The Martian Leaves Matt Damon Stranded
I read Andy Weir’s novel. I loved it and thought it was a masterpiece of science fiction and mathematics and science lit. So when it was announced that Ridley Scott – one of the forefathers of sci-fi – was to direct the film adaptation, and Matt Damon was to play the role that screamed his likeness on the page, I was comfortable, if not quite happy, with this decision. I’ll be the first to point out that I was wrong.
After an Ares III mission is cut short due to an impending storm where Watney’s crew is stationed, Watney is left behind as the captain and his crew think him dead. It isn’t until they’re well on their way home that NASA has realizes Watney is still alive. What the book does with these moments is capitalize greatly on the humanity of these characters and the danger of Watney’s situation. The book is written as an almost homage to science and mathematics.
The book is told through Watney’s point of view, relying on his journal entries. The mathematics and calorie counting keeping him alive, though such things may sound boring, are incredibly important to the nature of the story. Without these, the author would have been telling the readers to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the novel or film, by simply saying, “Hey it’s fiction, just buy it.” With them, readers gain an understanding of how Watney’s survival for nearly 2 years is possible on a desolate wasteland millions of miles from Earth. The book comforts us with these facts, constantly reminding us that Wier has done his homework and leads us to trust his interpretation. The film, on the other hand, rarely does this. I understand the importance of streamlining the technical facts to keep the film a manageable length and make it appealing for a wider audience, but without these facts it just feels like Scott and his crew got lazy; which we know this not the case. A couple months ago it was reported that Scott had spent 6 months with NASA specialists in order to get the realism of this film down. So where did it all go?
The book comforts us with these facts, constantly reminding us that Wier has done his homework and leads us to trust his interpretation.
It turns out it went into the terrain and technology behind The Martian. The film is stunningly beautiful and I trust Scott to have used perfect replicas of NASA equipment to breathe life into the world that Mark Watney inhabits. Scott does a good job with the visuals, he does a good job directing his cast, but this film should be so much more than a strong cast and a good green screen. Scott was trusted with this extremely engaging and nerd-tastic material and it’s safe to say he let us down.
What The Martian got right, were the passages taken verbatim from the book. What the film got wrong was in its execution of many moments, taken from the book and messed with, or skipped entirely. Matt Damon gives a great performance as Mark Watney, stranded astronaut and botanist, left to survive for years on Mars by himself. The rest of the cast does a good job, not a great job, but a good job. Chiwetel Ejiofor provides us with a breath of optimism in Dr. Kapoor. Sean Bean brings back our fight for humanity with his portrayal of Mitch Henderson. But the rest of the cast feels stagnant and useless. Jeff Daniels seems to be trying desperately to hold on to Will McAvoy, his character from The Newsroom. Kristen Wiig is given barely anything to work with, her character drastically cut down from the novel. Donald Glover is cast as a character notable for his complete inability to pick up on social cues, something that Glover would have pulled off incredibly, but they somehow make his character stale. Everyone else tries their best with a script that gives them very little. The crew of the Ares III mission is as stereotypical as they come, while the characters in the novel were given much more life. Again, I understand the importance of editing to fit the film timeframe, but I also understand the importance of relatable characters that don’t feel like stock.
The importance of The Martian as a novel lies in its understanding of danger, the imminent death behind every sand dune for our main character. The film never let us hold our breath along with Watney. There was never a moment where I felt that something could go terribly wrong, and I don’t just mean that from the standpoint of having read the book. There was no sense of urgency in the film. We were constantly told that there was a sense of urgency that we should feel, but it never was tangible. Any time there was a moment where something went wrong for Watney, the next moment was NASA fixing it. In a film that’s about one man’s fight for survival, it never let us see him even really struggle. It solved all the problems for us which left us with a lackluster shell of a film. I was never worried for Watney, I was never convinced that any of the other characters were worried for him.
The fact that Ridley Scott cut out some of the most important moments and suspense inducing sections of the book didn’t help at all either. The entire five minutes Watney spends retrieving the nuclear battery to help power and heat his rover was nearly 60 pages in the book. It gave us a sense of urgency and serious impending doom knowing if Watney were to mess up even one small detail, it would be the last thing he’d do. The movie made a quick cut to him man-handling it into the rover and heading back, joking about the heat as he left. This is just one of the moments where the film failed to capture the importance of what the book was trying to accomplish.
The film never let us hold our breath along with Watney.
I’ve given this film and review a lot of thought. I don’t want it to come across as simply someone shouting “the book was better”, though I’m sure it will come across that way to many. I’ve tried my hardest to look at this film from a film perspective, forgoing any previous knowledge or opinion of the book. I obviously have only the book to compare the film too, but all my points would stand true if I had never read a single page. The film was, at best, a mainstream blockbuster with some good acting and great visuals. It’s a decent sic-fi film that should have been a revolutionary sci-fi film. It’s a film that could have been handed an Oscar, but instead desperately reaches and fails.