As regular readers of the site know, I'm an astronomer, but I sometimes cover film festivals, I often write about the science of film. The MARTIAN is right at the intersection of everything I love. I fell in love with the book after I read an early version, and I've been following every step of the film's production. I saw the first (unfinished) 49 minutes of THE MARTIAN a couple of weeks ago at an event that took me to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can see my thoughts in the article I wrote and even a video about it -- the first in a series called Science vs. Cinema. In short, I loved what I saw. It was an exciting, faithful adaptation of the book, and I thought Matt Damon was a great Mark Watney.
Now I'm in Toronto, where the film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I've finally seen the finished film. For my money, it is Ridley Scott's best film in 30 years. Of course, that's based largely on the strength of the outstanding novel by Andy Weir.
So here's the second installment of Science vs. Cinema, with a few of my thoughts on the full movie, and just a few bits from some of the interviews I did about it. As before, I'll write some thoughts down here, and put some in video, but for the full effect you really have to see the video. This is in some sense a tease of what's to come -- James Darling edited this video together only a few hours after we got some of this footage.
First, let me summarize the setup for THE MARTIAN -- astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is impaled by a communications antenna during a dust storm on Mars. The rest of his crew, played by Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, and Askel Hennie, think he's dead, and they have to abort the mission and return to Earth abruptly. It will take 4 years to launch a rescue mission, but he can't even tell NASA he's alive, and only has enough food to last a year. At the same time we follow events at various NASA facilities, which are populated by the likes of Chiwetel Ejoifor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, and Sean Bean.
There are a few things the film can do that the book can't, and this is where THE MARTIAN really shines. We are right there, exploring Mars in full 3D, rendered in all the glory that the peak of state-of-the-art filmmaking in 2015 can muster. We get to see orbital shots, wide-open vistas from the surface, aerial shots of Martian mountains, and raging dust storms that are actually a slightly heightened version of reality. Sure, this is Hollywood's version of Mars, but it follows what we actually know about the real Mars pretty damn closely.
I also have a lot of admiration for Drew Goddard's script. The book is quite a unique beast -- most who read it seem to love it, but it wasn't straightforward to adapt. The book is filled with scientific calculations, which works great to build the suspense, and it has plenty of long monologues by the main character, Mark Watney. After all, he's stranded alone on Mars. Neither of these things are particularly cinematic, and yet they are at the core of what made the book so special. The script takes much of the best of the book, but shapes it into something that works better in a visual medium. This is achieved by all sorts of innovations. For example, we see Mark Watney doing firsthand some of the actions that are only mentioned in the book. He also produces largely video journals, rather than written ones. And in the film version, more characters share the burden of telling us the stakes than just our marooned hero.
Most importantly, the humor that made the book such a hit is preserved. It isn't easy to translate a beloved book into film, because you have to leave out so much. I still like the book more than the film, and I do miss a great many things from it, but given the difficulty of the task at hand, Goddard did a stellar job. He even improved on a few ideas in the book. Don't take it from me -- the novel's author, Andy Weir, even told me he felt the same way. I don't want to get into spoiler territory here, but I will in a future article.
Going hand-in-hand with the script, the pacing of the film works well. I've got to give the editor, Pietro Scalia, some credit here, in addition to Ridley Scott of course. The film is a tightrope walk between drama and humor. There are feel-good moments of success punctuated by moments of disaster. We get more than a few working-on-Mars montages set to disco music (it makes sense in context), and this is exactly the kind of thing that only a film version can bring to the table. We've seen awe and wonder, and even tragedy in hard scifi films before, but here we get a good dose of something we never see: glee. Even though his situation seems hopeless, Mark Watney still finds a way to enjoy himself as the only inhabitant of a whole friggin planet, and that is communicated very effectively in the film.
I also have to praise Matt Damon for his outstanding work. Andy Weir, after seeing a rough cut, said Matt Damon was his perfect Mark Watney, and I have to agree. He really carries the film -- after all, long stretches of it are him giving monologues. Scenes where you have nothing to play off of are the hardest for an actor, and Matt Damon just nails it. He has to cover an enormous range -- from humor to giddiness to utter despair.
I do have a few nitpicks though. Chief among them is that the film looks a little *too* good. I was always aware that these were movie stars, not real-life scientists and astronauts. Every shot was composed a little too perfectly. And it was quite obvious that everything from the vehicles to the software was made by a production designer, not an engineer.
I talked to another critic after the screening, one who hadn't read the book, and this actually ruined the film for him. He thought it was too big-budget Hollywood, and that made it hard for him to suspend disbelief. That wasn't the case for me though. even though I knew all the beats in the story, I still found myself either getting tense or laughing at all the right parts.
I've seen Hollywood screw up some of my favorite properties, and usually this happens because they feel the need to add a bunch of unnecessary nonsense to a story that already works. I was relieved to see that this wasn't the case here. They didn't give Mark Watney a wife and kids back on Earth. They didn't throw in a dysfunctional crew, or add in a villain. They took what works in the book and simply translated it to film. That's a minor miracle, and it makes me really damn happy.
I have a hell of a lot more to say, and I'll write more on through the premiere, including an article on the science of the movie. While either at JPL or in Toronto, I had the chance to talk to (either officially or unofficially), tons of people involved in bringing THE MARTIAN to life, including Andy Weir, Ridley Scott, Drew Goddard, Simon Kinberg, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejoifor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Jeff Daniels, and Jim Green, the head of Planetary Science at NASA. More on those conversations in the coming weeks -- and you'll see some of them in future video installments of Science vs. Cinema.