It was last year, on a whim, that I gave in to some of Amazon’s suggested buys and picked up a kindle copy of Andy Weir’s The Martian, an imminently enjoyable read. A hard science adventure/survival story, with a really unique hook and some wonderful prose, The Martian is one of the true stand-out science fiction novels of more recent times, and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to find out that a film adaptation – to be headed by Matt Damon and with no less than Ridley Scott behind the camera – was already in the works by the time that I got round to reading it. I awaited The Martian with a great amount of anticipation. Would it be as good as Weir’s novel, or would it flounder like some of Ridley Scott’s more forgettable films this millennia?
Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is presumed dead by his fellow crew members after a disastrous storm forces the early end of a manned Mars mission. Unbeknownst to them, Watney is actually alive, stranded on the red planet, with limited food, water and air. When Earth realises his fate, NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), director Vincent Kapoor (Chewital Ejiofor) and mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) are some of those left scrambling to produce some kind of rescue, while Watney struggles on alone in a desperate attempt to extend his ability to survive.
I really enjoyed The Martian. Coming hot on the heels of Gravity and Interstellar, it’s the latest in a line of more “realistic” space adventures, and if The Martian is anything to go bye, long may this particular sub-genre continue to pump out the goods.
Like the novel, The Martian is at its best when focusing purely on Watney and his extraordinary circumstance. The terror of the opening storm, that offers a remarkably, well, alien, glimpse of what Mars is actually like, follows through into a stirring tale about lone survival against all manner of stacked odds. Watney isn’t a Neil Armstrong character – playfully deriding the famous astronaut in one scene, as he compares their respective achievements – but he is something altogether fascinating: the marooned sailor, having to figure out how to grow food on Mars, create water on Mars, to somehow get communications open with Earth from Mars. The series of tasks ahead of him is immense, and the film could easily get lost in an episodic effort to solve them all, with no time to let the audience get to know Watney.
But get to know him we do. Watney’s video logs and messages to NASA and fellow crewmates create the picture of an endearing, humorous and altogether likeable man: from the moment that Watney announces his unexpected survival with a “Surprise!”, you just can’t help but like the guy, and you really want him to find a way out of his predicament. Watney is portrayed as intelligent without pretentiousness, and resourceful without forced ingenuity: you get behind him and his simple but effective manners of extending his lifespan, from using a wooden crucifix – the only flammable object in his habitat – to burn hydrogen in pursuit of water, to utilising stockpiled human waste as fertiliser for potatoes. Some of it is grim, and some of it is light-hearted: the audience is dragged along with Watney for every bit of pain, every moment of elation and every soul-searching episode of hope seeking.
Credit Matt Damon in the lead role for creating that sense as well. Sure, he is the Hollywood everyman in many respects, but he is where he is today by his under-appreciated range and ability to emote. Watney could be just another Hollywood hero on an inevitable path to rescue and redemption, but Damon makes him a three dimensional being, one with foibles, heart, fears and weaknesses. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, he has to do so much without speaking at all, such as in scenes where he must perform some basic surgery on himself, or as he cowers from yet another Martian storm barracking the flimsy walls of his habitat. And he does it all in a film where he spends the better part of two hours talking to himself.
The positivity on display here – in the films key message that any seemingly insurmountable problem can be solved if one simply “does the math”, works at it, solves smaller problems and gets by – is refreshing to see in a genre that is usually more about CGI explosions and space battles, like the recently viewed Jupiter Ascending. Gravity had that too, but The Martian goes a step further as a sort of love letter to science and the possibilities that it can create, both as our way of trying to understand our place in the solar system and the universe, and as a means of making the apparently impossible possible.
There is no technobabble here, just ingenious solutions to difficult problems. Both Weir’s book and now Scott’s film radiate a positive and a scientific aura: sure, Watney just has to believe he can survive and all that, but he also has the know-how and the gusto to create the conditions necessary for his own survival. I hope that I am not too wide of the mark when I claim that we are living in an age where appreciation of science is on the rise, and The Martian is surely a part of that process continuing its transference to the big screen.
Unfortunately, where The Martian falls down is in the same place that the novel does. The premise of The Martian is really great, but both Weir and now Scott felt the need to turn away from Watney’s struggle and offer a look, and a great deal of pages/running time to the struggle to rescue him back on Earth and on board the Hermes spacecraft. I understand of course that there must have been a worry that the narrative would be stale if Watney was the only character, but a big part of me feels the experience, of both the book and the film, would have been better if Watney’s solitude was the whole point, with NASA and their rescue efforts a faraway thing, just so we could get inside Watney’s headspace completely.
And I suppose part of that feeling is magnified by the way those sections away from Mars are just weaker. The NASA stuff is full of bog-standard drama and disputes between an array of players, and a decisive breach between Jeff Daniels’ NASA head and Sean Bean’s mission director is even more underwhelming than it was in the book, simply drama for the sake of their being drama, and as clumsily implemented as you might expect.
Chewital Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are along to give it all some much needed gravitas, but there’s also under-utulisied players like Kristin Wiig, Donald Glover (essentially playing Abed from Community, weirdly enough) and Mackenzie Davis, who give aimless performances where they often appear to just be in scenes for the sake of being there. God forgive me for saying it, but maybe the NASA moments could have used some Armageddon-esque oomph to them, to create a more palpable sense of danger and tension (though The Martian, as a whole, is as far removed from the sci-fi style of Michael Bay as you can be, and still call yourself sci-fi).
On-board the Hermes, a realty reputable group of actors just sort of stutter along, with Michael Pena just moving from project to project as a comradery spouting guy friend (he was just doing this a few months ago in Ant-Man), Sebastian Stan (killing time until Civil War presumably) and Kate Mara (hoping for more success here than Fantastic Four won) initiating a romantic angle incredibly late on and Jessica Chastain – who, I do believe is one of the most over-rated actresses working in the industry today, and no, I may never forgive her for the damnable dross that was Zero Dark Thirty – really bland and forgettable as the supposedly regretful mission commander, who should be a great deal more convincing in her gnashing of teeth over leaving Watney behind.
The combination of the Hermes and NASA sub-plots also contribute to the films other key weakness, which is its length. At just over two and half hours, The Martian starts to wear out its welcome, and sections of the finale really dragged for me. Elements of the book were cut out, and I’m surprised that Ridley Scott didn’t wield the knife a bit more to create a more stream-lined experience. Just a few things here and there, and I think that The Martian could have been close to a five star production. In comparison, think of the 90 minute journey we took with Sandra Bullock in Gravity. While that and The Martian are very different stories, Gravity is a lesson in correct editing in the pursuit of creating tension and audience engagement with the narrative.
But it all, thankfully, comes back to Watney. From his musings on what it is to be “the Martian”, to his delightful pronunciations that he will “have to science the shit” out of the latest problem, Drew Goddard’s script does a fantastic job with him, which is even more remarkable when you realise that he is, as stated, talking to himself for the most part. There is something wonderfully charming about a man arguing with botanists back on Earth by proclaiming that, he is, “the smartest botanist on this planet” and later enunciating just why his attempts at rescuing himself will turn him into a bonafide “space pirate”.
And the science, when it comes, is nothing that will remain inaccessible to even the most bog-standard viewer. You can get your head easily around Watney’s plans for growing potatoes, for making water, for establishing communications with Earth and the more extreme solutions to even later problems, and Goddard’s words are why. The wordplay for the other players and plots is somewhat weaker, and it is clear where the overriding focus was for The Martian.
And then there are the visuals. A man like Ridley Scott is never going to have a problem bringing science fiction landscapes to life, and his vision of Mars is probably the most captivating that has even been put on screen. Watney’s wanderings around the red planet show us the place that is, at once, both familiar with its deserts, storms and stars, and alien in its craters, titanic mountains, and sheer inhospitability.
The habitat and its rover are only islands in a storm, and Watney in his suit – a really well designed creation, which emphasises Watney’s fragility – is more of a deep sea diver than an astronaut in the audience’s minds at times. The confessional style camera recordings of Watney merge seamlessly with the more expansive visions outside, which are almost documentary-like in the way they seek to really give the viewer an idea of what walking, driving or flying above Mars would be really like. In the same way that Alfonso Cuaron made Earth orbit look so entrancing in Gravity, Scott has made Mars look vibrant and intoxicating in The Martian.
I don’t want to leave on the impression that, in slating a large proportion of the film with its non-Mars based plots, that I have thought badly enough of The Martian as to deem it unwatchable, because quite the opposite is the case. Yes, the NASA/Hermes plot-lines and actors are mostly irrelevant and sub-par if I’m being honest. Yes they make the film too long, and yes they take something away from the central struggle that should not have been taken away.
But that central struggle, with that wonderful astronaut character and a wonderful Matt Damon performance really does send The Martian soaring into the stratosphere in terms of its quality as a modern science fiction film. Maybe I can’t bring myself to call it a true classic, but it really is a fantastic film, full of great scriptwork, great direction (this is a very welcomed return to form for the sometimes lacklustre Scott) and use of CGI, and a stand-out showing from its leading man, whose character’s quest to get off Mars alive is one sure to wrap its hands around the audience and drag them along, hearts skipping beats, for some of its set-piece sequences. Awards beckon, I feel, and some of them, at least, will be well deserved. The Martian is a film that is bound to spawn even more realistic space-based dramas, and thank God for that. I have absolutely no problem recommending it.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).