Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Martian": review

Ridley Scott directs and Matt Damon stars in "The Martian," a film based on the science-nerd novel by Andy Weir. Weighing in at a hefty 140-minute running time and starring an ensemble cast (including Sean Bean who, thankfully, does not get killed, but who has to suffer gamely through a corny-yet-funny Lord of the Rings reference reminding us that Bean played Boromir), "The Martian" is the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who begins his adventure as the botanist/engineer member of the Ares III mission to Mars, i.e., the third manned mission of five or six planned sorties to the red planet. A major storm hits the Ares team, forcing it to abort and to escape back into orbit via the MAV: the Mars Ascent Vehicle. Watney, however, is hit by a piece of equipment during evac. His suit stops broadcasting a signal, and he is presumed dead. The rest of the team escapes on the MAV, climbs aboard Hermes, the Earth-to-Mars mission vehicle, and begins the slow chug back to Earth. Watney, meanwhile, wakes up to discover he's been impaled by an antenna, but the antenna itself, along with his blood, has created a seal that prevents most of his oxygen from leaking out. And this is where the real plot begins: with Watney alive on Mars, trying to figure out a way to survive until he can be rescued. Other subplots include Watney's team's being made aware that Watney is alive, and what experts on Earth are doing to help Watney out.

I had two main questions going into this screening. The first one had to do with how faithful the movie would be to the book, which became a bestseller thanks to a fast-paced narrative featuring a likable protagonist and plenty of science-talk. The second, mentioned in an earlier post, had to do with whether director Ridley Scott was competent to handle the book's often-lighthearted approach to deadly danger.

As to the first question: the movie varies in some significant ways from the book, but this is only to be expected. Much is made, in the book, of the design of the Hermes, for example, with its ion engines that can't produce much thrust, but which nevertheless can slow-burn the ship's way to Mars, covering millions of miles with unprepossessing efficiency. Many science geeks have commented on the fact that we are currently working on just such technology. Given that "The Martian" takes place several decades in the future (this is only implied in the movie, whereas it's explicitly stated in the book), ion engines are a plausible bit of science fiction. Unfortunately, the engines aren't mentioned at all in the movie. Another point the movie drops is Watney's disastrous rollover in the rover right as he's entering the Schiaparelli crater. At a guess, this was just one disaster too many for a movie whose running time was already dangerously close to two-and-a-half hours. The Hermes crew's attempt to rescue Watney is also nearly completely rewritten from how it happened in the book. Another difference is that the movie puts a lot less stress on Watney's first-person narrative: Damon's Watney does keep a wry video journal, but many of the problems he encounters (e.g., the decompression of the Hab when the airlock's fabric tears open) are dealt with, in the movie, from the perspective of a third-person-omniscient narrator. The movie also puts the severe storm at Sol 18 instead at Sol 6 (why?). Furthermore, I was sorry to see that the film made no mention of either (1) how Watney managed to navigate to the Schiaparelli crater using little more than the path of Phobos across the sky and a homemade astrolabe, or (2) how Watney used solar panels and logic to figure out the size and general direction of a sandstorm in his path toward the crater (and come to think of it, the movie also left out the fact that Watney lost communication with NASA again, not regaining it until he had reached the second MAV inside Schiaparelli). A good bit of geekery was excised from the film, but the film does contain a terrestrial epilogue that is nowhere in the book.

None of the above deviations from the novel was fatal to the movie. "The Martian" was, overall, a fairly faithful interpretation of Andy Weir's story. Which brings us to the second question: how well did Scott handle the movie's tone? Scott is the man who helmed moody, atmospheric films like "Alien," "Blade Runner," "Gladiator," and "Black Hawk Down." Weir's novel, by contrast, gives us a plucky, can-do protagonist who has a quip for nearly every situation. Overall, I think Scott actually did a good job of restraining his own tendency toward darkness. Setting a movie on Mars must have been a dream come true for Scott—the craggy valleys and long shadows of the Martian landscape would have been overpoweringly tempting, yet somehow Scott managed to keep the focus on story and character. It was obvious, though, that Scott did give in to the darkness at some moments, e.g., the storm at the beginning of the movie, and the gritty scene in which Watney performs first aid on himself.

In the end, though, I wasn't as wowed by this movie as I'd been by Ron Howard's "Apollo 13." I'm still trying to figure out why that might be. Andy Weir's novel was a compelling, page-turning read, so it's not as though Ridley Scott was working from poor source material. I think, maybe, that part of the problem might have been that "Apollo 13" was based on a true story whereas "The Martian" is based on fiction. I've seen "Apollo 13" at least eight or nine times, and it never gets old. "The Martian," on the other hand, strikes me as well made but having little suspense. I knew the story going in, but I also have a feeling that I won't, in future, be able to re-watch "The Martian" and experience the same sort of gripping tension I felt while watching "Apollo 13" for the fifth or sixth time. Another problem might well be inscribed in the respective natures of the stories being told: "Apollo 13" gives us three men stuck in a tiny capsule, which is a great way to create dramatic tension; "The Martian" gives us a lone astronaut against the sere, quiet, grandiose backdrop of an entire planet.* Add to this the notion that Ron Howard edited "Apollo 13" very tightly, in a way that amped up the tension and pressure; Scott's editing style, by contrast, has always been more stately and grandiloquent—more simmer than boil.

That complaint aside, I thought that Scott's film did a good job of making certain moments of Weir's novel more real and visceral for me. Seeing the vacuum-packed squares of astronaut feces was both amusing and evocative: those feces packs were, in a real sense, human pollution on Mars (or they would have been if Watney hadn't rescued them and repurposed those packets as fertilizer for his potato farm). Watching Watney's attempts at creating water by using hydrazine was also a vivid experience, and kudos to Matt Damon for that scene in which he cringes and whimpers during the Martian storm, unsure as to whether his taped-over repair job on the Hab will hold up, unable to concentrate on doing his inventory.

I'm no science nerd, so I wonder what the nerdy fans of Weir's novel will think of how realistically Scott handled the novel's physics and biology. I can foresee some complaints about the way the Hermes seems to rumble in space as it passes by the camera: the "There's no sound in space, dammit!" complaint has been around since at least 1977's "Star Wars." It could be argued, though, that the rumble is there to give us a dim sense of what the crew members inside the Hermes are experiencing. Mars' gravity is a tiny bit less than 0.4g; it would have been nice to see how this might affect one's ability to move across the Martian surface and to pick up objects that would normally be too heavy to lift on Earth.

I should also note that sitting with a Korean audience made for a different viewing experience than sitting with Americans would have. There were moments in the movie that were obviously meant to evoke cheers and shouts of triumph from the American viewing public. The Korean audience that I sat with laughed dutifully at the more obvious laugh lines (e.g., when Watney confirms with NASA that he's to be leaving the surface of Mars in a stripped-down MAV that is now essentially a convertible), but there were no shouts of triumph during the moments when NASA and Chinese staffers were cheering. It's at times like that—during those scenes when it's the American who comes through yet again—that I feel Koreans fail to engage with the idea that this is a human triumph and instead see it purely as an American one. (To be fair, I think it's quite possible that this lack of engagement occurs in reverse, too. This would go a long way toward explaining most Americans' disinterest in foreign films.)

All in all, I liked "The Martian," although it didn't grip me as hard as "Apollo 13" (or even "Gravity") did. It's a great visual experience, and the acting is understated but professional (that Elrond joke aside). I think it'd be worth your time.

*"The Martian" actually makes an "Apollo 13" reference at one point when it refers to Rich Purnell as "a steely-eyed missile man"—a line from "Apollo 13" that comes right after the Houston team figures out a step-by-step procedure to get 13's oxygen scrubbers working again. Randall Munroe at XKCD actually joked about how "The Martian" was going to be, essentially, that scene played out over two or so hours.



Bratfink said...

I agree with you about Apollo 13. GREAT movie! I also like Gravity. I'll probably watch The Martian when it shows up on cable [free].

(I also like watching 'From the Earth to the Moon'. I have yet to get tired of it.)

John from Daejeon said...

Great reviews of both the book and film. I made the mistake of reading "The Martian" immediately after reading, the blistering page-turner, and soon-to-be a Matthew Vaughn directed film, "I Am Pilgrim," and then watching the "The Martian" minutes after just being blown away by Benicio del Toro and Jeffrey Donovan in "Sicario." I understand that all three are works of fiction, but "The Martian" is still rather out-there science fiction, while the other two are based in the extreme reality actually facing the my immediate world today. "Sicario," so much so, that I can't visit my Mexican relatives just miles south of the Texas border without the real fear of kidnapping, extortion, and death due to the Gulf cartel and federales on their payroll.

And even though I was looking forward to seeing "The Martian," I was rather disappointed by Ridley's main casting choice of Matt Damon as he was just recently an extremely believable bad guy astronaut in the epic, "Interstellar." It was still solid entertainment, but with no where near the stick-with-you hours/days later that "Sicario" and the book, "I Am Pilgrim," had on me.

Right now, job-wise, I was thinking of signing one hell of a deal over in "The Kingdom""sand pit" Arabia, but I saw today where an Indian woman just had her arm forcibly removed from her body by her employer for wanting to quit, and I hear the male Saudi students aren't exactly very scholarly unless it comes to flying planes into U.S. buildings. I'm not exactly happy with the current exchange rate, but I may head back to my old position in Daejeon when the current teacher's contract is up in a couple of months as I'm already getting feelers from both my old bosses and some old students.

Charles said...

I enjoyed the film a lot, but the comparisons to Apollo 13 cannot be avoided. I agree that there was more tension in the latter, but I appreciated The Martian for what it was.

On this: "I'm no science nerd, so I wonder what the nerdy fans of Weir's novel will think of how realistically Scott handled the novel's physics and biology."

A friend of mine is a NASA engineer, and he said that the NASA people's main complaint is: "That's not the JSC campus!" So there's that.

Also, I agree that Korean audiences don't get quite as worked up, but the girl sitting next to me was sniffing back tears at the end, and I did feel an energy from the audience in general, even if it was more understated than what you would get in the States.

Bratfink said...

Just ran across this link in Mental Floss where Adam Savage interviews Weir.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the Bratlink.


Damon would probably not have been my first casting choice (I'm not sure who would have been), but it is what it is.


Yes, I recall some quiet weeping from the teen girls sitting next to me during my viewing of "Spider-Man 3." Ah, those weepers.