Movie Review: The Martian directed by Ridley Scott

The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott
The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Drew Goddard
Twentieth Century Fox, 2015

I finally got around to seeing the movie of The Martian. (Yeah, I know—it took me way too long to make this happen.)

I’m so happy with it!

I think it stands as one of the best book-to-movie adaptations ever. More than that—I think it’s one of the best movies about space ever made. I love it. I think the filmmakers did a fantastic job deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. They capture the essence of the story nicely.

The big screen creates a powerful visual layer for the narrative. The panoramas of Mars are breathtaking. It’s shocking to see how his time on Mars affects Mark Watney physically. The filmmakers take full advantage of their visual medium to tell this tale.

It’s a stunning work of art.

What strikes me most about the movie, though, is how different the beginning is compared to the book.

The novel opens with a laugh line, and a shocker. The very first words we read fully establish the tone of the entire novel—Watney’s ironic, snarky, gallows humor—while establishing the stakes of the story in no uncertain terms.

By contrast, the movie starts with tragedy. We see the Ares III mission crew on Mars as the sandstorm hits, and the loss of Watney. We see the NASA press conference announcing his death before it cuts to Watney making his way back to the HAB and dealing with his wound. There’s some good-natured banter between the crew at the beginning, but otherwise there’s no humor in this opening. It’s dark and frightening.

This came as a particular shock, given that all of the viral marketing for this movie was funny the same way the novel is funny.

Clearly, the movie couldn’t show the events leading to Watney’s abandonment as a flashback, as it’s handled in the book. Flashbacks don’t work onscreen the way they do in writing. So the movie starts the story at the beginning.

It works. As a way to begin this story, it works just as well as the beginning of the novel. Most importantly, starting the story this way doesn’t detract from Watney’s sense of humor, which quickly comes to characterize the tone of the rest of the film.

It’s fascinating to me to compare the openings of the novel and the movie. They’re so different, and yet both completely effective.

The other major change between the book and the movie is all the epilogue content the filmmakers add. The novel ends with Watney on the Hermes. The movie continues after his rescue to show Watney teaching new recruits at the astronaut academy; the launch of the Ares V mission (with Martinez aboard and many of the same NASA staff on the ground, working with the Chinese); the birth of Beck and Johanssen’s child (yes, they hook up in the movie); etc. None of this is in the novel.

I think all of this content is entirely appropriate and fully in the spirit of the story. It rounds out the narrative in a pleasing way: an “all is right with the world” sequence to bookend the film’s “everything goes wrong” opening. It echoes the bookending of the novel: Watney’s gallows humor to open and his sincere happiness to close. These new end scenes in the movie are too imagistic to work in print and wouldn’t have been appropriate for the novel. On screen, it’s rather wonderful.

One thing the movie handles better than the novel are the scene transitions between the different narrative threads. In the book, they tend to be somewhat abrupt. Onscreen, these types of scene transitions are normal and expected.

There’s one aspect of the movie which genuinely bothers me. * It’s obvious why I love this movie but I need to explain about the bits I don’t like. Therefore, the amount of time I’m going to spend talking about this one thing which bothers me will be disproportionate to the amount of time I spent talking about everything the movie does well (which is just about everything).

So as I commence on this diatribe, please bear in mind—I love this movie.

The movie makes two significant changes to the climactic scene in which the Ares III crew retrieve Watney:

  1. In the movie, Watney cuts his glove and goes through with his “Iron Man” maneuver. In the book, he proposes the idea but doesn’t actually do it.
  1. In the book, Dr. Beck is the one who performs the EVA to retrieve Watney from the MAV. In the movie, Commander Lewis has Beck step aside and goes out to grab Watney herself.

The “Iron Man” maneuver was unnecessary but thrilling. I understand why the filmmakers added it. Visually, it creates chaos and excitement in the moment. It’s something that really only works as a visual.

It’s the second change to this scene that I don’t like. It bothers me that the film has Lewis do the EVA. It bothers me a lot.

To justify that statement, I need to posit the following:

The heart and soul of the novel is accuracy. Andy Weir wrote the book because he wanted to tell a story about space travel that’s as accurate as it’s possible to be. From orbital dynamics, to Martian chemistry, to NASA’s operational procedures, the whole point is to make it as believable as possible.

Realism and accuracy are the most important qualities of this story.

Beck is the mission’s EVA specialist. The book names him as such; in the movie, he’s the one who knows all the distances and delta-v’s and whatnot for the EVA portion of their plan to rescue Watney. The crew has one shot to jump out and grab Watney, and they’re doing it under far less than ideal circumstances.

Are you really going to sideline the best guy for the job? The person who’s most likely to succeed?

It’s unbelievable to me that Lewis would put the success of the mission in jeopardy just so she can try getting Watney herself. There’s no way an experienced NASA commander makes a decision like that, especially not one with Lewis’ military training.

This simply isn’t how a qualified NASA crew would do it. This change actively betrays the spirit of the novel.

Moreover, it renders the character of Cmdr. Lewis as less competent than she is in the book. I’m fairly certain the filmmakers thought it would add drama but I don’t believe the scene would be any less exciting, less heroic, or less celebratory if it had been Beck who grabbed Watney, rather than Lewis.

So, this change from the book to the movie betrays the spirit of the story, weakens the character of Lewis, and fails to add anything to the scene to justify it. It’s a major misstep in the film.

Again, let me emphasize—this is the only thing in the entire 141 minute movie that I didn’t love. * I think the movie of The Martian is fantastic. I found it almost entirely satisfactory.

I’m exceedingly happy with it.

* There’s one other significant and obvious scientific inaccuracy in the movie:

There’s no sound in space.

We shouldn’t be able to hear the roar of the Hermes’ engines or the firing of its orbital adjust rockets. When the MAV carrying Watney exits the Martian atmosphere, we see bolts and washers and debris floating around but we shouldn’t be able to hear them clinking against his faceplate. We shouldn’t be able to hear Beck thumping against the hull when he pulls himself along the outside of the ship. We shouldn’t be able to hear the EVA tether unrolling off the spool or jerking to a stop. We certainly shouldn’t be able to hear the hiss of escaping air when Watney cuts his glove.

There’s no sound in space.

This is such an easy detail to get right and there’s really no excuse for getting it wrong. While it may seem nit-picky to harp on it, I once again raise the argument that accuracy is the heart and soul of this story. This is exactly the kind of detail that matters to Mr. Weir.

That being said, however, the fact there’s sound in space in the movie didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. The fact that Lewis goes out to grab Watney, rather than Beck, did detract. Ergo, I choose to focus on that issue primarily.

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