May the literature gods forgive me, but the movie is better than the book.
Ridley Scott is no stranger to sci-fi, though his most recent directorial effort in The Martian (the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s popular 2011 novel) is a branching out from his typical work in that genre. Alien (1977), Blade Runner (1982), and Prometheus (2012) (a prequel to the Alien franchise) all fall squarely into the realm of action thrillers, where the body count rises steadily with the action. That little head-within-a-head Xenomorphs use to kill their victims still freaks me out. Stresses my lizard brain.
With this kind of pedigree behind him, I was more than a little skeptical of how Scott would handle a film that, if it stayed even remotely close to the book, would be a far cry in many ways from his previous sci-fi work. I’m happy to report that such concern was unwarranted. In fact, Scott took a book that is often mediocre (as I said in my earlier review) and made it into an enjoyable viewing experience. Equal parts action oriented and thought provoking, The Martian is a film that reaffirms one’s belief in the enduring nature of the human spirit, and, on a deeper level, it demonstrates the power of reason and careful thought, even (or especially) when faced with overwhelming circumstances.
Since book reviewing is a major interest of mine, much of this review will be a comparison between the film and the book it is based on. In many ways, I think the film version was able to overcome the problems I saw with Weir’s writing. The first, and most prominent, of these issues was Weir’s lack of aesthetic description. He simply didn’t have the narrative skill to get his story across while also giving his readers convincing descriptions of the world around his protagonist, Mark Watney.
Translating Weir’s story to film, however, was the perfect solution to this problem, and Scott takes full advantage of the medium. The film is visually stunning, and the way the stark colors
and thick textures of different surfaces stand out starkly against the often bland backgrounds of NASA space equipment reminded me of Scott’s Prometheus (though this venture, thankfully, has more depth to it). And, since the Martian landscape is composed of only a few shades of red against the ubiquitous white of NASA equipment, The Martian certainly needed color to avoid being a visual bore. Instead of doing the bare minimum, Scott goes over and above the basic requirements of color, giving any and every piece of equipment or clothing its own color whenever it can, which makes the film’s visual presentation stunning, rather than dreary.
This emphasis upon aesthetics, however, goes deeper than simple color coordination. The scenes where Watney must perform medical procedures on himself are painful to watch (as they should be), and as the story progresses, we see much more of Watney’s physical deterioration. Malnourishment produces sores on his body, and his hair looks dry and brittle in ways that typically connote a lack of nourishment. Again, these are issues that Weir ignores for the most part in his novel, and since film as a medium is inherently visual, this version of the story is able to accentuate them in satisfying ways.
The film’s screenwriter, Drew Goddard, also managed to streamline that narrative in such a way that the story moves along at a good clip. The narrative skips lightly from one plot point to the next and rarely dwells upon a single scene or event for too long. In some cases, I would find this method of storytelling shallow, but Goddard and Scott develop a solid narrative momentum. In this case, I don’t think I ever felt bogged down by the events occurring in the film as I often did with the novel. That’s saying something because The Martian‘s running time is a hefty 2 hours and 22 minutes—a time during which I only looked at my watch once.
For the most part, the film eschews CGI for real effects, which I also found refreshing, especially in an age where it seems film directors choose CGI for anything that might require some effort beyond the norm. Obviously, since much of this movie is set in open space and on the surface of another planet, there is still a good deal of computer imagery. However, given the subject matter, I think Scott struck a nice balance between practical effects and digital design, which made the film believable, and increased the tension at certain key points.
The casting for this film is solid, and Matt Damon as Watney carries the story. His acting is understated, which fits this role perfectly, but this understatement often makes Watney’s dry and sarcastic humor fall flat, especially early in the film. Still, he manages to present a human side to Watney, which is more than the novel often offers us. Damon sheds tears at points and has breakdowns in ways that any rational human being in that kind of situation would. Watney even bonds with some of the technology around him in ways reminiscent of Castaway‘s Wilson, but not quite to that extent, and not nearly as symbolic. Still, Damon delivers a believable and humanizing portrayal of a person under harsh conditions and facing seemingly insurmountable odds.
Other major cast members deliver solid, if not particularly memorable performances. Jeff Daniels as Teddy Sanders, head of NASA, is the thoughtful, commanding figure we’ve come to expect from his recent work in Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom (2012-2014). Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Vincent Kapoor with a convincing flair, but nothing close to his work in 12 Years a Slave (2012). And for you Sean Bean fans out there, he’s in this, and he doesn’t die! One of the funnier scenes involves an inside joke where a secret meeting is called Project Elrond, and Sean Bean is present. Clearly, nobody in my theater remembered that Bean played Boromir in the first film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or at least they didn’t think it was as funny as I did. Even Donald Glover of Community (2009-2015) and Childish Gambino fame makes a nice cameo as a mathematician with lots of ideas and too many cups of coffee. As a whole, the casting choices here were solid, and almost all of the major players gave strong performances.
This brings me to my only major criticism of the film: Jessica Chastain. She plays the role of Melissa Lewis, the Hermes shuttle commander, and I use the word “plays” very loosely here. At the risk of sounding snobbish, she just doesn’t’ have the gravitas to pull off the role of mission commander. Her line delivery is often blasé at moments when she should be stronger and more assertive. For example, at one point in the film, the crew must make a decision which could result in their own deaths. Her line delivery at that point was more “paper or plastic?” or “would you like fries with that?” than life or death. At some points, I actually physically grimaced at her poor performance. To be fair, this could have been enhanced by particularly strong performances from Jeff Daniels, Matt Damon, and the supporting cast. Still, she was front and center at key parts in this film, and she seemed like she didn’t care if she was there or not.
Overall, in spite of Chastain’s terrible performance, the film holds together nicely, and while watching it won’t change your life, if you’re looking for a good sci-fi movie this year, I recommend seeing The Martian.