calm rationality. Mark has to grow food, therefore he has to produce water, therefore he has to make a fire, and so on. Beyond being catnip for science geeks, The Martian is endlessly exciting in its logical approach to each problem with a minimum of panic. Scott has always been a first-rate visual stylist, but often stymied by flimsy scripts filled with interesting but half-baked ideas. His best recent films, like Black Hawk Down or The Counselor, came from tightly constructed screenplays with either strong procedural aspects or powerful authorial voices. The Martian’s, by Drew Goddard, is basically foolproof. All Scott needs to do is get out of the way of this simple delivery device for exposition and let his incredibly stacked cast (also including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and many others) coast on charm. You can apparently get a lot of mileage out of Matt Damon facing near certain doom with cheerful stick-to-it-iveness. Even when The Martian starts to bog down in exposition, it does so with a can-do sentiment, delighted to make science cool and progress exciting.