Rarely do I make a point of going to see a movie on opening night. There are few that I want to plan my schedule around. But after reading Andy Weir’s relentlessly readable debut “The Martian“, and after seeing the commercials and trailers for the movie version for the last few months, I knew I’d have to crave a slot in my calendar to fit it in.
And I’m so glad I did. Holy cow, what a movie.
For the uninitiated, the premise of the book and movie is that, in a near future when mankind has made successful exploratory missions to Mars, one mission goes wrong. A powerful storm descends upon the mission and they are forced to abort the remainder of the mission. But in the effort to get to the evacuation ship, one crew member, Mark Watney, is struck by debris from a collapsing communication array and lost to a gust of Mars-strength wind. With his bio-monitor returning nothing, the remaining crew members blast off from the red planet, leaving the body of their fallen comrade behind.
Except that Mark’s not quite dead yet. And having been presumed dead and left behind, he’s now stranded on a planet that does not support human life. This then is the crux of the story: how to survive on a uninhabitable planet for the three years it would take for NASA to mount a rescue mission? That is, presuming he can figure out how to contact them in the first place.
The book was one hot read that I opened on a Friday over Christmas and didn’t put down until I finished it that Sunday. Given that I essentially unhinged my literary jaw and swallowed the book like a python, I couldn’t wait to see the movie.
Is it a fully faithful adaption of the book? Of course not. What movie is? The book is one life threatening sequence of events after another. As Scott Kelly once said, “Space is hard.” In the interest of time, there was simply no way to put every single struggle that Mark Watney, the titular Martian, has to overcome. The movie would be four plus hours. As it stands, the movie clocks in and two hours and twenty-one minutes, not a short stretch by any means.
The key for director Ridley Scott, then, is to focus on those things that are the most dramatic. And there are several. Anyone who has read the book will tell you that the challenges range from the of farming potatoes in Martian soil to deliberating starting fires inside the habitat (or “HAB”), from rovers with short battery life to the lack of water, from the lack of food to the unbelievable dust storms–the list goes on and on. These, and a few others, are more than enough to fill one film.
Scott does a remarkable job with the material, making sure we are in close with Matt Damon’s Mark Watney so that we can feel Watney’s plight, and then offering huge sweeping visuals to remind us of just how alone Watney is. He keeps the pressure on, allowing victories over overwhelming odds before throwing another problem at Watney. In some ways, the approach reminded me of how James Cameron treats his characters, throwing as much as he can at them to see what they’re capable of. The narrative toggles back and forth between Watney’s attempt to survive in the red wasteland and the key players at NASA who are trying to figure out how to get him home, struggling with their own boundaries, knowing that they must push past them if they are to save Watney.
Matt Damon is the perfect choice for Watney, conveying as he does so well the likability of the character, letting us feel his fear when things go bad, feel his excitement when he solves another life-threatening problem, and feel his tense sense of near-relief when he’s on the verge of being rescued. He keeps his spirits up by focusing on each task at hand and by making occasional light of the situation. There’s a gentle sarcasm to the character that never veers into snarky or nasty, but is always just on the precipice of defeated, without falling into that crater. Damon has always done a marvelous job of allowing the audience into his characters, eliciting empathy from the viewers, whether he’s trapped on Mars, hunted by the CIA, or being rescued by Tom Hanks.
The other standout for me was Jeff Daniels as NASA Director Teddy Sanders. If you boil the NASA Director’s job down to brass tacks, Teddy Sanders is a paper-pusher, the highest paid account in the building, with whom the buck stops. Each decision regarding the rescue mission goes through him and the weight of each decision is evident on his face. He keeps up the steely-eyed resolve even as some of decisions are not the popular ones. But someone has to be in charge, and Sanders is that man.
There are many great performances, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Jessica Chastain, and Benedict Wong. Even actors who are given very little to do, such as Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean, stand out, making the most of the material at hand. (There is a “Lord of the Rings” joke in there that had me on the floor.)
You could boil this movie down to the simple catch-phrase of “Apollo 13 on Mars”, but that does it a disservice. Is it as good as “Apollo 13“, to which it will likely be compared? Probably not. “Apollo 13” is one of the finest films of the thirty years. But Ridley Scott and crew know how to deliver tense, riveting entertainment, and I was on the edge of my seat even though I knew how the film would end. It’s helluva good film and one of the best you’ll see all year.