Copernicus here. Many of you have followed my writing about the science of movies over the years at Ain’t It Cool, and some have asked for more. So I’m happy to announce that TV and filmmaker James Darling (also of COMIC CON: EPISODE IV, A FAN’S HOPE fame) and I are starting a new venture called Science Vs Cinema. In preparation for this first web episode, we’ve seen the first half of the MARTIAN, talked to some of the people involved in making it, and gone behind the scenes at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This first one is mainly our thoughts on what we’ve seen, but in future episodes we’ll get more into the details of the science in the movie and what NASA is doing now at Mars and planning for the future.
This project is independent of Ain’t It Cool, but I’ll keep writing up my thoughts here too. There is some overlap between the article and the video, but of course we can do things in video that you can’t in an article.
Our screening happened Tuesday. Afterwards there was a Q&A with Andy Weir, Matt Damon, Ridley Scott, NASA’s Jim Green, and astronaut Drew Feustel, and I got to interview Weir, Green, and Feustel. Then we went on a tour of JPL!
First, how did I get excited about the MARTIAN? Way back in 2013, Ernie Cline, knowing how I love to write about the science in movies, emailed me a copy. Andy Weir, at that time a computer programmer, had been writing it and putting in in installments on his web site. Eventually, he collected them all into an e-book, and that’s what Ernie had a copy of. I flipped for it. THE MARTIAN was easily my favorite thing since READY PLAYER ONE. Set in the near future, it tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who is abandoned on Mars after his crew mates think he’s dead and must leave in an emergency. It is extraordinarily accurate science fiction down to the protagonist detailing chemical reactions, and making calculations about food and fuel. You could imagine that being dry, but it is exactly the opposite — the deep details are used in the service of building drama, and even humor. The book is a page-turner, but it has real depth and heart.
Other people had fallen in love with the ebook too — Weir ended up with a publishing deal, and 4 days later, a movie deal. After writing on the side for years, he was finally able to quit his day job and become a full time writer. In an unusual turn of events for Hollywood, things progressed rapidly on the film. Drew Goddard adapted the screenplay, and was initially set to direct. Matt Damon signed on to star. Ultimately, Drew Goddard had a conflict, but then Ridley Scott came on board.
I’ve met Andy a couple of times (you can read the interview I did with him for AICN here), and let me tell you, he is our kind of geek. He’s a massive DOCTOR WHO fan, and he’s even written (awesome) READY PLAYER ONE fan fiction. There is a clip online where Mythbuster Adam Savage gets him to put on the helmet from 2001, and the mutual geeking out is just a pure joy to behold. You can’t help but root for him. As he put it at the screening, he’s had an unbelievable “Cinderella story” of late.
It doesn’t get much bigger than having the star of THE BOURNE IDENTITY and director of ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER bring your book to life. But of course, having giants like these involved is no guarantee of success. INTERSTELLAR and PROMETHEUS were high-visibility science fiction projects, each with one of those guys involved, and they were some of the biggest disappointments for me in recent years.
First, I should say that the footage we saw was close to, but not yet completely finished. Many of the scenes were shot without visors in the helmets of the astronauts, and some shots still need these to be digitally inserted. It looked to me like some work still needed to be done on the color grading too.
From what I’ve seen so far, THE MARTIAN looks great. Certainly that’s true of capturing the spirit and magic of what made the book such a hit. You feel the drama — so much so that I found myself tensed up and having a physical reaction to the perils faced by our hero. Just as important, Matt Damon is great as Mark Watney.
The film appears to stick pretty closely to the book. Even when Jim Green, a NASA scientist who consulted on the film, suggested some new potential perils, like lightning, which has recently been discovered in dust storms on Mars, the filmmakers just stuck to the book. From the trailer I also had the suspicion that they had given Mark Watney a family back on Earth, but in the expanded footage I saw no evidence of that.
As-written, Mark Watney is a wise-cracking smartass, but an extraordinarily smart and lovable one. I was happy to see that his sharp wit is intact here, and Matt Damon brings every bit of his natural charisma and charm to bringing him to life. At the Q&A, Andy Weir said he was the perfect Mark Watney.
There are a few differences from the book though. Sadly, Andy Weir told me they had to cut his (and my) favorite monologue from the book. Fortunately, it is at least intact in this promotional video.
And the opening line of the book, “I’m pretty much fucked,” my favorite opening of all books I’ve ever read, is missing. Having said that, the opening here probably works better as a film. We start with the Martian sunrise and zoom down to the surface. As a result we get a beautiful look at Mars in all its cinematic splendor. Watney does give plenty of confessionals to a video log, but they used a conceit here of having GoPros stationed many places around the base and vehicles on Mars. This makes things more dynamic, but preserves the core ideas of the book. And I buy it too — after all, when I shot a scene for KNOWN UNIVERSE with NASA’s real-life Mars rover, we tricked the thing out with as many GoPros as we could squeeze in.
Of course, sequences in the book are condensed. There isn’t as much detail about the physics or chemistry or biology of each potential danger spelled out. That, of course, would bog down the film. But I was very happy to see that plenty was left in.
I do have a couple of nitpicks. One is that it is obvious that the Mars sequences were shot on Earth. Mars only has 38% of the gravity of Earth (a little more than twice that of the Moon), so in reality astronauts would bounce higher, and maybe move a little slower and more deliberately than on Earth. There is no attempt to show this. I asked Ridley Scott why they made that creative decision. He said, “Are you an expert?” I didn’t tell him, but as a matter of fact, I have experienced it myself. For another scene in KNOWN UNIVERSE they rigged up a reduced gravity treadmill and I got to run in Martian gravity. Anyway, he said they figured that with he bulky suits, the astronauts would sort of have the same weight as people do on Earth without space suits. And Matt Damon said that it was impractical to shoot most of the Mars stuff with wires, though they did do some wire work for weightless scenes. Again, it is a minor thing — it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the film, except to make me fantasize about how Kubrick or Cuaron would have done it.
Along those lines, there are a few other stylized choices here. The spacecraft, vehicles, and bases, while based fairly solidly on actual NASA designs, look a little too spiffy. Real NASA ships look like they were designed by engineers; these look a bit more like they were designed by movie artists. The film version of NASA centers look like they are populated by movie stars in nice clothes on a well-designed set. If you’ve spent any time at a NASA facility you know it isn’t quite like that. Again, these gripes are minor. The important thing is that Scott did actually consult with NASA, and in at least a few cases, with Weir himself. The details that matter are correct.
Overall, I’m relieved that it looks like they mostly resisted the urge to “Hollywoodize” THE MARTIAN. It looks like they’ve transformed “great writing” into “great filmmaking,” which is exactly what you ought to do. I really liked what I saw and I can’t wait to see the premiere next month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
I learned a lot more about NASA’s real Mars missions, the filmmaking process for THE MARTIAN, and the writing of the book, but I’ll leave those for a future article.
- Copernicus (aka Andy Howell).