If you haven’t read The Martian you should because it’s better than whatever you’re reading now (most likely). It’s one of the most enthralling pieces of science fiction to come along in ages and it’s an incredibly quick and easy read. Go now. Read.
There is an xkcd comic about it in which they break down the fact that the book is just crammed full of science. It relates it to Apollo 13. The movie isn’t quite as kind to science, but that’s probably to be expected. Sacrifices have to be made when you’re cutting a novel down to two hours and one of the major sacrifices for the film is the scientific explanations of everything.
Why do I bring this up? Because maybe people will be upset about that, but they really shouldn’t be because The Martian is some of the best science fiction storytelling to come out this decade and Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is still frickin’ awesome.
Director: Ridley Scott
Release Date: October 2, 2015
Despite what you might think from the title The Martian does not have any actual aliens in it. This isn’t John Carter. This is science fiction at its most sciencey and its least fictiony. On what is now a relatively routine trip to study mars Mark Watney is left behind by the rest of his crew during an evacuation. The Martian is about his survival. It’s also about his rescue. The crew, consisting of Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), are on a months long trip back to earth thinking he’s dead. Meanwhile NASA, led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars lead Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) struggle to find a way to save Watney.
If you’ve read the book you probably already recognize that Damon is the perfect casting for the wisecracking Mark Watney. The character might be one of the most likableprotagonists ever. Damon brings a layered performance to the stranded astronaut that not only captures the charm of the character from the book, but adds an extra layer of fear and anger that is sometimes missing from the prose. He turns the Watney of the page into an actual person and it is a powerful performance. The rest of the cast keeps pace, though they obviously don’t take up as much screen time. Especially surprising is Daniels’ performance, which takes an all out heel from the book and makes him far more relatable.
There are other changes from the book. For the sake of time and the elimination of hours worth of exposition dialog the science has definitely been dumbed down a bit. More importantly, though, our time with Watney is far less. Since it’s a film with less time the NASA parts are brought in earlier and we get less Watney on Mars action. It’s a elimination that had to be made, especially to fit in the movie’s stunning ending, but it means less Watney. That’s actually a testament to just how well the movie plays. If you’re sitting in your seat wishing it could have been an hour longer just so you could watch Matt Damon drive around what is basically a big red desert then a film has done something right.
In all honesty the subtraction of more Watney time makes the film work better. Drew Goddard shaped this film into a finely honed screenplay that retains the humor and passion of the book. It jumps back and forth perfectly between Mars and Earth. Tension is derived not from big action sequences (except the aforementioned thrilling conclusion), but instead human interaction and tiny drams. There’s a great fluidity to the film that somehow helps contrast the wonder of Mars with the doldrums of Earth. Looking at this movie you can’t help but want to strap on a suit and launch into space to explore whatever is out there because it’s going to be amazing. Mars is vibrant red, stunningly beautiful and engrossingly alive despite not hosting any actual life. Earth by contrast is dull, full of cramped office space and dreary colors. The film is a visual explanation of humanity’s love for exploring even if there was no sound.
This may be Ridley Scotts best film since Gladiator and it’s definitely his best science fiction since Blade Runner. Prometheus was Scott trying to be philosophical, but The Martian is him getting back to his grounded roots and that’s what he’s good at. At the intersection of science fiction and thrillers is where Scott hits his sweet spot and it’s very evident with this film. He’s a master of building tension, especially when isolation is involved. And yet, The Martian is drastically different from his previous science fiction movies. It is both humorous and hopeful. Space is still out to get us, but it’s not something to run away from, but a challenge to be conquered.
Maybe this is why it is just so awe inspiring. Years of Scott’s pent up love for all things outer space seem to flow out onto the screen in this film. There has never been and may never be a better advertisement for NASA or a better explanation of why it’s so important for us to explore. Sometimes we need a little great science fiction to know just what reality can be.