When adapting a film to screen, it can be a challenge to pick which parts to chop, which to enhance, and what to add. Andy Weir’s The Martian presented even more of a challenge because most of the book is written in audio log form and about one man, alone. It was with great pleasure that I discovered Ridley Scott’s team delivered all of the emotional and human drama contained in The Martian while trimming little from the book and using the film to enhance the story-telling of not only a man stranded alone, but the people who can do nothing but watch as their friend and colleague fights for survival.
The Martian finds humanity in the not too distant future with its third landing crew on Mars. Jessica Chastain plays Commander Lewis, alongside Michael Peña as Martinez, Kate Mara as Beth Johanssen, Sebastian Stan as Chris Beck, Aksel Hennie as Alex Vogel and Matt Damon as Mark Watney to form the Ares 3 crew. Early in their mission, a disaster strikes and the crew is forced to attempt an evacuation during a sandstorm.
, Watney is hit and presumed dead, the rest of the crew escape to their orbiting mother ship (Hermes) to start their long somber journey home. Watney, of course, wakes up to alarms in his spacesuit and must now figure out how he is to survive, and wonder if he dare dream of returning home. Now all of the cast listed here and the many more (including Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean) get lots of opportunities to hit their strides as characters much more so than in the book, without taking too much attention away from Watney, who was perfectly cast. (this sentence seems like it would be better fit for you’re critiquing the story or acting, plus without out it, the brief plot summary flows nicely into the next paragraph; it’s still a good point, but it can be placed more effectively)
That’s the set-up and right from the beginning Scott shows very good sense in direction and editing, abandoning the book’s initial focus of Watney exclusively and showing the crew and NASA’s chiefs and scientists react to the “loss of Watney”. We get the drama of seeing the crew’s fight to find Watney and then the press conference by NASA head Teddy Sanders (Daniels), intercut with Watney waking up covered in sand with part of an antenna stuck in his side. It’s the kind of dramatic style that book couldn’t capture as it was told mostly by Watney’s log. While keeping the storylines separate worked great in the book, the movie had much added to it by intercutting moments happening millions of kilometers apart.
It would have been easy to for Scott to focus on Watney even more than in the books, because of how Damon was so fitted for the role. Watney is guy with a good sense of humour and smart as heck without seeming bookish or nerdy. It is the kind of character that fits Matt Damon’s style like a glove. Fortunately, there are many more great actors in the cast besides the crew. Jeff Daniels plays the pragmatic head of NASA whose decisions could have made him a villain but thanks to Daniels performance he came across as very likeable despite some of his choices. Sean Bean is in charge of the Hermes from Earth and does very well as a brow beaten man trying to fight against the system for all the right reasons. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, 2012) is the head of the on planet side of the mission, and he brings a great personality to his character and all three NASA heads have great chemistry when they are getting along and when they are at each other’s throats. Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover round out the main cast, Glover as a self-absorbed quirky scientist and Wiig as a NASA tech. They don’t have as much to do as the others but they both fill their roles admirably.
One of the great things about the story is that is utilizes smarts and technology to survive without dragging the audience through long scientific lectures. What needs to be explained is done naturally through Watney’s video logs which feel like the natural thing a scientist would do. Time isn’t wasted with facts, but facts still drive the narrative. It’s the kind of movie that nerds can debate over, yet it still has the heart and scale to make it a must see for every filmgoer. Having great actors fill the smaller roles of the NASA folk and the rest of the Ares 3 crew provided some great character moments that the page perhaps lacked and add lots of moments of unexpected humour. There is one scene in particular where the NASA heads are discussing “Operation Elrond” around a table that brought out some unexpected humour not present in the book where the NASA heads were making fun of the choice of name with Elrond and comparisons were made with their meeting to the council of Elrond. Bean sitting at the table looking unhappy, Daniels calling dibs on his favourite character. Moments like this show the humanity in the characters despite the gravity of their problems. The whole thing isn’t without a few hitches though.
Sadly when telling a story that lasts years that involves NASA, a crew in space, and a guy stranded on Mars, not every great little detail from the book can be added and some major points were dropped altogether. As someone who read the book much of the third act felt a bit sparse as a couple moments of peril were cut (presumably for time). I was assured by my companion who hadn’t read the book that nothing seemed missing or rushed. One added unscientific moment that wasn’t in the book may upset some, (Neil deGrasse Tyson will surely roll his eyes) but i just worked so well with the audience that it didn’t matter. The whole sequence worked wonderfully to add tension and leave readers of the book wondering just a little how far the deviations will go. The liberties with science and the page did seem fitting as even The Martian’s author has admitted that no sandstorm could pose a danger to the crews habitat or escape vehicle as the dust is apparently like chalk.
The Martian certainly blasted off on all cylinders. The whole cast brought their A-game, especially Damon who brought all of Watney’s brilliance and humour to life as we watch him think his way to a full stomach and breathable air. So much of the narrative depended Damon (despite the large and talented ensemble) that nothing would have worked if Watney weren’t the likeable, brilliant, smart-ass drew readers in from page one. There is no doubt in this reviewer’s mind that, with strong character and intense suspense, The Martian is above any other science fiction movie in recent years. It will invigorate people’s wonder in space and hopefully make them question why the hell we aren’t on Mars yet in a way no franchise has since Star Trek: The Next Generation.