The Martian

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The Martian is out.  You should go see it.  If you like science, if you like tales of people figuring out how to survive when the odds keep stacking against them, and if you like space or NASA or colonization or any of dozens of other subjects related to not-being-stuck-on-Earth I could name, you will probably like the film.

If you haven’t seen a trailer, it’s set during a manned mission to Mars.  Six astronauts, or space explorers, or whatever you want to call them; are in the middle of a scientific mission on the surface of Mars.  They have to leave very abruptly, and in the confusion Mark Watney is left behind, presumed dead.  Except he didn’t die, and now he’s alone on a planet without a breathable atmosphere, and lacking enough food to just sit around waiting the three some-odd years for the next (already planned and scheduled) manned mission to reach Mars.

It’s the kind of tale we don’t see a lot these days; man versus nature.  Like Robinson Crusoe or Walden with Henry David Thoreau, the story focuses on a single man, alone, and left with only his own wits and abilities to stay alive and keep going.  These days so many stories are big explosive tales that jet around the globe, but this story has nary a gun or battlebot in sight, though it does involve rockets.

The book is really good.  It’s tough, but the old standby phrase “the book’s better” does still apply here.  However, only by a little.  This is a rare case of Hollywood not fucking up an adaptation.  There are differences, but most of them involve omissions rather than changes.  And nearly all of them are actually only things that have to change when you’re moving from a written to a visual medium.  A couple of ‘set pieces’ – the problems that arise as Watney attempts to go about his business on Mars – are missing, but the film’s already two and a half hours.  And really couldn’t spare much more than maybe a handful of minutes, snatched out as seconds here and there.  There’s almost no dead space in the entire film, little filler or fluff or wasting time by paying the CGI crew to entertain rather than relying on story.

At the end, there are some minor changes.  That’s really the only quibble I have.  I want to be clear; the movie is excellent.  This is a fantastic adaptation.  It would be so amazing if filmmakers would start to follow what Scott has done here in converting this story to the screen.  But I still do like the ending as written in the book better.  The movie goes Hollywood with how it handles the climatic sequence.  Part of that appears to have been done because the audience is not composed solely of people who understand orbital mechanics and the physics of moving bodies.  The book does explain (though not in a drawn out way, or a boring one) what’s happening as things occur.  Even allowing for this, I still like the way Andy Weir put the ending together better.

**spoilers**

I won’t go into the physics of how the ending works.  I will say, specifically, that Weir has a sentence in the book where Watney thinks “if this was a Hollywood movie, everyone would be here at the airlock to greet me as I’m brought aboard, but they’re all busy dealing with the ship and making sure we don’t all die after everything we’ve gone through to get to this point.”  And, literally, Scott has the entire crew show up at the airlock as Watney comes aboard, hugging and kissing and crying and cheering and so on.  I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad change, because it does make you feel good as an audience member, but it’s a change.

The one single thing I really don’t like about the ending is, again back to Weir’s text, as the physics of retrieving Watney are playing out, we’re all waiting.  Readers, other characters, NASA, most of the entire population of Earth; everyone’s listening (via time delay) to the radio transmissions as Watney launches off Mars and the crew go about making an intercept with him.  It’s very tense, exciting, exactingly plotted out; beautiful.  And at the very peak of the precipice, as we’re brought to the very edge of our seats, Weir’s line is “Houston, this is Hermes Actual.  Six crew safely aboard.”

That line is still in the film, but it’s now buried further back in the celebration.  Now the climatic line is “We got him.”, followed by cheering as Earth goes wild, and then we get “Six crew aboard.”

It may be a small thing, but I really preferred “six crew aboard” to “we got him.”  And, again, I want to emphasize the movie works.  It’s not just a great adaptation, it’s a great movie.  It is done very well, and you’ll have a lot of fun.

Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard added a new epilogue scene, one that doesn’t exist in the book.  And it’s actually pretty good.  Watney has been made (probably one of several) an astronaut trainer.  And he has a little sixty or ninety-second monologue to his class of fresh-faced would-be astronaut trainees about how you have to be ready for space.  How space will kill you in a heartbeat, and how it’s about staying calm and just working the problems, one after another, until you solve the one that gets you back safe.

It’s a very good cap to the story.  Extremely well done.

**spoilers over**

I’m a creator, so I look at stories through that lens when I get up from the chair.  It’s unavoidable, in the same way as a martial arts fighter will spot the stunt choreography, or a computer animator will notice the tricks and methods that go into the digital creations.  My ‘complaints’ are in that vein, and I really do want to stress that they should be considered minor.  None of them make the film bad.  They’re just differences, both to the book and also things I would’ve done different if I’d gotten to call the shot.

Over all, this is a great film.  Fantastic.  Everyone involved did a marvelous job.  And the cast is absolutely, positively, loaded with talent.  I could go look at the wiki article, but I’m not going to; I feel pretty safe in saying there’s right at a dozen name actors involved.  Name actor meaning someone a lot of the audience will know.  And they all do an utterly amazing job.  The movie’s got heart and soul, it’s got humor, it stays accessible, and you feel the emotions.  Some of that’s the writing by Drew Goddard, and Scott’s direction, but the end result relies heavily on the actors to deliver.  And they do.  Starting with Matt Damon, who did not slack in his role, all the way through.

Go see this movie.  And read the book.  You’ll have a blast.

Save Watney!