The movie so many people have been looking forward to for months is finally here: THE MARTIAN. Directed by Ridley Scott and Written by Drew Goddard based on the book by Andy Weir, the story is about astronaut Mark Watney after he is stranded on Mars and the mission to retrieve him by NASA. Honestly, I was a little scared to go see the film. INTERSTELLAR was great (because Jessica Chastain killed it as always) but the trailer for GRAVITY was too terrifying for me to let myself go see the movie, especially after reading the script confirmed that it would terrify me. I was unsure which route THE MARTIAN was going to go and found myself happily surprised that it was so much more about camaraderie and the families we create among friends, just as much as it was about survival. There were a lot of characters in this story and a lot of science. It could easily overwhelm the story, but the pacing was pitch perfect and at the heart of the movie was a perfectly structured and simple story. So let’s take a look.
By now you are hopefully aware that SPOILERS lie ahead. Venture at your own risk.
Protagonist: Mark Watney
Want: Live long enough to be saved.
Need: Play well with others, take orders
Why do we empathize: It’s a perfectly nice dude stranded on a planet after being left behind by his buddies.
Personal Antagonist: Teddy Sanders and Annie Montrose
Extrapersonal Antagonist: Mars and its environment
PREEXISTING LIFE: A team of astronauts collect samples while giving one another a hard time. Commander Lewis turns off the com to MARK WATNEY when his banter becomes distracting and he doesn’t take her advice to be quiet.
INCITING INCIDENT: A storm hits early and the team is forced to evacuate. Watney is hit by debris as he returns to the ship, knocking him out. He wakes up later (presumed dead and abandoned by his comrades) all alone on Mars with limited resources.
FIRST ACT DECISION: After killing time for a few “sols” Watney declares “I will not die here.”
PROGRESS: He manages to grow potatoes on the planet.
REVERSAL: Watney determines he needs to get across the planet for the next landing site and will need to figure out a way to make the battery last on the rover. As a botanist, this is a much more difficult task for him.
MIDPOINT: Watney digs out a satellite and is able to communicate with NASA. NASA figures out a timeline to get supplies to Watney to hold him until people can arrive.
REVERSAL #2: There is a rupture in the HAB, causing an explosion and all of the plants to be destroyed.
FALSE CLIMAX/LOW POINT: The supplies are launched, then explode in the atmosphere. Watney will run out of food before anyone can get to him.
THIRD ACT DECISION: Richard Purnell figures out that Watney’s original crew are still on course to return to Earth. They can circle the planet, grab supplies with the help of China, and continue onto Mars where Watney will have to build his own ship to launch into space to meet them. To make this happen, Watney will have to be controlled remotely by the crew.
CLIMAX/RESOLUTION: Watney builds the ship to launch and makes it into the atmosphere but runs out of speed. Lewis flies out herself to retrieve him and Watney uses a hole in his suit to propel himself to her. Everyone makes it home safely and returns to their families.
If there is one weakness of the film it is that Watney has a limited character arc. The film ultimately is not about people changing, it is about how a community comes together to save one person. In the beginning, there is a little banter that causes him to have his walkie turned off for a few moments. Then as he communicates with NASA he shows that he is indignant towards receiving instructions from people on another planet about how to live, a perfectly reasonable thing to be annoyed about. So the flaw isn’t so much a “flaw” as it is a running joke in the film, but considering that in the end he has to give up complete control it does work as a character arc.
I also listed two kinds of Antagonists. There are technically three layers of antagonists in film. Inner is the character’s personal flaw. Personal is a one-to-one relationship. While there isn’t an alien on the planet for Watney to directly fight, he does have a direct antagonist in Teddy Sanders, Director of NASA, and Annie Montrose, Head of PR, as they work hard to control how the mission is handled and even whether or not it’s worth saving Watney. The Extrapersonal Antagonist is a larger entity. The government in E.T. or established bureaucracy in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON are two strong examples. Here that role is the planet Mars and how the environment causes setbacks for him daily.
There are a lot of characters in this movie, a lot of science, and a lot of antagonistic forces, but the writers and director do a phenomenal job of handling this massive story economically. See if you are including all three layers of antagonists in your script to help stack the odds further against your protagonist as THE MARTIAN did so well.