Access That of Mars For the Toronto premiere, Ars Technica had to give 20th Century Fox permission to pay for airfare and hotel. We’re new to the hands-on movie review scene, but this is standard practice in the movie world. We’re trying to figure out the best way to handle this, but in this case, as we expand our movie coverage, we’ve allowed Fox to cover our costs so we can bring you this review along with other coverage of the premiere .
Movie adaptations of books, especially beloved books, can be frightening things. Reading is a very personal act, absorbing words and building worlds in our minds where only we can experience them. Seeing a movie based on a book is almost like going on a blind date with someone you’ve known intimately through letters, but never really seen. That first meeting isn’t always a good one because when you see it with real eyes and ears, the person you see and hear will not necessarily be anything like the version of the person you thought you knew.
Happy, the Martian, is a good blind date. Screenwriter Drew Goddard has translated Andy Weir’s novel into a script that keeps nearly all the science and humor intact, and director Ridley Scott lets the vast emptiness of Mars speak for itself while keeping the gimmicks to a minimum.
And of course, Matt Damon works wonders for the role of Mark Watney, the best botanist in the world. The planet Mars.
Doing science, still alive
the Martian, for those unfamiliar, is a story set in the not-too-distant future. It tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who was stranded on Mars when his Ares 3 crew members have to cut short their month-long stay on the surface because of a severe storm. Watney is seriously injured in the evacuation and the others Ares crew, believing him dead, leave without him.
The primary fear Ars readers have expressed about the film is that it would ruin the very thing that made the book great: its largely plausible science. The meticulously researched problems writer Andy Weir threw at Watney—and the creative, swear-laced solutions to those problems—threw the book to legitimate bestseller status. And, of course, complex scientific problems that require a page or two of background information often don’t translate to the big screen at all, where “show, don’t tell” is an important rule.
But the movie gets it right. Although shortened for time, most of the key scenes in the book are present and recognizable, with science intact. To stretch his food supply, Watney grows potatoes on Mars (which are actually real potatoes on screen, according to Matt Damon). To make water, Watney extracts hydrogen from extra hydrazine fuel and burns it. His long rover journey to the Schiaparelli crater—a huge focal point in the book’s third act—is largely intact.
And, of course, Mark Watney is Mark Watney – the f-bomb that the pirate-botanist King of Mars drops. Fears that Matt Damon lacked the charisma to play the role are completely unfounded, and he delivers a standout performance as an interplanetary Robinson Crusoe.
More alone than any human has ever been
By the end of the movie – no spoilers, don’t worry – Watney has spent nearly two years on Mars. Author Andy Weir – who was kind enough to talk to Ars at length last November and who also hung out with us at the movie’s world premiere in Toronto – previously explained to us that he wanted to write a science story, not a character study in crippling depression, and so he intentionally wrote Mark Watney as a resourceful fellow with an almost inhuman amount of optimism and determination. Even when faced with repeated catastrophes and setbacks, Book Watney is always willing to sleep over a problem and then doggedly tell his solution.
Director Ridley Scott chose to do it in a slightly different way with the film. Much of the book relies on the audience having access to Watney’s internal monologue (because such a large portion of the book is composed of Watney’s diary writings), and heavy narration in movies is a dramatic device that rarely works. So we get to hear Watney’s thoughts through video logs that he keeps, but we also get to it see Watney in a way we can’t in the novel.
Scott almost paints Mars as a modern-day twin of the asteroid on which the Nostromo crew lands in his 1979 film Alien (the world is called “LV-426” in Aliens, but it has no name in the first movie). The orchestra’s musical cues subtly mirror Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score from that film, and Mars is shown in all its inhospitable expanse – often with that expanse interspersed with a very small and very insignificant Watney. Alien said visual designer and Swiss surrealist HR Giger in his Giger’s stranger art book that he considered the asteroid in that film to be his own biomechanical world; Ridley Scott’s Mars is that world’s sunlit antipode, while still retaining a tremendous sense of indifference to the doings of humanity.
Of course, there’s a lot more going on in the movie than just Watney being trapped on Mars, and even few-line cast members turn in solid performances. The rest of the Ares 3 crew—led by Jessica Chastain’s commanding officer Melissa Lewis—show off excellent space chops, and the ground scenes featuring NASA paint the agency and its people with some of the friendliest paintbrushes in recent history. This is a film in which NASA plays a central role – and that is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the story.
After all, this isn’t the cramped agency we see today, but rather a near-future version of NASA that has been given the money to conduct a slew of five crewed Mars landings. Scott’s fictionalized view of the Johnson Space Center is glorious (if a little silly – in real life, JSC looks mostly like a run-down college campus), and the Jet Propulsion Lab gets plenty of positive screen time.
This could be That of Mars biggest appeal – not showing science being done right, but showing science being done right by the best version of NASA. This NASA is the space agency we all dream of. It’s the modern reincarnation of the group of people who landed 12 people on the moon and built a filter out of spare parts and would one day do a hundred things we could only dream of doing.
In pre-show interviews, cast members explained that the message of The Martian is survival, but for me was the message heap. A hope that we can be better than we are. A hope that one day we could choose to go to Mars and do the other things – because even though they are hard, there are unlimited rewards in both the journey and the destination.
The Martian works on film. The science is there. The acting is there. The film evokes emotions by showing people forced to survive in extraordinary situations – which is, after all, a central tenet of space travel. After the loss of the space shuttle Colombia, President Bush spoke these words, and they apply just as much to the fictional Ares 3 crew as they do with NASA’s real astronaut corps:
This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose – it is a desire written on the human heart. We are that part of creation that tries to understand all of creation. We find the best among us, send them into the unknown darkness and pray they will return. They go in peace for all humanity, and all humanity is indebted to them.
But The Martian is much more than just Cast away in space, a grim treatise on pure survival. As the lights dimmed for the premiere, director Ridley Scott had one final piece of advice for the audience. “Don’t forget to laugh,” Scott told us, “because this movie is actually kind of funny.”
We’ve got another piece on The Martian (which hits major theaters October 2) later this weekend, featuring interviews with the cast, crew, and production team. Stay tuned!