on “The Martian” (with spoilers)

Yes, it’s The Martian, the latest great hope of science fiction, after a decade that’s given us a few high-concept contenders for classic sci-fi.

Based on a novel by Andy Weir that I read faster than anything I’ve read recently, it’s basically a fictional descendent of Apollo 13: A mission in space gone horribly wrong, and a tale of triumph to save our astronauts (or in this case, astronaut). In that way, it shares a lot with the Alfonso Cuaron movie Gravity, but it’s a very different kind of story. Gravity was essentially a one-woman-versus-the-elements story that focused heavily on Sandra Bullock (and briefly, George Clooney) trying to survive and stay one step ahead of the disaster, while The Martian is very much more focused on HOW Matt Damon stays alive and solves his problems, like a repetition of that great scene in Apollo 13.

It is an immensely satisfying movie. I had my hopes very high that it would do justice to the book, and it delivered. You should definitely see in 3D. The 3D is not gimmicky, it is not upconverted 2D after the fact, and it adds to the majesty of the landscapes.

(Major spoilers beyond this point)

First off, Sean Bean was in this movie and didn’t die? What is this madness?

Secondly, this movie is an excellent adaptation of the book. There are a few alterations. Mostly, we see more of the other characters and less of Whatney’s meticulous preparation for his excursions. The most major departure is that, in the book, Whatney accidentally fries Pathfinder’s electronics with a soldering iron before leaving the Aries III landing site, and he isn’t informed about the alterations he needs to make to the Aries IV MAV until he arrives there, after a solo trip across Mars featuring encounters with a sandstorm and a crater. There are also scenes showing the minutes before Whatney’s “death” and abandonment on Mars, and an epilogue showing what happened to the Ares III crew after returning to Earth. That last one felt unnecessary: While it was cool and perhaps fitting to show everyone reacting to the launch of the Ares V, Whatney (now an astronaut corps instructor) telling the new recruits to “start thinking your way out of problems when the going gets tough” is… kind of irritating, like Ridley Scott didn’t trust the rest of the movie to make that point for him.

But, on the whole, the alterations didn’t bother me so much, because the core of the story was intact and entirely in the style of the book. Matt Damon pulls off all of Whatney’s witty and likeable character perfectly, and with all the goofy charm studios typically hire Chris Pratt for these days.
Ridley Scott manages to capture the sly humor in the book with well timed sight gags; the entire theater erupted in laughter when Whatney blew himself up with the hydrogen while trying to make water. (Trust me, it’ll make more sense when you see it)

The cast is large and diverse (sort of, it passes the Bechdel test, although all the scientists except for the Kate Mara character are men), and well handled: Jeff Daniel’s NASA Administrator is not played as a straight evil bureaucrat; he has his own moments, such as during the Council of Elrond-themed secret meeting where he suggests he wants to be Glorfindel (I am both glad and sad that they made no reference to the fact that Sean Bean was Boromir, there). Donald Glover’s Rich Purnell character is funny too, but not a ‘clumsy nerd’ archetype. Just about the only character I didn’t really like was Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis, who I remember being far more decisive and commanding in the book than in the movie.

The visuals of space and Mars are gorgeous and the zero-G (and to a lesser extent, the low G on Mars) is every bit as good as Gravity, even if they’re not called on to do quite as much. But just like Gravity, the 3D adds to the experience without being a gimmick – nothing thrown at the screen, or shown without a clear reason, and (almost) exclusively set in behind-the-window 3D, which is definitely the right way to do 3D. Definitely see it in 3D. Mars is gorgeous. Did I mention that?

The Ares III HAB is also one of those rare times (for me) where something is translated to screen EXACTLY as I’d imagined it. It was very impressive. Actually, the whole set design struck the same level of believability as the rest of the movie.

Also – the music. The score from Harry Gregson-Williams varies from electronic beats for tense moments to soaring orchestral flourishes for the scenery, to solid ’70s disco hits (that running gag translated very well to the screen) to a very well placed “Starman” by David Bowie. It’s a really great score, and definitely a better mix of ’70s tunes than what Guardians of the Galaxy came up with. Actually, I don’t think Guardians had ANY disco. Maybe that was its problem. Disco is back! I’ll show myself out.

As for technical accuracy… The Martian stretches things, but not so much that it bothered me (if I even noticed them in the first place; the movie inherits Andy Weir’s incredible attention to detail and is an amazing excercize in plausibility). It’s been pointed out other places that yes, the event that starts the whole thing is impossible: even the strongest storms on Mars barely have the force of a breeze, because the air is so thin. The MAV would never have been in danger of tipping over, the communications dish would never have impaled Whatney, and the story would never have happened. In that way, it’s a lot like Gravity, where the entire story was instigated by a conceit, that all satellites are all in very similar orbits such that they would hit each other and cause a cascade of ever-more debris. Gravity also relied upon that to save Sandra Bullock’s character, because with MMUs and Soyuz-style craft she would never be able to reach other space stations from where she started, repairing Hubble.
I think The Martian comes out ahead here, because while it comes up with an impossible reason to get Whatney IN trouble, it doesn’t use any to get him out of trouble. I think that’s one of Pixar’s rules of screenwriting: Coincidences to get the character into trouble are great, coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

On the whole, 10/10, would be stranded on Mars with again.

Other media reviews: Interstellar, The Force Awakens (no spoilers), The Force Awakens (major spoilers)

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