After months of waiting, one of my favourite science fiction books has finally made it to the big screen. I’ve seen it and here’s why you must see it.
Turning books into movies is notoriously hard. The transition from a page to the big screen is tough, and I’ve found myself wondering why some directors seem so eager to find the next book to make into a movie. It seems like it’s just a huge minefield of mistakes to be made. But I understand why Ridley Scott of Blade Runner and Alien fame couldn’t resist The Martian, written by Andy Weir. The story is too compelling, and unlike any other sci-fi film I’ve seen.
Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is part of the Ares III crew, NASA’s astronaut team on Mars. When a big sand storm hits, the crew has to abort their mission early. On the way from the hab to the ascent vehicle, Mark gets hit by the main communications antenna and is left behind for dead, lost in the sand storm. When he wakes up a day later, the crew and the spaceship, Hermes, are long gone. He’s stranded on Mars. As the main antenna stuck in his body, he’s unable to contact NASA to tell them that he’s not dead, but very much alive, and would really like a ride home, as soon as possible.
The pitfalls of turning a book into a movie
This set up to a story sounds depressing at best, but as I mentioned in my book review, The Martian is not sob story at all, it’s a witty love letter to science, full of banter, interesting scientific facts, and a few good old explosions, because those are awesome too. That said, it’s also mostly a diary, written by Mark. Only once NASA figures out that Mark is alive and well, even if a bit miffed at being stuck on Mars, do they get a few pages in the book to update on the situation on earth.
Here’s the first pitfall director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard must have encountered. Diaries, by large, are well suited for books, and not all that well suited for the screen. As lovely as Matt Damon is, nobody wants to see him write a diary for over two hours, even if it’s on Mars. So somebody, probably Drew Goddard, of Daredevil fame, made the decision to focus less on Mark and his troubles on Mars, and spend more time exploring the relationships of everyone involved in Watney’s fate, primarily his fellow crew members, led by oscar nominated actress Jessica Chastain as commander Melissa Lewis, but also the team of NASA back on earth.
This, of course, leaves less time to get into the science that made the book so great. The commitment to science down to all the smallest details is still there, but it’s no longer in plain sight. Many things aren’t explained, or at least not explained fully. There are no numbers and figures to back up Mark’s crazy Martian potato experiments. As a science fan, this was something I was nervous about before seeing the movie. But, about 20 minutes into the film, I figured out that really, it is okay. I didn’t need to know the numbers, because they would not have added anything to the movie. The science is still there, giving the whole movie an inherent feeling of realism, which is all that’s needed. Seeing Mars rovers in action, and forcefully being taken apart by jumping on them, makes me happy in any case.
So while the science has suffered a fair bit, emotions and relationships are given time to shine. I believe this to be an incredibly smart move. The interactions seemed to fall rather flat in the book, with a multitude of characters that I found difficult to remember. This is no longer the case. The cast of The Martian is nothing short of spectacular. There’s enough talent here for at least three movies, but they’ve managed to pack it all into one, and the casting is spot on. This is especially true for Jeff Daniels, who really is perfect at playing the tough, conscientious boss of NASA, Teddy Sanders, but that’s been obvious ever since The Newsroom. No surprises here. What is surprising is a wonderful short scene with Donald Glover, who is famous for his role in Community and his successful rapping career as Childish Gambino. In his first movie role, however, he plays Rich Purnell, who manages to steal a pen out of Jeff Daniels’ pocket, all while making spaceship noises. I’ll remember him for that one for sure.
While the short scene between Teddy Sanders and Rich Purnell is especially entertaining, it’s Teddy’s conversations with the Hermes’ flight director, Mitch Henderson, that really showcase the depth of The Martian. As the person personally responsible for the Ares III astronauts, his goals don’t always align with the goals of NASA’s director Teddy Sanders, which in the end causes him to take matters into his own hands. As if there wasn’t already enough star power behind this movie, Mitch Henderson is played by no other than Sean Bean. Other actors that somehow managed to stand out in this crowd of talent are Kate Mara, for a kiss that should make Spider-Man jealous, Mackenzie Davis, for her growth portrayed through slightly ridiculous glasses, Aksel Hennie the most touching throwaway scene, and Space Rover Sojourner, for capturing our hearts in the three seconds he was on screen.
A Disco Space Pirate Drama
This leads me to another catch Ridley Scott has beautifully managed to avoid, it’s making The Martian into a drama. Don’t get me wrong, it is a drama, and if anybody asks me if I shed a tear watching it, I will vehemently deny it. But it’s as light hearted as an astronaut stuck on Mars could possibly be. Mark Watney himself has kept the wonderful self deprecating humour I loved in the book, even if his slightly more racy jokes have been cleverly edited out. At least he’s still a self declared space pirate. The humour gives the movie a more human feel to it, it makes Mark and the crew more relatable. The same can be said for the disco soundtrack. I’m sure that Andy Weir never imagined that Hot Stuff by Donna Summer would end up as a soundtrack to a sci-fi pace blockbuster. But luckily for everybody involved it works, even though I’m glad the producers decided not to go all out with it.
Most of the time, when watching a book to movie adaptation, I feel like there’s a clear winner. But this time, I’m torn. Both book and movie have used their respective traits to their fullest advantage, with the book taking its time to delve into the wonderful science of space exploration, and the movie enticing its viewers with breathtaking Martian landscapes, that feel very real. Because the mediums are so different, there’s really no loser here. One thing is for sure though, it’s worth reading the book, and it’s also certainly worth seeing the movie once it hits cinemas on October 8th, 2015. Choose whichever medium suits you best, or even better, just pick both