Since the 1990s, we have a concerted move towards a more scientifically accurate depiction of Mars on film. Around 2000, there was a big spate of serious scientifically-grounded Mars movies with Mission to Mars (2000), Red Planet (2000) and Ghosts to Mars (2001), which attempted to set the record straight for the 21st Century. Unfortunately, all of these were flops and were critically hated although this author would beg consideration otherwise of the first two at least. The scientifically realistic Mars started to creep into other films of the era such as Mars (1996), Escape from Mars (1999) and The Last Days on Mars (2013). Even Steven Spielbergs remake of War of the Worlds (2005) recognised the scientific reality enough so as to write reference to Mars out of the story altogether. Certainly, there have been works that draw on the old sci-fi vision of Mars in Spaced Invaders (1990), Mars Attacks! (1996), Mars Needs Moms (2011) and John Carter (2012) but in these cases they are being made as parody or retro works and not intended as scientifically serious.
The Martian comes from Ridley Scott who has a sterling reputation in genre material. Scott has made three works that sit out at the very forefront of the genre with Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Legend (1985). Both Alien and Blade Runner changed the entire science-fiction landscape when they came out, while Legend is a divided work but I praise it highly. Scott has dabbled in other genre works, the Hannibal Lecter sequel Hannibal (2001) and his Alien prequels Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017). In between, Scott has directed a great deal of other non-genre material with films such as Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), Black Rain (1989), Thelma and Louise (1991), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), White Squall (1996), G.I. Jane (1997), the runaway success of Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), Matchstick Men (2003), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), A Good Year (2006), American Gangster (2007), Body of Lies (2008), Robin Hood (2010), The Counselor (2013) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). He has also produced a number of other genre works (see below).
The film is adapted from The Martian (2014) by American author Andy Weir, a former computer programmer. Weir had the perfect childhood for a work like this his father was a physicist and his mother an electrical engineer. Weir originally began publishing The Martian as a free serial on his own website and at reader urging published the completed work via Kindle. What then transpired could be considered beyond every amateur writers wildest dream. After it became a best-seller on Kindle, the book was brought by a print publisher and within the space of a year was adapted to a major Hollywood movie. The film version is adapted from Drew Goddard who started out as a scriptwriter on Joss Whedons tv series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004), becoming a story editor on the latter, before jumping ship to the J.J. Abrams camp to write and produce numerous episodes of Alias (2001-6) and Lost (2004-10). Goddard wrote the script for the Abrams produced Cloverfield (2008), while Whedon produced his directorial debut with the culty horror meta-fiction The Cabin in the Woods (2012). This has made Goddard into an in-demand scriptwriter and he has gone onto write the screenplay for World War Z (2013) and to create the tv series Daredevil (2015 ), one of the best of the modern Marvel Comics adapted works.
The Martian is surely this years Gravity (2013). Both are high-profile films that are based around Real Space (that is to say realistically scientifically grounded) as opposed to more fancifully science-fictional works. Both have very similar plots about one astronaut alone stranded in the vastness of space and having to devise ingenious engineering solutions to make their way home despite the herculean odds pitted against them. Both have also caught on with audiences in big ways and both received Academy Award nominations in the Best Picture, Visual Effects, Production Design and Sound Editing categories.
I have always been a sucker for hard-science based science-fiction works like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), 2010 (1984), Mission to Mars, Gravity and Interstellar (2014), even a fact-based work like Apollo 13 (1995). The Martian is a film that feels like Andrew Weir had the time of his life sitting down with his slide rule and figuring out ingenious ways to hack Pathfinder, work out how many days someone could survive on supplies, calculate orbital velocities and docking trajectories and so on. In the oft-quoted line from the film, Matt Damon says he is going to science the shit out of it and that it precisely what the film proceeds to do with us. Your feeling is as though the production crew had researched the details down to the nth degree and the results show on screen. It is rare to see this sort of thing portrayed in a big Hollywood film The Martian is a film where all of the triumphs on screen come not from brawn and muscle but from simple human ingenuity and a reliance on a knowledge of good science (and moreover, made digestible for a mass audience).
The accuracy of the science has been quibbled by other more knowledgeable about such matters than I there is an excellent article on the subject from Mika McKinnon The Science of The Martian: The Good, The Bad and the Fascinating. The two major quibbles I picked up on are that there is no lower gravity on Mars Mars gravity is about 38% of what it is on Earth. If you consider that gravity on the Moon is 16% of Earth, leading to the famous moon walk effect, then the gravitic effect of being on the surface of Mars would surely be closer to the Moon than Earth standard. The film portrays the Ares crew in zero gravity so it is odd that they chose to show Matt Damon moving around on Mars as normal. The other aspect is that Mars is a much smaller planet than Earth the second smallest in the Solar System where its total area would only amount to all of the land surface on Earth crammed together minus the oceans, while it has an atmosphere that is about 100 times less dense than Earth. On flat land on the Earth, you usually get the effect of the horizon fading off into a hazy distance because of atmospheric density refracting the light, whereas on Mars, with less atmosphere and a smaller planet, the horizon would appear to be much closer to us than it would terrestrially and the view clearer and not as clouded by atmospheric density.
All of that aside, The Martian works magnificently. The dramatics of the film are pitched as a series of enormous emotional rollercoasters Matt Damon getting the Pathfinder going and the tentative attempts to communicate; his attempts to chemically manufacture water; the crew of the Ares and their decision to go back and the maths of the slingshot; the eventual docking and Matt Damon getting to do his Iron Man scene, plus a good many others. It comes with big pits and troughs of triumph and despondence, all balanced with much audience-pleasing humour, and Ridley Scott rides them like the consummate pro he has been for 35+ years.
He also has a top-notch cast who play the humour it for all it is worth. When it comes to playing an ordinary Everyman, you would do no better than casting Matt Damon in the lead and he does a fantastic job. Scott fills even the small roles with fine actors, even if many of them are filling nothing-much parts. Of those that rise to the fore, one must mention Chiwetel Ejiofor who does the coolly intelligent mission controller to perfection. And not to forget, Jeff Daniels is back on screen and has one of the most solid acting roles he has had in a number of years as the NASA director.
Ridley Scott has also produced the erotic horror anthology series for cable tv The Hunger (1997), the psycho black comedy Clay Pigeons (1998), the historic Tristan + Isolde (2006), the tv mini-series remake of The Andromeda Strain (2008), the heart transplant horror film Tell-Tale (2009), the tv mini-series remake of Coma (2012), the tv mini-series Labyrinth (2012) about the quest for the Holy Grail, the horror film Stoker (2013), the web series Halo Nightfall (2014), Child 44 (2015)the dystopian sf film Equals (2015), the tv series adaptation of The Man in the High Castle (2015 ), the artificial intelligence film Morgan (2016) and the Found Footage UFO film Phoenix Forgotten (2017).
(Winner in this sites Top 10 Films of 2015 list. Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Nominee for Best Director (Ridley Scott), Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Daniels) and Best Special Effects at this sites Best of 2015 Awards).