The Martian Makes Science a Fun Ride. Mostly.

Like so many people over this past weekend I went to see Ridley Scott‘s highly anticipated film The Martian (2015). I went with rather high expectations and they were mostly met.

Theatrical release poster of The Martian (2015) © 20th Century Fox.

The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, tells the story of one man’s fight for survival on Mars. Injured and left for dead by the crew of Ares III, astronaut Mark Watney, must overcome, loneliness, thirst, hunger, and his own stupidity in order to survive alone on Mars.

Mark Watney is portrayed wonderfully, I thought, by Matt Damon. I have never considered Matt Damon to be terribly charming. In this character Damon is extremely charming. Damon’s Watney is very much like the affable Watney of the book. If you’ve spent any time among scientists and/or engineers you’ll quickly come to realise that they have outstanding senses of humour and are often more than willing to laugh at themselves and their situations. An important point when you’re stranded on Mars alone.

Early in the film Damon tells us he’s going to have to ‘science the shit’ out of Mars in order to survive. Then he explains how he has to make water and how he’s going about it. Not an easy task for a film without boring all but us hardcore nerds. Fortunately Damon’s enthusiasm for this film and his character allows him to keep even the most science averse people engaged.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian (2015) © 20th Century Fox.

While much of the science portrayed in the film (and book) is mostly accurate, you don’t want to get too technical in looking at the science as it would ruin the overall story. Many articles have appeared pointing out scientific flaws, however I can ignore technical inaccuracies in the cause of a good story.

Back on Earth Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), and a myriad of others, once they realise Watney is alive, start working on a plan to get him home. The film then follows Watney’s efforts to stay alive and NASA‘s efforts to save him.

Characters from The Martian (2015). Top row, left to right: Cmdr. Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara). Bottom row, left to right: Zhu Tao (Chen Shu), Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), Mark Watney (Matt Damon). © 20th Century Fox.

While the adaptation of the book is good, it’s by no means perfect. No film can hope to capture every element of a book, yet there were a couple of important elements of the book I feel Ridley Scott, and more importantly Drew Goddard the man who wrote the screenplay, failed to include. Ones that reduced Mars from taking on the antagonistic characteristics it should have. Inclusion of these points, I feel, would have been key in making a very good film truly great.

This is why I feel that viewers that haven’t read the book will enjoy The Martian more completely than those of us that have. This is probably true of any book adaptation, however, when events in both follow so closely together, the missing elements are keenly felt. At least they were by me.

Visually The Martian is stunning at times, with sweeping Martian landscapes and shots of the planet from space. While I know they aren’t really Martian vistas, the shots are convincing enough to make you think you’re more than 54 million kilometres away. In order to really feel the magnitude of isolation Watney is facing you really do need to see The Martian on a big screen. Waiting to see it on your television at home will rob you of some of that experience.

Mars should be the antagonist in The Martian (2015). Beautiful but extremely dangerous. © 20th Century Fox

There is only one point in the film that irritated me greatly. That was the needless name change of the director of Mars operations from Venkat Kapoor to Vincent Kapoor. That felt utterly needless and in many ways insulting. Again this is only because I have read the book.

Ridley Scott has been derided of late in many of his efforts and I will admit that I have been less than enamoured with his latest offerings. However, in The Martian, Ridley Scott has managed to bring together an excellent cast and story, putting together a film I believe most people will enjoy.

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