As a voracious reader I try to give every translation from page to screen a fair shake; the Hollywood process differs so greatly from publishing it’s required elements be changed. By that same token, I tend to temper my excitement, as too often parts I love from the source material never leap to the film. When I can still react with surprise, despite knowing the plot, then a movie has truly adapted and transcended its source material. And thus we come to Ridley Scott’s translation of The Martian. With the help of screenwriter Drew Goddard, author Andy Weir’s scientific examination of a man trapped on Mars presents a hilarious portrait of humanity and optimism without devolving into effusiveness. If there’s life on Mars, as David Bowie once posited, we can only hope it’s Mark Watney approved.
Accidentally left on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) must figure out how to survive with limited resources until another shuttle comes in four years. When NASA discovers Watney is alive, it is up to them to figure out how to bring him home before his supplies run out.
Reading Andy Weir’s The Martian is a fun experience, albeit hampered by his incredibly technical writing. Goddard, predominately known for writing the horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods, ably translates the text while never removing it entirely. Because Mark Watney tells us everything, the script deftly allows him to show off his scientific prowess while eliminating pretentiousness. No matter how the words are changed, Goddard never removes Weir’s central thesis – Mark Watney “is not gonna die here [Mars].”
The Martian is a tale of survival at its heart, and that’s often a genre filled with its own inherent complications and praises. We’re given a central protagonist we want to see survive the impossible, whether it’s Sandra Bullock in space (although there’s no scene where her and Damon wave to each other) or Tom Hanks stranded on an island. The central conflict is universal and therefore the stakes are already established, it’s just the distance that’s extrapolated and you can’t get further away than Mars. The set design and Mars landscape is fantastic, on par with the planetary environments of last year’s Interstellar. Yes, the recent discovery of water on Mars isn’t touched on here, but watching Damon traverse the deserts of the red planet is stark and lovely in its desolation. (Shocking still is the fact Mars is actually the Earth bound country of Jordan.)
Despite sticking his foot in his mouth over the last two weeks, Matt Damon is the perfect everyman for this role. Much like the aforementioned Hanks and Bullock, Damon captures Watney’s positivity without being overly earnest. He knows his situation is dire, but has to remain positive in order to give himself hope. For Watney, he’s on his own and if he doesn’t believe in his own success, he’s doomed. Much like the novel, the film eschews turning Watney into a mope, and while it’s hard fathoming he wouldn’t be depressed for more than a few hours, his constant planning always comes from an authentic place.
Damon also excels at Goddard’s humorous lines which embody the phrase “it’s the little things.” Instead of devolving into a mess of tears, like I would, his can-do attitude allows him to be disappointed by the little things, like ketchup – “It’s been seven days since I ran out of ketchup” – or his abhorrence of disco music. There’s been comparisons between this and Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E which is apropos. If you really needed a human embodiment of the little robot, you can’t do worse than Matt Damon.
The rest of the cast is equally stellar (pun quasi-intended). The crew make-up is probably the biggest change from the source material outside of a third act solar storm in the novel that’s never utilized on-film, probably due to pacing. Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis gets a huge boost from book to screen, taking an active role in the third act that gives her some great redemption and character building. Lewis’ guilt at leaving Watney behind is illustrated by word and deed throughout. (There’s also a beautifully laid out moment of the crew reclining in a star pattern with Watney’s chair empty.) Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie round out the crew, and the film enhances their characterization through subtle set dressings like pictures.
Equally talented is the NASA ground crew. Chiwetel Ejiofer, Donald Glover, and Jeff Daniels make the most of their time, particularly the flighty Glover as Mitch Purnell. Kristen Wiig’s Annie Montrose, NASA’s PR rep, sadly is significantly toned down from the novel. Much of the character’s humor came through her sailor’s mouth, so I expected much of her dialogue to get tamped for the PG-13 rating, but she’s too often a character others utilize as opposed to a character creating anything herself. Oddly enough, the film mutes Damon’s two uses of the F-word, as well as self-censoring his communications. It’s very jarring to see, reminiscent of the weird TV editing techniques Live Free or Die Hard was criticized about. It wouldn’t be so irksome if the scenes weren’t so blatantly using it.
Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, expect this film’s 1970s inflected soundtrack to get praise. Any film that’s going to use The O’Jay’s “Love Train” gets an automatic boost to four star status.
There’s been discussion about whether The Martian is “too commercial,” ie fun, to garner awards attention. The Martian gets the audience to feel something, whether it’s fear for Watney’s safety or tears at his optimism, and some of the most enduring awards contenders have achieved that. Equal parts funny and touching, The Martian engages on all cylinders!