'The Martian' gets a real life boost, but it may not matter in the long run

Source: © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

After getting stranded on Mars in the new movie "The Martian," Mark Watney—played by Matt Damon—vows to "science the [expletive] out of" his attempt to extricate himself from the barren planet, and the dire conditions in which he finds himself.

That solemn promise, uttered with strange jocularity by Damon's character, becomes the modus operandi for "The Martian," a science fiction vehicle that almost prides itself on technical devotion to science. In a twist, the movie actually sheds itself of most of the special effects wizardry and suspension of disbelief that are the mother's milk of most sci-fi movies nowadays.

It's just one of several reasons why industry watchers have high hopes for the movie's box office earnings potential, notwithstanding the recent discovery of water on the Red Planet that has some viewing the timing of the movie's release with some suspicion. Whether by circumstance or design, "The Martian," which cost $108 million to make and is based on a 2011 book by Andy Weir, functions as a tribute to NASA and the extraterrestrial mission it's sought to fulfill since 1958.

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At least a third of the film's action takes place at the space agency's headquarters, with NASA bureaucrats playing a prominent role in advancing the narrative.

So will audiences go for it, or might they be put off by what one critic called the "spookily appropriate timing" of the movie's release and NASA's big discovery on Mars? Analysts noted that the movie was the top advance ticket seller on movie ticket website Fandango prior to its release—even before NASA dropped its Mars bombshell.

"When real life events coincide with and dovetail perfectly with the release of a film, it can serve to raise the level of awareness, and also enhance the desire for moviegoers to see that particular film," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. He predicted "The Martian" would top the box office this weekend, with "strong buzz" likely to propel it to a take above $40 million.

"Given the pedigree of the film including the star power of Matt Damon and the vision of famed director Ridley Scott, who is in his wheelhouse in the sci-fi realm … all of these elements are coming together for one of those rare occasions when a non-sequel, non-franchise film will top the box office," he added.

So what if there's 'life on Mars'?

Matt Damon at the 2014 CGI to promote his initiative.
Matt Damon on Mars and microfinancing

In "The Martian," life on Mars is far from the pleasure planet movie goers once saw in 1990's "Total Recall." Like Arnold Schwarzenegger's character, Douglas Quaid, Damon's marooned astronaut is locked in a desperate struggle for his survival.

Yet the circumstances are entirely different, and more similar to 2014's "Interstellar" — another outer space tearjerker that hit it big at the box office last year by grossing nearly $500 million worldwide. "The Martian" is suffused with a science nerd's appeal and aims more for emotional payoffs instead of the explosions and computer-generated graphics that often prevail in big-budget productions.

At a question-and-answer session this week at "The Martian's" New York premiere, director Ridley Scott insisted that despite taking place on Mars, the movie had a more universal and optimistic message. "The power of the movie is in the characters," Scott said, adding that "the parable of the story is to help each other."

Scott made his remarks a day before NASA announced the discovery of water on the Red Planet—an irony lost on the wayward astronaut in "The Martian," who at one point struggles to synthesize water from literal nothingness. Box office analysts, however, insist the movie will sink or swim on its own merits.

This week's Mars discovery "is completely coincidental," Doug Stone, president of tracking firm Box Office Analyst, told CNBC. "If there's life on Mars, that's great," he joked, but predicted "The Martian" would do brisk business regardless.

"A few people may have their interests piqued, but … it's going to stand on its own," he added.