2 hours, 21 minutes
Twentieth Century Fox
I bet Andy Weir is feeling like he’s living a charmed life right about now. Since the computer programmer began releasing his epic adventure in installments on his website back in 2009, interest in the story, the tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars and the efforts to get him home, has gone into the stratosphere.
This week it was released as a big-budget sci-fi spectacle from Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon and it’s safe to say that interest in the property has not yet begun to wane. They’re even talking about a directing Oscar for Ridley Scott, and it’s barely October. Well, good for Andy Weir.
His book, also called “The Martian,” is, if nothing else, a clarion call for amateur writers everywhere. As far as writing goes (I know, I’m not the book critic here), the novel is merely adequate — the dialogue is a little clunky and the characters are a little flat. What seized the imagination is not the prose style, but the story itself. Rousing, emotional, funny, and above all, unique without being completely unrelatable, Weir’s story is brilliant in it’s simplicity. It’s a little like fan service, in that it goes where you want it to, but not at the expense of real drama.
Why am I talking so much about the book in a movie review? Because, as much as I enjoyed reading it, “The Martian” is one of the few movies I can point to that even outshines its source material. The film is a killer adaptation.
Taking place in the near future, the story opens with a group of astronauts on the surface of the red planet, taking soil samples and doing, generally, the things you’d expect astronauts to be doing. This is the third mission to Mars, and it’s all starting to feel old hat.
Suddenly, a giant storm appears on the horizon and the crew gathers inside the inflatable “hab” (a large domed habitat with airlocks on the outside) to discuss their options. The computer models are predicting a storm of a higher than expected force. The captain, played here by Jessica Chastain, has to make an on-the-spot decision — stay or go? Margins in space are razor thin, meaning that if even one major thing goes wrong, in this case if their “launcher” (basically the rocket to take them to their orbiting spaceship) tips in the wind, they’ll all be stranded.
The decision is made to scrub the mission and the crew hot foots it to the launcher. On the way, botanist Mark Watney is bashed by a piece of flying debris and lost in the howling storm. With much regret, the rest of the crew is forced to leave, assuming the worst.
But, as anyone who’s seen the trailer knows, Mark Watney is not dead. He’s very much alive and now will have to focus all his scientific skills, botany and otherwise, on staying alive until Earth can send someone to get him — a potential four years alone on Mars.
How refreshing, to have an exciting action movie where the main character’s major skill isn’t gunplay or martial arts, but rather science.
One of the things that made the book so successful was the incredibly likable character of Mark Watney, a wise-cracking, quick thinking hero if there ever was one. For the movie, they picked Matt Damon, who so embodies the character that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him. His Watney is immediately iconic and I could no more imagine Jake Gyllenhaal or Ben Affleck playing the character than I could imagine Tom Selleck as Han Solo. Damon is more than able to hold the screen, mostly on his own, for much of the two-hour plus runtime.
Wisely, the film takes the novel’s journal-entry structure and recasts it as video-logs, allowing Watney to speak directly to the screen for much of his dialogue, a crutch poor Tom Hanks didn’t have in “Castaway.” Ridley Scott does an amazing job directing the picture, contrasting the vast alien landscapes with the up-close and personal shots of Watney as he struggles to survive.
Lest you think the entire movie is on Mars, however, there is an entire other component involving the efforts back at NASA, as well as those of the crew on the returning spaceship. Also unlike “Castaway,” Scott and Weir are telling a full story with a large cast of characters, and an all-star lineup. True, most of these excellent actors have little actual acting to do, but it’s nice having Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor filling small but vital roles. I’ve mentioned “Castaway” a few times, but the movie this reminded me most of was another Tom Hanks hit — “Apollo 13.”
The movie isn’t perfect, as entertaining as it is. The beginning chaos is hard to parse if you hadn’t read the book previously, and the finale, changed from the novel, is a little silly, though undeniably cool. The characters, especially the subsidiary ones, work way better in the movie, but as far as the action, there were sequences that got left on the cutting room floor that I would have loved to have seen on the big screen. I guess you can’t have it all.
Overall, however, I loved “The Martian,” and would love to see its popularity grow even more. The takeaway from the movie is that science is exciting — that math is useful — that exploration is glorious and terrifying.
As a teacher, I couldn’t ask for anything more.
“The Martian” is rated PG-13 for language and frightening sequences.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.