As a super nerd fan of this book, I was overjoyed when Save the Cat!® asked me to write the beat sheet for the film. In my humble opinion, The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, is everything a book-to-film adaptation should be. Screenwriter Drew Goddard kept what needed to be kept, cut what could be cut, and changed only what would make a great story even better — all while preserving the spirit, adventure, and emotional truth of the original work.
And to think this all started with a little novel that Andy Weir self-published for free on his own website. He was reluctant to even put it up for sale as a download on Amazon because, in his words, “I assumed anyone who wanted to read it had already read it.”
Then came the movie deal with Twentieth Century Fox, the publishing deal with Random House, and of course… Matt Damon.
So, apparently, there were a few people left in the world who still wanted to read this book.
Now, the story has resonated with millions of people. Why? Well, let’s take a look.
Written by: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (book)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Genre: Dude with a Problem
Sub Genre: Nature Problem (It’s Mars, but hey, it’s still nature!)
Opening Image (1): The ARES III Landing Site on Mars. It’s the near-future, but everything about this film will feel current and familiar. Like this could be happening right now.
We open on the red planet. A beautiful sight. But also very desolate. This will be the “nature” that our hero Mark Watney will be pitted against throughout the film. This will be the obstacle he will have to overcome.
Set-Up (1-5): The movie starts out with a bang. Or more accurately, a storm. There’s not much set-up to be done. The action begins fairly quickly.
We get a few minutes here with MARK WATNEY (Matt Damon), who is a NASA Astronaut on a manned mission to Mars. He’s suited up, gathering some soil samples on the red planet and joking around with his mission crew. We get a glimpse of the camaraderie between the members of ARES III crew. They are a team. A family.
Right away, we like Mark. He’s dedicated to his job (as the mission Botanist) but he’s also light-hearted and quick to make a joke. We will root for him. And we will need to because the first sign of trouble arrives right away. At minute 3. There’s a storm tracking right toward them and it’s worse than predicted.
COMMANDER LEWIS (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to scrub the mission and head back to earth early.
Catalyst (5-9): You ain’t seen a storm until you’ve seen on one on Mars. This is serious stuff. As the crew fights to get to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) for take-off, Mark is struck by a piece of flying debris. His suit is breached and his signal goes off-line. Mark is not responding.
Commander Lewis goes to search for him but the storm is too violent. If they don’t leave soon, the MAV will tip over and none of them will get off this planet alive.
Eventually, the crew determines that Mark is dead. There’s no way he could survive this long with a breached suit. They convince Commander Lewis to get back to the MAV. She is clearly torn by the decision to leave a crew member but she has no choice. The MAV takes off, leaving the red planet (and Mark) behind.
Back on earth, TEDDY SANDERS (Jeff Daniels), the director of NASA, delivers the news to the press. The ARES III mission has been scrubbed and Mark Watney is dead.
Debate: Or is he?
Mark wakes up to an alarm sounding in his suit. He needs oxygen or he’ll die. He struggles to get back to the Hab (the artificial habitat built for the crew) with a piece of debris (an antenna) stuck in his side (which he later determines created a seal in his suit, saving his life).
He painfully removes the antenna and stitches up the wound. Realizing what has happened (his crew thought he was dead and left him alone on a desolate planet), he records the first of many video log messages.
Theme Stated (16): Mark says to the camera: “It’s gonna be four years until a manned mission can reach me, and I’m in a Hab designed to last 31 days. If the oxygenator breaks I’m going to suffocate, if the water reclaimer breaks I’ll die of thirst, if the Hab breaches I’m just gonna kinda implode. And if by some miracle, none of that happens, eventually I’m gonna run out of food. So, yeah…”
The odds are against him. Science is against him. Mark doesn’t believe he will survive.
But the theme of this story, as with many Dude with a Problem stories, is the triumph of the Human Spirit. Surviving despite everything that’s working against you. Conquering the odds. Not succumbing to them.
“Science” can almost be viewed as a character in this film. And although science is generally depicted as cold and unfeeling, in this movie, science will work alongside hope. They are partners. They are allies. They will eventually come together to save a man’s life, despite all the odds.
Debate (cont’d): Therefore, given this theme, the grand question of our epic debate is:
Will Mark survive? Or will he perish on Mars?
After exploring the Hab and making inventory of his supplies, Mark makes a vow. “I’m not gonna die here.”
The remainder of this section is then dedicated to the question of “How?”
How can he survive? He’s done the math. He only has enough food to last 400 sols (days on Mars). If he’s going to live until the next manned mission (ARES IV) arrives, he has to find a way to grow three years’ worth of food. On a planet where nothing grows. Luckily…
He’s the botanist.
Break into Two (21): At this turning point moment, Mark makes an official decision to fight. Fight Mars. Fight certain death. Fight the odds. Or as he puts it…
“Mars will come to fear my botany powers.”
B Story: The B Story in this movie is the redemption of Commander Lewis. She is grieving the loss of her crewmate and feeling guilty for leaving him behind. Every time we cut to the ARES III crew, now aboard the Hermes spaceship, heading home, we see this turmoil in her eyes. And when she later learns that Mark is still alive and now stuck on Mars, her reaction is agonizing.
Fun and Games (21-51): Mark gets to work. He transforms the Hab into a greenhouse. He uses his mighty botany powers to create fertile soil using (yes, gross) his own human waste. And he uses the Hab’s store of potatoes as his seeds.
As he works, he makes an eloquent “Dude vs. Nature” statement: “F&$k you, Mars.”
But he quickly runs into a problem. Water. He doesn’t have enough. He’ll have to manufacture it.
The fun and games of this section is watching Mark “science the s#$t out of this thing” (set to an entertaining soundtrack of bad disco music).
Good thing he’s an astronaut because the rest of us probably would be dead right now. But not Mark. He’s able to use the tools and tech of the NASA equipment to grow crops and start planning how he’s going to travel to the ARES IV launch site and more important, how he’s going to communicate with NASA.
By minute 27, his first seed has sprouted. He has done the impossible. He has made something grow on effing Mars! Human Spirit 1, Mars 0.
Maybe there’s hope for him yet.
At minute 32, thanks to MINDY PARK (Mackenzie Davis), a Sat Com operator back on earth, and some shocking satellite photos, NASA learns that Mark Watney is still alive. Teddy Sanders states the theme again when he says, “If my math is right, he’s going to starve to death long before we can help him.”
Here’s another example of when the odds, the science, the logic tell a grim story. And we’ll notice throughout the film that Teddy, the director of NASA, tends to represent the side of logic and reasoning. He’s always the first one to remind us that despite the perseverance of the Human Spirit, the odds don’t lie.
Will they be able to save him despite these odds? Only time will tell.
Back on Mars, Mark knows he needs a way to contact NASA. More brilliant Mark Watney problem solving to the rescue! In the Mars Rover, he drives to the landing site of Pathfinder (a probe sent to Mars back in 1997) and uses it to try to communicate with NASA.
Midpoint (51-61): It works! Success! Mark makes contact with earth. And thus, we’ve arrived at our very exciting, and well-earned false victory. He can communicate with NASA and a larger rescue plan is in motion: A supply probe will be sent to Mark with food to help him survive until the ARES IV crew arrives to rescue him. All seems to be going smoothly.
Bad Guys Close In (51-77): Back on Mars, during a routine entrance into the Hab, something goes wrong causing an airlock to blow. The Hab is destroyed and all of Mark’s hard-grown potato crops are killed.
His suit is also breached during the explosion and he nearly dies too. But thanks to the wonders of Duct Tape (yes, Duct Tape), Mark is able to re-seal his suit. One could argue that given how many times Duct Tape saves Mark’s life on Mars, this could be the potential love story of the film. Mark + Duct Tape = Forever.
After assessing the damage and rebuilding the Hab, it’s determined that Mark won’t be able to grow any more potatoes. His sustainable food source is gone. He’ll never make it four years.
NASA now needs to find a way to speed up the launch of their supply probe to get food to Mark before he starves. They decide to cut some of their pre-launch safety tests, in order to move the plan along faster.
All Is Lost (77): The decision backfires when the supply probe explodes shortly after take-off, destroying Mark’s last hope of survival. There’s no way to build another booster and send him supplies in time. He will surely perish on Mars.
Dark Night of the Soul (77-90): Mark mourns the loss of the supply probe. He sends a message to Commander Lewis (the B Story), asking her to give a message to his family for him. All hope is lost. Mark clearly doesn’t believe he’s coming home anymore and Commander Lewis has to deal with the loss of her crewmate all over again.
It seems nature has won. And therefore Human Spirit has lost.
But, unbeknownst to NASA, the Chinese Space Program (CNSA) has a ready-made booster (the Taiyangshen) that will give NASA another chance to send a supply probe to Mark. Also unbeknownst to NASA, RICH PURNELL (Donald Glover), an astrodynamicist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, has stumbled upon a different idea…
Purnell presents his idea to Teddy Sanders at NASA: Instead of using the Taiyangshen Chinese booster to send supplies to Mark, it should be used to resupply the Hermes (the spaceship carrying the ARES III crew back to earth). Due to the position of Earth and Mars at the moment, the Hermes has a better chance of getting to Mark in time. It will have to sling shot around Earth for a gravity assist and return to Mars, resulting in almost two extra years of space travel for the ARES III crew.
Yet Teddy Sanders, once again representing the side of logic, would rather risk the life of one astronaut than six. Much to the disagreement of his colleagues who are in favor of the “Rich Purnell Maneuver,” Teddy makes the executive decision to use the Chinese Booster to send the supplies directly to Mark.
But his decision is stonewalled by Mitch Henderson, The Hermes Flight Director (Sean Bean, in a role in which he finally makes it to the end of a movie alive!). Mitch secretly sends the details of the Rich Purnell Maneuver to the crew of the Hermes and lets them decide what they want to do.
Aboard the Hermes, the crew takes a vote. But not before Commander Lewis reminds them all about… yes, you guessed it, the odds (ah, worthy foe, we meet again!).
“If we mess up the supply rendezvous, we die. If we mess up the earth gravity assist, we die. If we do everything perfectly, we add 533 days to our mission. 533 days of unplanned space travel where anything can go wrong.”
But this movie wouldn’t resonate with millions of people if those pesky rational “odds” won in the end. Which is why, despite the odds, the Hermes crew decides to…
Break into Three (90): SAVE MARK WATNEY! Huzzah! Human Spirit triumphs!
The decision is made. They will override the system, defy NASA’s orders, and go back to Mars to get Mark. Which means Commander Lewis (B Story) will get her redemption.
Finale (88-129): Once the decision has been made, NASA has no choice but to support the Hermes in their rogue mission — a fact that Teddy Sanders is none too happy about. The theme is stated once again as Teddy says to Mitch. “It’s bigger than just one person.” And Mitch says, “No, it’s not.”
This is not bigger than one person. This is not about math or logic or probabilities. This is about the world coming together to save one person. A perfect example of the Human Spirit.
And so the final plan is set into motion.
As “Waterloo” by ABBA plays (a perfect third act song!), the Hermes resupply probe is prepped and launched. Hermes returns to earth, successfully picks up the supplies, sling shots around the earth, and heads back to Mars.
Meanwhile, Mark says goodbye to the Hab, his home for the past year and a half, and sets off for the Schiapparelli crater, where the MAV 4 awaits. He will use the MAV 4 to launch into space and intercept with the Hermes spaceship.
Although, once he arrives at the crater, his work is not yet done. NASA explains that in order to accelerate fast enough to intercept with the Hermes, he’ll have to make a ton of adjustments to the MAV, including taking off the nose of the ship and replacing it with a tarp. Yes, a tarp. As Mark says, “You’re launching me in a convertible.”
The day finally arrives. Mark boards his “convertible” and launches into space. But Hermes is going too fast to intercept him. In a last minute, finale twist, Commander Lewis gets the idea to purposefully blow one of the doors of the ship, to create reverse thrust and slow them down.
The plan works. Commander Lewis suits up, tethers, and leaves the Hermes to retrieve Mark. They zoom wildly around space for a few minutes (because you have to. It’s act 3, after all!) until finally Commander Lewis catches Mark and returns to the Hermes. She has redeemed herself. She has saved the man she left behind.
In a teary moment, Mark boards the Hermes and reunites with his crew as the call is made to NASA. “Houston. Six crew safely aboard.”
Final Image (129): Back on earth, Mark starts his new life. He stops to smile at a seed sprouting in the soil at his feet. Life begins anew.
Today is his first day teaching at the Astronaut Candidate Program where he restates the theme one last time to his students. “When I was up there stranded by myself, did I think I was going to die? Yes. Absolutely. And that’s what you need to know going in. Because it’s going to happen to you. This is space. It doesn’t cooperate. At some point everything is going to go south on you. And you’re going to say this is it. This is how I end. Now, you can either accept that. Or you can get to work.”