It was inevitable.
We wouldn't compare The Martian and Interstellar -- at least not in print -- except that it's impossible not to. They're both big blockbusters about perilous space voyages that hit theaters less than a year apart and star at least two of the same cast members (Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain).
But Ridley Scott's The Martian, in theaters Friday, works for us in a way that Christopher Nolan's Interstellar did not. Below, we look at six reasons why.
Matt Damon: It's always entertaining watching an actor play against type -- as Damon did with his surprise appearance in Intersteller. But The Martian allows him to flex his acting muscles and do what he does best: be a Movie Star. As astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on Mars and left for dead, Damon effortlessly navigates the techno space jargon and witty one liners ("I'm going to have to science the s**t out of this."); as equally confident in the action sequences as he is in small, personal moments.
And the entire time he's just so undeniably charming. Nothing ever feels put on, as it may have when he played the near psychotic Dr. Mann. It's the type of movie that reminds you why he is one of those old school movie stars we hold up so high.
Space Is Bad Guy Enough: The Martian proves space is fraught with enough dramatic tension without adding massive tidal waves or mysterious astronauts with deadly agendas. Being on a distant planet, millions of miles from home with no source for food or water and where everything and anything could kill you, is terrifying as is. You don't need to add a fist fight.
Still, The Martian is so intense and the stakes are so high at all times that you will find, as the credits start rolling, that you've been holding your breathe for nearly two hours. That is, if you can make it through to the end without popping a Xanax or Googling the plot of the book to find out whether Watney survives.
Astronauts Actually Like Space: Did you ever, even once, get the sense that the astronauts in Interstellar actually enjoyed space? Or were excited about venturing into the solar system and beyond? We didn't. Not once. It works for Matthew McConaughey's character, who reluctantly accepts the call from NASA, but what about literally anyone else? Why were any of them astronauts in the first place if they were just going to be miserable?
The group in The Martian (made up of Chastian, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Peña, and Aksel Hennie) understand the risks of their mission, but they also make it abundantly clear that they wouldn't have it any other way, and we see them experience moments of sheer wonder at being in outer space. (And the shots of space here are breathtaking; often even more so than the Academy Award-winning visual effects in Interstellar.)
It Has a Sense of Humor: For such a stressful f**king movie, there's also a lot of comedy to be found in The Martian. Damon's Watney maintains a sense of levity even in moments where it seems all hope is lost, barking, "F**k you, Mars" instead of giving into despair. There's also an extended gag about disco music that continues right into the credits, with the slightly on-the-nose "I Will Survive." You don't expect to find much funny in these types of movies -- anyone chuckle in Interstellar? Or even smile? -- which makes the genuinely laugh-out-loud moments here such a pleasant surprise.
It Balances the Science: And there is so much science. There's physics and botany and math and chemistry, and not only do you buy everything you're being sold, but it's all treated like joyous fun.
When it comes to the inevitable think pieces picking apart the science of the movie, whereas Interstellar took being deemed scientifically accurate (OK, sure) very seriously, The Martian's author, Andy Weir,seems pretty breezy about science types calling foul on a Mars storm featured early on in the film. "I needed a way to force the astronauts off the planet, so I allowed myself some leeway," he says. Plus, I thought the storm would be pretty cool."
That science is balanced with heart. Not in an Anne Hathaway-giving-a-random-soliloquy-about-the-power-of-love-in-the-middle-of-the-movie sort of way, but these are, on the whole, good people who want to help each other out. They all care deeply about each other, and you can feel those personal connections permeating through all the nifty macgyvering and quantum formulas.
Jessica Chastain: She may have had a central role in Interstellar -- at times, the movie felt like "Murph Murph Murph Murph Murph Murph" -- but The Martian gives Chastain the opportunity to bite into a meaty part that lets her be vulnerable and badass, unsure of herself and a leader, sometimes at the same time. She's complicated. And Chastain is so, so good. There is this one shot, towards the beginning, of Chastain's Captain Lewis looking over at the empty seat where Watney should be, face shaking with the velocity of the ship's ascent, and though her jaw is set, her eyes, man! Her eyes! Which is why, as seemingly minimal as her screen time may seem, we would not be surprised to see her enter the Best Supporting Actress race. We encourage it, Academy voters.