Let’s get this out of the way right now– The Martian is a great movie. It is extremely well-plotted, visually stunning, has a great cast, and is hilarious. It is almost like it is the third chapter in an annual saga of (relatively) scientifically-accurate space dramas that all deal with isolation and seeming hopelessness, after 2013’s Gravity and 2014’s Interstellar. However, The Martian contrasts itself with the other two movies in this spiritual trilogy and is actually a completely different movie than either of them. In fact, it is tonally unique among most any space travel movies.
Gravity is a rollercoaster thrill ride about a woman, trapped alone in space, trying desperately to find some way back to Earth despite the overwhelming probability that she will be killed. Interstellar is a bleak journey across the universe as one team of astronauts make an attempt to find a habitable planet before the Earth dies out despite the overwhelming probability that they will fail. The Martian is the adventure of one man, alone on Mars, who figures out how to survive on an inhospitable planet and get rescued despite the high probability of failing and dying.
All three of these films are very refreshing in that they are optimistic space sci-fi movies. The characters within the film don’t succumb to despair, and instead they break through and keep the hopes within their hearts. This is less front-and-center in Gravity, but it is the most utterly central theme in Interstellar. But where Interstellar takes place in a world where humanity has declined in a slow apocalypse that is only barely prevented through the optimism of courageous scientists, The Martian is about one man who the entire world works together to bring home, spending billions of dollars and working for almost two years.
Because The Martian is so lighthearted, it is able to work with the same themes in its two counterparts, but present them in a completely different way. Jeff Daniels’ character is extremely cynical about everything going on in the film, but it’s always a source of comedy. The climax of the movie is very akin to Gravity, where Matt Damon’s character is forced to improvise at the last second and attempt to “fly” in space, and it’s a hilarious moment instead of an extremely tense one.
The trailers for The Martian don’t quite capture the tone of the movie as well as they should have. Part of this was probably intentional, in order to compare itself to Gravity and Interstellar, but it would have done well to contrast itself with them even in the marketing. The prominent trailer line, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” definitely works as the quote to anchor the entire movie around thematically, and is absolutely what sets it apart from the other two movies in this unofficial trilogy.