I read Andy Weir’s The Martian a few months ago and loved it so much that, although I normally race along to any sci-fi film on offer, I was slightly reluctant to see Ridley Scott’s new film. Partly, it was the casting. I like Matt Damon, but Mark Watney in Andy Weir’s book, is a young man and it is his age that partly makes his character believable. Only a young person would face such overwhelming odds with such offbeat humour, in-your-face optimism and screw-you, “I’m going to survive just to stick it to you” bravado. Plus Watney’s youth adds to the older Commander Lewis’s guilt at leaving him behind. Then there’s the much talked about casting of Vincent Kapoor. So rather than booking myself to see this film, I went along on another’s invite, expecting to be disappointed.
And I loved it. I spent much of the film in a state of pure happiness. The set designers and photographers have brought Weir’s book to life with such love and attention to detail. The Hab and the rover are wonderfully made. The bleak but extraordinary beauty of Mars is vividly brought to life, with sweeping panoramas of the red planet’s desert landscapes framed by wind gnarled mountains. Damon, it turns out, is a pretty good Watney, although, I thought, not as funny or loveable as the Weir’s character, one of the genius strokes of the novel. Damon is probably one of the few A List actors that could pull off looking convincing farming potatoes in his own waste, dancing to disco in a Mars rover, and shamelessly sobbing and finally facing his imminent demise in his unbelievably flimsy, hacked-to-bits rocket. Watney is a very human hero and Damon is good at that kind of thing.
It is pure sci-fi heaven, right up until the rescue. Unlike the book, where Watney is rescued mostly according to plan, the film notches up the dramatics past the point of all probability. I tried to work out why this bothered me so much. It’s an adaptation, after all and some of my favourite films are adaptations of my favourite books, where the screenwriter has taken liberties with the author’s story. I love sci-fi, but I don’t usually get all upset about whether the “physics” is right in a space movie. There are two reason I think, why this change tarnishes what is otherwise a pretty wonderful film. The first is that this is the emotional climax of the movie, and for me, at least, the suspended disbelief was totally shattered when I should have been most engrossed. The second is to do with the origins of the novel. Weir spent years writing this book. he’s a space and NASA geek who went to great pains to get his facts right. One of the things that is so engrossing about the book is that it is so believable. It seems to undermine the spirit of the story to throw away Weir’s concern with getting it right at such a crucial juncture.
There are other changes I found hard to understand, like why alter the circumstances of the discovery of Watney being alive by NASA? Why does Kapoor have to point Mindy Park to look for Watney, when in the novel she finds him herself? Part of the appeal of the book is the sheer number of heroes, including Park, who rise above themselves, go beyond their remit to save Watney’s life. Teddy Sanders, a corporate sociopath in the book, is watered down to a vaguely irascible overly cautious, but ultimately responsible leader trying to make hard calls, which makes Sean Bean’s Mitch Henderson a slightly redundant hanger-on, rather than the principled and noble central character he is in the book. I didn’t need the annex at the end of the film. It felt like the bolt-on it was.
So it’s not a perfect film, especially for lovers of the novel, but it does many things right, and because it’s based on a wonderful novel, for all it’s flaws, it is an outstanding film and a ready-made classic.
The Martian is a kind of Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I’m not sure if Weir was thinking of Robinson Crusoe when he came up with the idea for The Martian, but if he did he’s an extraordinarily clever man, because he takes that classic tale of a lone man surviving against the odds and adds an extraordinary twist. I love Defoe and his eighteenth century classic, but it is often (mis-)used as a text by individualists. Mark Watney is ingenious, he’s surly when the botanists on earth start telling him what to do, but he needs rescuing, he needs and gets the support of hundred of individuals, international organisations and ultimately the entire population of Earth. It’s why the book is so moving. You are either the sort of person who believes that it is possible that NASA and the Chinese National Space Administration would spend billions to recover an abandoned man on Mars, or you’re not. Perhaps it is unlikely. But the book and the film both seem to be telling us, it really shouldn’t be, for our own sakes. So to me, it’s a very timely story, a celebration of how amazing we are as individuals, how dependent we are on one another and how much one life matters.