On Thursday I watched Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir. The book had been recommended to me a couple of months ago, but it took me awhile to start reading it. I whizzed through about 80% of it really fast.
It’s a funny read that’s chock full of scientific pondering, as protagonist Mark Watney tries to figure out how to keep himself alive after being stranded on Mars. I mean, there are whole chapters devoted to scientific calculations. It’s fascinating to learn how some of the systems work — how to generate water, how to grow crops on a planet with no living bacteria, how to power the rover for long trips. It’s a lot of technical stuff, some of which I didn’t fully understand, but Watney’s sense of humor makes it easy to feel entertained as you figure things out with him.
I read almost to the end of the book — to a dust storm that could really thwart Watney’s plans for rescue — but didn’t finish before I went to see the movie. So I didn’t know whether he would make it off Mars alive or not. (This review will contain quite a few spoilers for things, except the ending!)
Amazingly, the movie version is as witty and smart as the book. The things it leaves out are some of the flashbacks and digital letters to his colleagues when he makes contact. However, the movie shows a lot of what it doesn’t tell, clipping along at a great pace. And some of the best jokes from the book remain in the movie. As Watney, Matt Damon pulls them off perfectly.
The film’s first scene shows the storm on Mars that forces the crew of the Hermes to evacuate Mars. Watney is hit by debris and deemed dead, so the crew leaves without him (a very hard choice).
But the second scene is maybe my favorite, because it introduces Watney as a character so well. He wakes up on Mars, covered in dust, and makes his way to the Hab (the structure he’ll be living in on Mars, designed to last just 31 days). The hiccup is that he has a big metal stick from the debris wedged into his stomach. Once he’s in the safety of the Hab, he peels off some of his spacesuit and has to remove the metal, then staple up the wound. The whole time, Damon winces and breathes fast in preparation for the moves, showing Watney in obvious pain. But he has to get this done, and he does. As soon as it’s over, he sits back and curses. That’s the first bit of humor we see, and when it hits us and Watney that he is totally alone on Mars.
The film is a nail-biter, where solving problems takes the place of traditional action scenes in keeping things exciting. The pacing feels perfect and very on par with how the book felt. It almost feels like Watney is the hero and Mars is the villain. As beautiful as the landscape is, and as amazing as it is to explore other planets, Mars is constantly trying to kill Watney, through no fault of its own. There are even times when Watney says, “Fuck you, Mars,” as he does something that shouldn’t be possible there (like growing potatoes).
What I love about Watney’s character is his ability focus on one thing at a time. He has a pretty positive attitude most of the time, though Damon also does a great job (maybe even better than the book) of also showing his boredom, weariness, and frustration at different times. Watney, a NASA botanist and engineer, is primarily a problem-solver throughout the story. The only way to survive is to solve one problem at a time. If he’s about to die, he focuses on getting oxygen first and worries about creating a long-term livable habitat later. It’s interesting to see him compartmentalize tasks this way.
So you have Watney alone on Mars, sciencing his way to survival. Then you have NASA finding out about him and making contact. They have to figure out how to communicate. Then you have the crew of the Hermes finding out and deciding to attempt a rescue (even though NASA is against it — so it’s mutiny).
The whole time, setbacks make things feel almost impossible. Just when you think Watney is getting comfortable with his Mars-grown potatoes and ketchup, the Hab tears and explodes, destroying all the crops. Then the mission to send him more food from Earth goes south. Then he runs out of ketchup.
One thing I really enjoyed in the film over the books was the atmosphere. I was able to imagine it a little bit while reading the novel… but there’s nothing like seeing and hearing the loneliness of solitude on a planet.
The movie does a great job of creating tension through even the simplest sound effects. For instance, after the Hab blows up, you hear a subtle ringing — the ringing of Watney’s ears after the explosion. When he duct tapes canvas to the side of the Hab to fix it, the Mars wind batters it, creating an awful flapping sound like a sail being whipped around in a wind. Watney winces while he listens to it. It’s unsettling.
On the other hand, the film barely touches on the bureaucracy and red tape that the novel focuses on. Watney survives all by himself — no contact with anyone — for over two months before being able to communicate with NASA. And then all NASA wants to do is make him do inspections and tell him the best way to grow his crops. (He’s a botanist.) This annoys Watney, who feels like NASA is babysitting him. NASA often tells him to do something he’s already thought of — or they don’t want him to do something dangerous.
There’s a great scene in the book where NASA tells Watney not to take apart a broken instrument (I forget which) in case it messes things up more. Watney takes it apart anyway, fixes the clog he finds, and puts it back together — then tells NASA what he did afterwards. “Dick,” they reply.
However, both the book and the film present NASA’s scientists as being as brilliant as they are careful. (Obviously, they just want Watney to survive; they’re following protocol, even when it irritates him.) The character of Rich Purnell, an astrophysicist, is very prominent in the film as a wacky young guy who comes up with genius plans — like the one to propel the Hermes around Earth and back to Mars at an accelerated speed, to intercept Watney before he runs out of food.
While all of the NASA cast is fantastic, my favorite was Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s a favorite actor of mine from Serenity, and seeing him fret over Watney, solve problems, manage people, and even throw in some jokes as he tries to decipher Watney’s tone from email communication was really fun.
Of the Hermes crew, Jessica Chastain stands out as the level-headed, disco-loving commander who blames herself for leaving Watney behind. In spite of her feelings about this, she remains level-headed and encourages the crew to solve one problem at a time when things go wrong. In the end, she puts herself on the line rather than risk her crew with one of the most dangerous tasks of all in saving Watney. I loved seeing her command the respect of her crew while still being humble and human.
The Martian reminds me of one of my other favorite movies about space exploration: Apollo 13. I loved that movie as a kid; it made me afraid of space, but also awed by it. I used to play astronaut in a Pocahontas tent, lying on my back and pretending it was time for launch. I credit Apollo 13 for making me interested in space — maybe it even planted the seed for my future love of science fiction, now that I think about it.
Space is a scary place. We are not built to be up there, or to survive on another planet in our solar system. That’s why seeing people survive it is such an amazing and heroic feat. In The Martian, the science feels very real, very personal, and more exciting than some of the best action scenes in science fiction.