Have you any idea how many vacuum-packed turds it would take to turn desiccated Martian dust into thriving, bacteria-rich, potato-nurturing soil? How about hydrazine, if you knew what that was, could you turn it into water without burning your face off?
Ridley’s Scott’s latest movie The Martian, based on the bestselling book by one-book author Andy Weir, will point you in the right direction:
Turds- A lot
Not burn off face- Wear a space helmet
These are some of the most gripping scenes in the book, a runaway bestseller that started out as posts on Andy Weir’s blog in 2011, mutated into a 99cent kindle ebook, then evolved (some indie writers might say devolved) into a blockbusting print edition with a publisher that topped the charts since 2014.
Now The Martian is a blockbuster movie with Matt Damon, who guides us by the hand through turd-picking (and turd-counting) and space-helmet wearing with hydrazine (don’t try this at home).
He is awesome in this movie, no doubt. The very idea of this movie with Ridley Scott at the helm, which charged through development and production in a scant few years, is awesome, and indeed everything about the set-up, cinematography and design is awesome (thank you Lego movie for the tune in my head now).
But is it as awesome, indeed as out-of-this-world as it could have been? That’s the question I want to dig into. Because I’m not sure.
First though, the summary. Damon plays Mark Watney, a cocky-funny botanist on the Ares 3 mission to Mars who takes an arrow to the knee (sorry, joke, it’s actually a communications antenna to the gut) during a tremendous and impossible storm on the surface of Mars (impossible because Mars has no storms due to so little atmosphere). The crew have no choice but to flee lest their escape vehicle is irreversibly toppled by the storm, so that is what they do, believing Mark Watney is dead.
Of course he’s not dead. This is no spoiler- we know it from the trailer. So begins an epic adventure of the man vs. environment type, as Watney must figure out such questions as this review began with (turds, face-melting) in a battle to the death with the unforgiving territory of Mars.
He doesn’t have enough water. He doesn’t have enough food. He doesn’t have enough air. He doesn’t have enough tomato ketchup. YOU DO THE MATH!!
What a premise. It is Castaway on Mars. It totally inspired me. It was gold and people ate it up in book form.
Can I talk about the book?
The book The Martian
I read the book early 2015 and blew through it. I loved it. It seemed a kind of story-telling we don’t see much. First off- there is no bad guy. OK fine, romances have no bad guy. But there is no romance either. There is only man vs. environment.
That feels fresh. And the way Weir tells his story, crammed full of hard-science research about potato-yields and hydrazine and bacteria in poop, is utterly compelling. It’s hard to describe why. It’s a guy in a room doing stuff. I’m reminded of the awesome scene in Big Bang Theory where Sheldon and Raj ‘do science’ to the rousing opening notes of the Rocky music. Check it-
But where they play it for laughs, in the book it is dead serious (with laughs along the way, as Watney’s ‘voice’ is often hilarious) and thrilling. It was the most unique thing I’d read for ages. He was solving problems with science and it flew.
All we see for this whole section is Mark Watney. It comes as a surprise later on when (skip this bit to avoid book SPOILERS!- though as this is a review of the movie, and all of what I’m describing now is actually in the trailer, I don’t thin they’re very spoilery) we flip viewpoint from him to NASA and their efforts to rescue him.
The narrative expands from that point, switching back and forth between Watney and NASA on both ends of a rescue operation.
Here’s an interesting bit- in my head after finishing the book, I figured the opening section with only Watney had to be over half of the book. Maybe two thirds. But no- it is only 6 chapters. After chapter 6 (in a 20 chapter book) we flip to NASA.
Whaaat? This goes to show how damn important those early bits seemed. The Watney-only bits were my favorite.
Now, the movie:
I can’t fault the open. It is absolutely natural in a big-budget movie to open with action, and the action of the storm in which Watney gets left behind is intense. It’s strong. He wakes up and gets himself together. He curses.
Then it sort of goes ‘pffft’.
Ah, I am sad to think that. Maybe I am wrong. But the moment Damon’s Watney starts in on poop-collecting and face-melting, solo, in a room, I felt myself starting to disengage. When is it going to get going again, I was thinking. I was waiting for something. I wanted to love this bit, to be thrilled again by the ingenuity he displays, laugh at his wit, and really be in there tight on his face through the whole experience.
But I wasn’t. I was waiting for something else to happen…
This is what has confounded me. The bits that I LOVED in the book were perhaps the most boring bits in the movie!!!
Why why why? I think perhaps it was just me, but my wife said the same thing, and she liked the movie despite not having read the book or even much liking sci-fi. She described that bit as ‘a hallway we had to go down to get somewhere else’.
Yeah. It felt vestigial. It didn’t feel essential. And for me it is what may keep the movie from being awesome. It is still great for the core idea of Castaway on Mars, for Watney’s puckish voice, for the visuals, for the drama, but it lacked something deep and resonant, and here is what I think it is:
Why it may indeed not be awesome, perhaps…
The film is not tight enough on Watney or the desperation of his situation. It is not first-person hot the way the book is from its very beginning to the first NASA flip.
Let me explain. In the book we open with Watney describing his hopeless situation. No air, no water, no food in a HABitation unit designed to last 31 days, with 4 years until rescue can come. It opens on the futility of that fact- then goes back to explain the accident, and forward to explain his actions as he solves each life-threatening problem one by one, rarely losing his cheeky sense of humor.
There is no escape valve for the reader. We are with Watney in a life or death situation. Every move he makes matters. Help is not coming. The writer’s lens does not flicker from him for a minute, and since he is so captivating, why would it?
It bonds us to every little detail of the science and solutions tightly. They matter. They are the most important thing, and without them he will surely die, and pretty soon. His aloneness comes through in the novel’s very structure.
The movie has a stab at this. After the incident, we track Watney alone for maybe 10 minutes. He does his soliloquy about no water, no food, etc…, but it just doesn’t seem to have the punch. He starts solving problems and I didn’t get the tension. I was waiting for the flip back to NASA, perhaps. I was waiting for the rescue effort to begin.
And it does. It quickly takes over. Watney’s experience gets less and less important, though we bounce back and forth between the two story-lines plenty. The stakes and sense of tension/dread of him being truly alone on this utterly hostile planet are constantly broken. I never think he’s going to die. I don’t feel the fear, and it doesn’t feel that each science solution is going to make or break him.
Sigh. Perhaps I am expecting too much? How could they make it gripping when it is just one guy on the screen alone? But Castaway did this. Life of Pi did this. That story with Ryan Reynolds in a coffin alone FOR THE WHOLE MOVIE did this, in that case with nail-biting tension (it’s called Buried).
But I didn’t feel it in The Martian. It is still beautiful, slick, funny, tense and wildly original, but that magic of being with Mark and coming to so admire his innovation and witty grit felt lost. Rather we get a stab at that, followed by a fairly straight-forward narrative of the rescue attempt.
I give it 5 out of 5 stars. It is great, still. But maybe it is not all I hoped for.
Could it be ‘fixed’??
Perhaps it could be fixed in editing. Light SPOILERS may follow.
I think opening with the storm is good. We get to see Mark is silly and light-hearted while also being a serious scientist. We get the rush of the storm. We cut away to announcements by NASA that he’s dead? NO! Get rid of this. From this point on we are with Mark Watney alone. We are in his shoes.
But- the scene of him waking up, everything through to him self-repairing back in the Hab, was great.
It was after that, in the first soliloquy, that the narrative further lost its way I think.
First- after being hit by the whole antenna and also impaled, he’d be bruised beyond belief, stressed massively, and in no shape to walk around, talk to vid-cam or anything. But he puts on a cloak and talks for 5 minutes. I think I started to not buy it here.
There needed to be consequences of the storm. Probably this means him falling straight back to sleep, after tending to his wounds a bit more. He would be black and blue all over. The body needs rest- so another fade to black. This also serves to distance us further from the past reality- of warmth, other people. He can’t escape and neither can we via cut-scene. Then we cold-open on him, alone in the Hab. A lot of very isolating shots of empty rooms, the massive sweep of Mars, the wreckage outside the station.
The environment needed to be set. The true scale of the enemy, being Mars, needed to be set. The puny frailness of Watney needed to be accentuated visually.
He wakes up. He is aching and barely able to walk. More slow shots of him rediscovering his new reality. He stands at the window looking out over his new enemy, Mars. A montage of him replacing bandages, maybe. Perhaps some tears? Some calculations. He’s recovering.
Then the spark relights. He starts to do science. When he now lists all the troubles he faces, we will feel it. No food, no water, crappy Hab. Mars has kicked his ass, we have all felt it, and the same could happen again at any time. This way his cocky-funny attitude becomes less smug and annoying and more about his own personal resistance. This is his way of bulling through- and we respect and admire him for it.
We don’t cut away to NASA for a long time. We show consequences of all his actions and his mistakes. Let his experience be the roller-coaster ride it was in the book.
And then- contact.
Going back and forth at this point is fine. It’s the middle. But, the whole ending was off. Because there had been few real costs for Watney so far, it’s hard to think he’s not going to survive. It’s pretty obvious he will. When they threw in the Iron Man line I laughed, but who wouldn’t think of that as like Gravity? And also the most unrealistic bit in the movie…
Keep it as it was. His rover goes over due to sleep deprivation. HE has to fix it. None of this remote control ‘being saved’ stuff. He does it himself. He saves himself. Also, it should have been like the beginning- tight on Watney and only Watney, like the book. Comm goes down and he is alone.We are with him and only with him.
Constantly cutting away to other scenes robbed all his scenes of climbing suspense. And finally, don’t get me started on the codas. I really didn’t care about what the other astronauts were doing. Or even Watney, for that matter. We should end on the reunion scene, and he says a funny line. That is classic Watney.
Fade to black.
What do you think? Have I overstated the case, or is it true that the soul of the book The Martian has been diluted in this movie?