“Help is only 140 million miles away”
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and… well, a whole lot of folks
When a storm forces the Ares-3 crew, led by Commander Lewis (Chastain) to abort, an accident seemingly kills mission botanist Mark Watney (Damon). By pure luck, he survives, but is faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of continuing to do so until some sot of rescue can reach him.
The film follows Watney’s struggle on Mars, along with the efforts of the all-star NASA team (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong and Mackenzie Davis, who I keep thinking I recognise from something but I don’t; she may just look a lot like a younger Paget Brewster or something) to devise a rescue plan and the more emotional fight of the remaining Ares-3 crew (Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan) to cope first with the loss of Watney, then the thought that they abandoned him, and finally with the insanely risky plan to rescue him.
What’s wrong with it?
Not a lot, but a couple of things stand out. As ever, I try not to compare overmuch to the book, but there are a few points where characters suffer from the changes. Mindy Park (Davis) never gets quite enough time to get snarky, Annie Montrose (Wiig) doesn’t get to swear enough, and Mitch Henderson (Bean) is a little too restrained. In fact, overall I felt that the loss of the books earthy but not excessive language was insulating, and one of the few film-making decisions that made the characters feel less real. I’m also a little disappointed that Indian Hindu Mars Ops Director Venket Kapoor has been replaced with an American Hindu/Baptist named Vincent, although he’s played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (who along with Bean as Henderson represent a 40% British presence in the upper echelons of NASA; it’s the brain drain all over again,) so I’ll get over it.
Watney also suffers a little in the opposite direction to Montrose and Henderson. Where the softened language makes them come across as less angry, there’s a scene where Watney responds to being asked to moderate his language where the whole world can read what he’s typing. In the book his response is: ‘Look (.Y.) Boobies!’ In the film, it’s not shown, but is apparently shocking and requires an apologetic call to the President, which makes him come off as much more angry and antagonistic.
But the worst is what happens to Chris Beck (Stan). As the mission EVA specialist, he’s supposed to catch Watney, but the film has Lewis replace him out of nowhere as part of an absurdly over-pumped finale. I guess they were shooting for increased drama, but after a couple of hours of really quite impressively tight hard SF, it comes off as a little silly. I’d probably mind less, but after (spoilers!) Watney is brought aboard and he and Lewis throw off their helmets to join in a group hug with the unsuited crew, Beck is left sort of hovering behind them (literally, in fact, because space) with his helmet still on, almost as though he’s not part of the crew anymore. It’s an image strikingly at odds with the camaraderie that prevails for the rest of the film.
There is also a completely unnecessary epilogue with Watney giving a lecture in astronaut candidate training. The dialogue – or rather, monologue – doesn’t really add anything to the movie that the wordless scene of him drinking coffee in a park didn’t have covered.
It’s purely about the adaptation, but the film mucks with some of the timings in a way that made little sense. It doesn’t make it bad, it’s just distracting that they did it for no apparent reason.
They fuck up the pirate joke. Watney never kills Pathfinder, so he’s in contact with NASA the whole time and thus his claim to be a space pirate doesn’t hold water.
It really niggles me that the airlock blows during recompression when the stress on the hab would be reducing. Yes, that is the level I come to in looking for fault with this movie; critiquing its depiction of textile science.
What’s right with it?
In almost all other respects, The Martian is an excellent film. The landscapes of Mars are superb and the vast cast of characters (at least the ones who aren’t Chris Beck) are drawn in clear, concise strokes that convey their personality and relationships. The performances are universally strong, even if it is a bit distracting that Glover is basically channeling Danny Pudi for his role as autistic astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (seriously, it’s wicked reminiscent of the Freaky Friday episode of Community.)
Near-starving Watney is pretty excruciating to look at. This film contains possibly the least fan-servicy naked butt shot Matt Damon will ever do (assuming it was his scrawny arse and not a double.)
The adaptation from the novel is for once superbly well done. It involves slashing the proportion of the narrative recounted through log entries – this is a movie, you can show instead of telling – and utterly changing the pacing. Huge swathes of the novel are the technical details of problems and solutions that would be boring as hell to show in a movie, so everything is really condensed. Sure, fans of the book are always going to miss things, but it’s the nature of adaptation and what’s important is that in this case the end result is actually a good film.
The film’s humour leans less heavily on Watney’s wisecracking and more on the interaction between the different characters, but it’s still all present and correct, and that’s important. It keeps things rattling at such a pace that I was pretty shocked on checking to discover that I’d been sat in the cinema for getting on for three hours.
The music – drawn largely from Lewis’s much reviled collection of disco classics – is pretty kick ass, although the failure to include Watney’s theme tune – ‘Stayin’ Alive’ – presumably for rights reasons is disappointing.
How bad is it really?
The Martian marks a significant return to form for Ridley Scott after a rocky few… Well, mostly Prometheus, but also the shamelessly white production of Exodus: Gods and Kings and… Okay, the last few decades have not always been kind, but the point is that The Martian is round about two hours of really good movie with just a slightly disappointing denouement that prevents me really squeeing about it.
Best bit (if such there is)?
I’d probably go with the space pirate bit, but as noted they kind of fucked that up. Other than that, it’s a film with few glaring best bits because the quality is pretty consistent throughout the movie. That being said, I’d probably go with the ‘Starman’ montage which bridges the big time jump in the middle of the movie.
What’s up with…?
- Beck? I mean, a lot of it is just bigging up Chastain’s role as Lewis, but that last shot in the airlock is… It’s just weird.
Production values – I didn’t see it in 3D, so it’s possible that the 3D sucks. I’m not putting money on it. 0
Dialogue and performances – Some points are lost here for the softening of the dialogue. I guess it’s necessary to make certificate, but it takes the edge off the NASA scenes in particular. 4
Plot and execution – The adaptation is pretty note perfect for easily two hours of the run time, it just falls down hard when it ties to get in some more conventional action heroics in the finale, then follows up with a slightly pointless epilogue scene. 7
Randomness – Without Watney’s letters to the crew, Beck and Johanssen’s relationship is a little stranded, as is Beck in general. Otherwise, its an impressively tight 140 minutes. 2
Waste of potential – I think that the ending could have been done better, and I miss the rough language, but considering how monumentally this could have been fucked up, I’m impressed. 5