Give us a good backstory
While a compelling argument can be made against the backstory as a narrative device, there are situations where it can illuminate the interiority of a character and provide the viewer with enough emotional attachment to carry us through scenes of, say, food-gathering, fire-starting, and gentle sobbing. Cast Away kicks off with a bravura piece of concise, propulsive filmmaking wherein Zemeckis and writer William Bradley Jr. lay out all the necessary details to understand Chuck. When he finally leaves his girlfriend (Helen Hunt) behind with a ring in a box and an ominous "I'll be right back," we've already fallen in love with this charming lug. At the very least, we don't want to see anything bad happen to him.
Drew Goddard, the writer of The Martian, penned multiple episodes of Lost, so he obviously knows the value of a good backstory -- try listening to this sound effect and not having a few flashbacks of your own. But, for one reason or another, The Martian's quippy botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) remains a cipher for most of the film, tied only to Earth by his relationship with his crewmates and a quickly glossed-over reference to his parents. The film's focus on the scientific over the personal might have been what brought readers to Andy Weir's best-selling book, but, in the context of a film, that lack of history drains the character of any moral complexity and put too much pressure on Damon to do all the emotional heavy lifting.
Nothing is scarier than a toothache
How will we know how badass a hero is if he or she doesn't yank a foreign object from their body? In the pantheon of unpleasant cinematic tooth operations, Cast Away's oral surgery-by-ice skate stands up there with Marathon Man's interrogation scene and Steve Martin's Little Shop of Horrors teeth-pulling number. When Hanks finally knocks himself out with a blade of glory, it's a wrenching, terrifying moment.
To be fair, The Martian has a queasy, shield-your-eyes scene of DIY surgery, but, because of Mark Watney's extensive knowledge and access to some rudimentary medical supplies, the procedure itself is relatively conventional. It's impressive that he pulls a scrap of metal from his body. But does it have the same everyman MacGyver charm? Not really.
Don't be afraid of silence
Shhh... Do you hear that? Listen... Yes, that's the sound of waves crashing into the beach and trees blowing in the wind. In one of Cast Away's most daring stylistic choices, the movie's mournful, elegiac score by frequent Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) doesn't kick in until after Hanks has left the island. The majority of the film, including its horrifying plane crash sequence, is completely without an original score. It creates an isolating effect. Like poor Tom Hanks, the viewer is adrift.
Now, compare that to the rhythmic assault of The Martian. In addition to composer Harry Gregson-Williams' propulsive score, the film has another metronome ticking away: Damon's constant banter. Replacing Wilson the volleyball with a trusty GoPro, the film becomes a series of performative monologues packed with jokes, helpful tips, and rockist complaints about Jessica Chastain's disco music. It gives the movie a bouncy pace but it also strains credibility that any human, even one as seemingly indestructible and chipper as Matt Damon, would spend over 500 sols (Martian days, which are 39 minutes longer than our days) talking to themselves. At least Wilson talked back and had a cool haircut.