Contains some implied spoilers
I first read and reviewed Andy Weir’s book The Martian back in 2014 and was very impressed by its scientifically detailed story of how astronaut Mark Watney survives alone on Mars after a catastrophic accident occurs during a manned mission to the red planet. It was only after reading it I learned that a motion picture adaptation was already underway, and I was very much looking forward to seeing it.
I felt that I needed a little time to allow my memories of the novel to fade a little in order to be fair to both versions, but it turned out that the book was so vivid that it’s stubbornly stayed firmly lodged in my mind. And from what I can tell, the film follows the the source material to a remarkable degree, with not only the events of the book faithfully recreated but also the tone and purpose respectfully retained: writers in general can only dream of a film version staying so close to their manuscript. Only toward the end does the movie start to deviate, with all the problems of the arduous land rover journey pretty much entirely dropped in favour of an extended sequence in space to give a more visual and visceral all-action finale together with a greater involvement from the supporting cast. While these changes may strain some of the hard-won scientific authenticity established by the rest of the story, I do think they make for a better climax to a feature film and so are changes entirely for the best.
Saying that the film in large part follows the novel doesn’t automatically mean this was an easy adaptation. While the book always felt like it would make an ideal film there were nonetheless a lot of issues to overcome when it came to the actual transfer of medium: for example there’s an awful lot of detailed science in the book that you simply can’t do on screen, and screenwriter Drew Goddard has to judge how much of this to cut without losing the spirit and purpose of the novel in the process. There’s also the problem that since he’s on his own an Mars and out of contact with the Earth, the book largely consists of Watney’s interior monologues and diary entries both of which are very non-filmic.
It’s up to director Ridley Scott to find a way of making this into something that works in a primarily visual form without resorting to a truck load of painfully hoary voiceovers, and he does this by mounting GoPro cameras around the set of Watney’s survival habitat and having the actor deliver his diary pieces and sundry thoughts direct to the audience in a way reminiscent of ‘found footage’ films, but thankfully keeping such contributions to a reasonable level making it satisfyingly effective without becoming hostage to the format.
As soon as you invoke Scott’s name you know this is going to be a visually stunning film, and it really is. From the sweeping red vistas of the Martian surface (filmed in Jordan) to the coldly sterile immaculate interiors of the Hermes space craft that allow Scott to do his best Kubrick impersonation, this is a beautiful looking film. It’s one that benefits hugely from high definition and so is definitely best seen on Blu-ray, which preserves the detail of every rock on the Martian surface and sharpens every line on the man-made interiors. Particularly effective is the interior of Watney’s survival habitat, which starts off brilliant white and in perfect order before gradually becoming more battered and scuffed and dirty as the film goes on, much as the events take their toll on Watney himself.
With the film being a one-hander for long stretches, inevitably much depends on who you get to play Watney. It has to be a Hollywood A-lister in order to get the financing, but it can’t be someone who is too obviously a chisel-jawed movie star. Watney has to be a relatable ordinary person for us to connect with and care about him, even as he displays a genius IQ and near-superhuman levels of optimism and determination to carry on against overwhelming odds. The actor has to be able to perform naturalistic pieces to camera without awkwardness, and project believable levels of intelligence while also delivering on the drama and making us laugh with the quips and jokes he uses to keep his spirits up. Reading back over that description and my first thought would have been “you need someone with Matt Damon qualities”, and so it’s ideal that this is exactly who they get to fill the role – and he’s terrific, a brilliant and completely believable performance without a single false note in the two-plus hours.
The film does seem to make more use of the supporting cast back home on Earth than the book did. In particular, some adroit casting means that big star names in relatively small cameo roles make disproportionately big impressions and are able to breath life into their parts in a way that wasn’t always possible in the printed page. Among the all-star cast are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and Sebastian Stan. While this is still very much Damon’s film, the supporting cast is so strong that by the end it really does start to feel more like an ensemble piece than the novel did, without at all changing or undermining the fidelity of the adaptation.
The one thing that the film does lack is a real sense of tension or dread. It instead chooses to concentrate on being a celebration of what science can achieve even in the darkest moments, and also of the human spirit and will to survive even when all seems lost. That optimistic outlook is rarely seriously shaken during the film, although there’s a double setback at the start of Act 3 which is the closest the film comes to despairing. Even then it soon picks itself up with more can-do attitude from everyone on both Mars and Earth. As a result, never at any point did I think Watney wasn’t going to survive, in the way that for example Gravity had me on tenterhooks agonising over the fate of Sandra Bullock’s character Dr Ryan Stone. Nor do I think that it’s simply because I’d previously read the book and therefore knew the story and how it would end: after all, even though it’s based on very well known real events, when I watch Apollo 13 I’m still on the edge of my seat every time we get to the radio silence as the capsule re-enters the atmosphere and everything hangs in the balance.
The Martian doesn’t seek and therefore never achieves such high levels of (melo)drama, and it never tries to be a thriller. All the characters involved are professionals who in the real world wouldn’t be in the positions they are if they were prone to panic or despair, and so they duly just get on with it by putting their heads down and working the problem. As Watney himself explains, if you calmly work your way through enough of these problems then you get to live. Only once, near the end, does raw emotion take hold of Watney but for the rest of the time he’s calm and level-headed and just gets on with it. The movie itself picks up that sense of quiet determination and as a result you always feel that the outcome is in safe hands; add a choice selection of laugh-out-loud jokes from Damon, Peña and Glover in particular and some clips from Happy Days together with a soundtrack largely consisting of upbeat 1970s disco hits and it’s hard to really worry too much about there not being a happy ending in store down the road.
If I remember correctly, I felt more involved and anxious about Watney’s fate reading the book – it’s just that the film isn’t interested in that approach. It’s a deliberate choice, and it’s hard to criticise the film for lacking a high tension that it never seeks to achieve. It frees the film to be uplifting and inspiring, inviting us to appreciate and celebrate the achievements of the human race in ever having made it into space in the first place. That robs the end product of a little heft, shading and depth, but it certainly doesn’t make it any less enjoyable and enthralling as a well-crafted piece of mainstream entertainment that for once doesn’t involve superheroes, robots or alien invaders.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
On the Blu-ray: One of those films that really benefits from high-definition. Shot on digital, this is an exemplary transfer that captures all the little details and textures of both the natural and man-made locations, as well as the on-screen graphics on display terminals that are fascinating to watch all by themselves. It’s a fairly quiet film which doesn’t make too many demands on the Dolby DTS 7.1 soundtrack, but nonetheless does everything it needs to and certainly punches into life during explosions, storms and launch sequences. The extras are a decent bunch of fairly short EPK making-of features and faux documentaries and commercials looking back on the ‘real’ Ares III mission, but an audio commentary is notable by its absence. Otherwise there’s a gag reel, production gallery and theatrical trailer – all perfectly fine but not exactly anything to get excited about either.
The Martian is available on Blu-ray and DVD.