Andy Weir’s popular science blog turned best-selling novel comes to the screen with Matt Damon in the lead. Ridley Scott (‘Alien’, ‘Gladiator’) directs the tense story of an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars whose incredible science knowledge keeps him alive. The screenplay is by Drew Goddard (‘World War Z’, ‘Cloverfield’). The science was vetted by experts and Weir proves you do not have to bend the laws of science to tell a good Science Fiction story. This is the most gripping film of the year so far.
Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
I remember when the just-released film ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ was playing in Springfield, Massachusetts. One of the things that sold me on spending my allowance to see it was that it promised that this was the first of a new breed of Science Fiction films that would be sticking very close to the real science. In those days, my science acumen was less than what it is today but that was all right because the filmmakers had less science knowledge than I had. I could tell with the film that the science of getting oxygen by baking rocks was a little funky, but I set aside my objections. That was until they introduced Friday as a fugitive from an interstellar alien slaver ship. Then the film begged me to suspend disbelief and, of course, the absurdity went along with Friday to the final frame of the story.
Suspension of disbelief is just what Andy Weir wanted to make unnecessary when in his Internet blog he told an informative story of how a man marooned on Mars might actually survive. He chose the perfect medium because one resource that the Internet had in abundance is people who would happily correct other people. Amazingly, a handful of the correctors actually knew what they were talking about. Weir chipped away at the absurdity until he got his story to actually not be too absurd. It probably was not clear that that would be at all possible. The plan was not originally to make a publishable novel, but there are more intelligent people out there than Weir reckoned on and lots of people were actually interested in whether a near-future Robinson Crusoe might actually survive on Mars. The text that Weir had been giving away free turned into a best-selling novel and a hot property that he sold to the movies.
Following Andy Weir’s novel, astronaut Mark Watney is on a mission to Mars that has the bad timing to be in the path of a violent windstorm. The crew has good evidence that Watney did not survive the storm and Watney has no way to contact them. Watney finds himself left behind on the hostile planet. The good news is that another Mars mission is planned and Watney can just return to Earth with that crew. The bad news is that that mission will not arrive for four years. All he needs to do is stay alive long enough to be rescued. At the beginning, we see the events only from Watney’s eyes. Later, we get to see more of what is happening on Earth and in space. We never do learn much of who Watney is. We have to judge him just by his actions on Mars and the planet and the predicament do test his mettle. About the first thing we learn about the real man is that he swears a lot. Then again, as the only person on an entire planet, he gets the prize for the human being currently most in private when he does it. There is nobody to hear him and be offended.
Some comment should be made about our Martian’s implausible luck. We expect incredible luck from a James Bond. But ‘The Martian’ takes place in a more realistic world. One stroke of luck: It is not at all surprising that a mission to Mars might have a botanist. People who would be sent to Mars would have wide ranges of knowledge. But Watney survives only because he *is* the botanist on the mission. He also is extraordinarily lucky to survive the storm and multiple explosions that could easily have been fatal. There is nobody but Watney himself to perform first aid on himself. He also seems to have been lucky to avoid the expected radiation problems which are not even mentioned in the film.
What keeps the audience entertained may be as much the man as his situation. What is really useful of his traits is that he does talk to himself. That normally irritating habit is extremely useful to tell the audience what he is thinking. He may be making a log but, when he talks to himself he is more conveniently narrating the story for his audience. That is one opportune characteristic. Even with a convenient arsenal of talents he still goes from one dangerous scrape to another, injuring himself, but never quite fatally. By the end of the film, he obviously has deteriorated a lot in the course of the film, but he keeps coming back and his luck keeps holding. Through it all perhaps his most valuable skill is his sense of humour that never loses its edge for himself or for the viewer.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard tampers a bit with the novel. In part, this seems to be so there is a big gripping set piece at each end of the film. What is missing from the film is Watney’s clever engineering and improvisation to fix the problems that were contrived to queue up to hit him one at a time rather than all ganging up at once, which might have been more realistic. In the book, there are more problems that require thinking, engineering and mathematics. Solving those problems might not be cinematic, so the film glosses over them.
Director Ridley Scott has given the film a powerhouse cast including Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain. Weren’t they just together in another big Science Fiction space film, ‘Interstellar’? There is also Kate Mara, Kristen Wilg, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and the ever-Sharpe Sean Bean.
It will be interesting to see if this film will win public opinion for or against the possibility of sending people to Mars. I rate ‘The Martian’ a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Mark R. Leeper
(c) Mark R. Leeper 2015