Title text: I just came from The Martian, and I just have to say: Forget BB-8; I want a pet Sojourner! It's always been the cutest of our Mars rovers.
There's a common punchline in which the plot lines of two thematically-different works of fiction (usually movies) are compared in greatly-abbreviated form, and the speaker sarcastically concludes that the two movies are "basically the same". For sake of example, Disney's Aladdin and James Cameron's Titanic both feature a story in which a lower-class boy and an upper-class girl fall for each other, among other cherry-picked yet interesting parallels. But due to the different emotional tones of the films (a family-friendly "happy ever after" tale and a disaster thriller respectively), one would not normally describe them as similar.
The Martian was originally a serialized story written by Andy Weir on his blog which was later compiled into an ebook for people to easily download, then published into a physical book, and has now had a movie created based on it. The movie was officially released in the US on the same day this comic was released (October 2, 2015).
Fifty Shades of Grey began as a fan fiction of a well known brand (the Twilight book series). It was originally written on the internet by E. L. James. It was then transformed into a successful book series which was later turned into a movie released in February 2015. The book was already referenced back in 2012 in 1128: Fifty Shades.
Since Fifty Shades is a romance story about a sadomasochistic relationship, and The Martian is a very technical story about surviving completely alone on a hostile planet, the two books could not be any more different, hence the joke due to the juxtaposition.
Cueball continues the joke by joining the two titles using red for Mars, to make a new book title, that should cover both books: Fifty Shades of Red. Ponytail says to Cueball that such a book would be irresistible for him. She does this by daring him to say that he wouldn't read it, believing he could not say so without lying. The red could also be a reference to the safe word used in the Fifty Shades series, for when things hurt instead of being pleasing. It means stop! But stop should be a word you can say, without the other one stopping, adding to the illusion of being forced; actually stopping would be done by saying red. Reading it like that, the title would be Fifty Shades of Stop!
It is not clear from the comic if Randall liked the movie. Since he now compares it to a book series that has been described as mommy porn it could indicate that he was not so satisfied with the movie. On the other hand, he may just have noticed this connection and found that it would make a great joke here on the release day.
An alternative explanation is that Randall is commenting on the frequent comparisons made between The Martian and the movie Interstellar, comparisons centering on the fact that in both Matt Damon plays an astronaut stuck on a deserted planet, but also mentioning, among others, the appearance of Jessica Chastain and the similar design of the spacesuits used in both movies. These comparisons have been prevalent on the Internet long before the release of The Martian, so evidently spurred by the movie trailers, rather than by reviews of viewers. Randall is making the point that to one who has seen the movie, comparing The Martian to Interstellar is as far-fetched as comparing it to Fifty Shades of Grey. According to this interpretation, Randall is not ridiculing The Martian, but rather Interstellar. By proxy, he is praising The Martian. Given that Randall has chosen (now for the second time) to mention the film explicitly on his site, the idea that he is promoting The Martian is perhaps more plausible than the idea that he is expressing dissatisfaction with it. The title text, where he makes a similar comparison, favoring The Martian over Star Wars: The Force Awakens, further boosts this explanation.
It is possible that the brand that The Martian derives from is NASA itself. The Martian has been compared to the film Apollo 13 by Randall in 1536: The Martian. Apollo 13 does indeed glorify the roles of the NASA engineers, and The Martian does a similar thing. That Randall would go see this movie as soon as it was released was already made perfectly clear back in June when he released the comic 1536: The Martian showing how excited he is about the book. He then really looked forward to the movie.
Randall indicates in the title text that he has just seen the movie (certainly possible, if he caught a midnight screening; perhaps he drew this comic in advance and wrote the title text after) and finds the Sojourner rover adorable. Of course, he could also have seen it in the trailers.
The BB-8 mentioned in the title text is the astromech droid from the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens and is available as a toy (see also BB-8 on the official Star Wars home page). Sojourner was the Mars Pathfinder robotic rover.
Spoiler alert: The rover was used by Mark Watney, the protagonist of The Martian (played by Matt Damon in the movie), to allow him to contact Earth.
Randall indicated that he thinks the Sojourner is much cuter than BB-8, and that he would like to have one as a pet. He then states that the Sojourner has always been the cutest among all the Mars rovers. The cuteness of Mars Rovers is also mentioned in 2433: Mars Rovers. There have been four so far the other three being Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity which have already been used in xkcd comics: 695: Spirit, 1091: Curiosity and 1504: Opportunity.
- [Ponytail is talking to Cueball.]
- Ponytail: So it's a work of fiction about a well-known brand. written on the Internet by an enthusiast, republished as a bestselling book, and then made into a big movie.
- Cueball: Yup.
- [Ponytail holds her hand to her chin. Beat panel.]
- [Ponytail is talking to Cueball again.]
- Ponytail: Yeah, The Martian and Fifty Shades of Grey are basically the same book.
- Cueball: "Fifty Shades of Red?"
- Ponytail: Man, tell me you wouldn't read that.
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