'The Martian's' biggest challenge

Story highlights

  • "The Martian" is the story of an astronaut stranded by himself on Mars
  • It's one of a handful of recent movies in which the main character is mostly alone
Spoiler alert! This article reveals some plot points for "The Martian" and other movies.

(CNN)To make "The Martian," director Ridley Scott had to simulate space storms, the explosion of a rocket during launch and the desolate, otherworldly surface of Mars.

But that wasn't his biggest challenge.
Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard also had to find a way to tell a compelling story in which their main character spends almost the entire film alone.
    Most good movies are built around their characters' relationships with other people. But for stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), there's nobody else on Mars for him to talk to. It's just him. For a very long time.
    As Elton John sings, it's lonely out in space.
    This is not an easy scenario for filmmakers, who must find creative ways to milk drama from scene after scene of solitude. How do you keep the story moving? And how do you convey your character's thoughts when he or she can't speak to other people?
    "The Martian" belongs to a small fraternity of recent movies that have succeeded despite stranding their protagonist, alone, in an isolated or remote situation.
    Here's how they did it.

    Have them keep a journal

    As in the Andy Weir novel on which "The Martian" is based, Watney keeps a daily video journal in which he documents his efforts to stay alive. Employed as voiceover, the journal entries help explain how Watney is planting potatoes, burning hydrazine to make water and driving a rover for miles across the planet to recover a spacecraft lander. Watney's frequent jokes also help reveal and humanize his character.
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    The makers of "Wild," the Reese Witherspoon drama about a real-life woman who spent months alone hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, also rely on the character's journals, spoken in voiceover, to convey her inner journey from anguish to self-awareness.

    Add flashbacks

    "Wild" intercut Cheryl Strayed's adventures on the trail with dramatic scenes from her troubled past, including her drug use and the death of her mother. By the time she reaches the end of her journey, you understand who she was and how much she had overcome.
    Danny Boyle's film "127 Hours," based on the true story of a mountaineer trapped for five days in a remote desert canyon, also uses flashbacks and hallucinations to sketch in past chapters of the character's life and give the audience some relief from his grim circumstance.

    Let them make phone calls

    "Locke" is a 2013 British drama in which the titular main character, played by Tom Hardy, spends the entire movie alone behind the wheel of a car. Sounds awful, right?
    But the movie works because Locke makes 36 phone calls over the course of his nocturnal drive that reveal a man in crisis: He's about to be fired from his job, his wife is leaving him, and another woman is in labor with his baby. The escalating conversations, and the intensity on Hardy's face, tell you all you need to know about this turbulent moment in his life.
    The filmmakers employ a similar tactic in "Buried," a 2010 thriller about a defense contractor in Iraq (Ryan Reynolds) who awakens to find that he's been buried alive in a wooden coffin. His only lifeline is a cell phone on which he has an increasingly desperate series of conversations with his kidnappers, his wife and his would-be rescuers. Because you're with him in the coffin throughout, the claustrophobic setting only amps up the suspense.

    Put them in constant danger

    "The Martian's" Watney must overcome explosions, injuries and the breach of his habitat, all while not starving to death. These setbacks keep his survival in jeopardy and the audience invested in his struggle.
    In the 2013 drama "All is Lost," Robert Redford is an aging, solitary sailor whose boat is adrift on the Indian Ocean. There's virtually no dialogue in the movie, and yet you feel his escalating desperation as his boat floods, capsizes and sinks, forcing him onto an inflatable raft.
    But at least Redford's character didn't have to contend with a prickly Bengal tiger. In 2012's "Life of Pi," the main character is stranded for most of the movie on a lifeboat with the tiger (it's a long story), whom he must constantly fend off to survive. Their complex relationship becomes the heart of the film.

    Let them have imaginary conversations

    Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Matt Kowalsky in "Gravity."
    In "Gravity," astronaut Sandra Bullock finds herself in a crippled Soyuz capsule, alone and scared, after a space-debris accident. Suddenly, George Clooney, who she thought had been killed, shows up to help her get the capsule working.
    Only later do we realize that she imagined the whole thing. But the scene breaks up the sameness of her solitary existence.

    Surprise them with an unexpected companion

    In the 2009 drama "Moon," Sam Rockwell is wrapping up a three-year solo stint at a lunar mining facility when he is stunned to discover that he has a clone -- another astronaut, bred to carry on his mission once he is dead. The two argue, fight and ultimately decide to work together to bring down the company that cloned them.
    The silent first 20 minutes of "Wall-E," the animated 2008 movie about a lonely robot who is the last remaining resident of a ruined Earth, are among the best things Pixar has ever done. But even Pixar couldn't sustain that forever. So it introduced EVE, a female-styled robot who gives Wall-E a greater sense of purpose.

    Make them talk to inanimate objects

    Tom Hanks in "Cast Away."
    Poor Tom Hanks, washed up on that desert island in 2000's "Cast Away." But he's not alone: He's got a volleyball to talk to!
    He names the ball Wilson, draws a face on it and engages it in frequent "discussions" that enliven his scenes on the island while revealing glimpses of his character. Only later, when Wilson washes away in a storm and Hanks sobs with grief, do we realize the true depths of his loneliness.