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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Martian movie review: life on Mars

The Martian green light

An excellent complement to the novel, simplifying the science without dumbing it down yet retaining the suspense and urgency of its interplanetary stranding.
I’m “biast” (pro): mostly really like the cast and the director

I’m “biast” (con): love the book (and we all know the book is always better than the movie)

I have read the source material (and I love love love it)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Andy Weir’s novel The Martian is one of those very rare books that I almost literally could not put down. I mostly only have time to read during my relatively brief and nondaily commute, and even books I’m enjoying the hell out of will get put aside out of necessity — because I lack the time — for days or even a week if I don’t have the opportunity of otherwise-useless (ie, no wifi) time stuck on an underground train. But The Martian I couldn’t resist sneaking dips into when I should have been working. The last time a novel so compelled me to finish it asap was when I would find myself reading a paperback of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park — quickly tattered even though this was when the book was newly published back in 1990 — while actually walking down the street. Because I literally could not put it down.

Combine this with how much I love Ron Howard’s movie Apollo 13. Like The Martian, it is a story in which scientists are heroes and science — real, actual, authentic science, not pretend sci-fi technobabble, not that that’s not cool too — saves the day. Once I’d finished reading The Martian, I sold it to all my similarly minded geeky sciencey friends like this: You know that awesome scene in Apollo 13 where the NASA guys back in Houston have to make the square air filter fit in the slot made for a round air filter using nothing but bits and pieces of the stuff found on the little spaceship hurtling toward the moon? And they actually do it?! The Martian is like that, except that’s the entire story, one problem like that after another.

The really amazing thing about Ridley Scott’s (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counsellor) — and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s (World War Z, The Cabin in the Woods) — movie version of The Martian is that I’m pretty sure that it will be appealing and riveting and even exciting to those who aren’t particularly geeky or sciencey. (Kind of like Apollo 13 is.) Though you probably have to have an appreciation for Mars and maybe even a desire to see it with your own eyes, because the Martian movie makes you feel like You Are There, all alien vistas sorta reminiscent of planet Earth until suddenly the lack of breathable air tries to kill you, or it’s all just too rust-colored and too lacking in green everywhere. Can we please actually go to Mars for real now? Though hopefully we will plan for a contingency like the one faced by astronaut botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon [Interstellar, The Monuments Men], who is perfect here).

It sounds improbable to say that Watney is accidentally left behind when bad weather — yes, Mars has weather — forces an emergency abort of his little team’s mission and the immediate evacuation of their base. How the hell do you accidentally leave someone behind on Mars?! But it makes complete sense. And now Watney is stuck in a small hab with minimal water and food, nowhere near enough to survive until any rescue mission could possibly reach him, a year and a half away at the absolute quickest. And that would be only if he can figure out a way to communicate with Earth (that storm killed the base’s satellite dish, and there’s no cell service on Mars). As Watney explains in the video diaries he uses to document his survival (for however long that might be), which also allows him to explain what he’s doing for our benefit, he is gonna have to “science the shit outta this.” Which he does. He is those Apollo 13 air-filter guys… but there’s only one of him. He is MacGyver in space.

The urgency and loneliness of Watney’s predicament remains inescapably imperative even though a lot of the novel’s very nerdiest details — equations and the like — are not, of course, translated to the screen. They don’t need to be, because while this most definitely is a movie about how damn important science is, it’s also a movie about scientists as human, as real people, not robots. If there are no other warnings for real future space missions to be taken from The Martian, this one is vital: make sure there is a wide variety of music and entertainment available to the crew. One of The Martian’s running jokes is about how the mission’s commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain: Interstellar, Mama), is a big fan of 70s disco and sitcoms, and this all that Watney has to distract him in his solitude. Remember, folks: Astronauts are people, and they will bring their shitty music and TV into space with them. Please let’s ensure that, at a minimum, everyone gets to bring their own personal shitty stuff with them. (Though, I wonder: Did NASA learn any lessons from that square-air-filter, round-hole problem?)

We all know that the book is almost always better than the movie, but in this case, Scott’s Martian is an excellent complement to the novel. It simplifies the science (without dumbing it down), and while the movie is still gripping and suspenseful, it actually doesn’t include all of the dangers that Watney has to overcome. But it does feature one joke included in the book that is much funnier in the movie. It’s a Lord of the Rings reference that is meta-hilarious because onscreen, Sean Bean (aka Boromir, future king of Gondor), as one of the NASA honchos, is involved in it.

My one complaint about the movie: it whitewashes a NASA character back on Earth, Mindy Park, the person who uses satellite observation of Mars to discover that Watney is still alive, because who else has been moving stuff around outside the supposedly evacuated base? Though the book doesn’t specifically state this, I presumed while reading it that Park is Korean-American — Park is a very common Korean surname in the U.S. — and Weir has stated that this is what he intended Yet she is played by white actress Mackenzie Davis. (The rest of the amazing cast includes Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Benedict Wong.)

That’s a tiny quibble, though. I love this movie, and can’t wait to see it again. Hopefully in 3D IMAX, so I can feel even more like I am on Mars. Crazy, right? This movie is all about how Mars can kill you and in all likelihood will, and I still want to go.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Martian for its representation of girls and women.


green light 5 stars

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The Martian (2015)
US/Can release: Oct 02 2015
UK/Ire release: Sep 30 2015

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language, injury detail)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Owen1120

    So happy this movie is good- loved the book as well.

  • Bluejay

    *spoilers* Really enjoyed this movie, with one exception (below). I think it even improves on the book in one respect: where the book ends with Watney’s rescue and a sentimental statement about how the world comes together to help people in distress, the film instead flashes forward to Watney training a new generation of astronauts, telling them it’s just all about solving one problem after another, and then the credits play over scenes of further manned missions to Mars, suggesting a robust space exploration program. The film ends more on a note of “what’s next?” and challenges us to make that future real. I approve.

    My one complaint about the movie: it whitewashes a NASA character back on Earth, Mindy Park

    It also casts Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role that was originally South Asian in the book; instead of Venkat Kapoor, he’s “Vincent” Kapoor. Which is puzzling; it doesn’t seem as if Ridley Scott is completely averse to casting Asians, since the director of JPL is still Asian in the movie, plus the scientists from the Chinese space agency. So was he just concerned that there would be too many Asians in the movie? (That is, if three significant — and two supporting — Asian roles could be considered “too many” — whatever that means — in a film with a white lead and at least seven other significant white characters.) I see no reason — not even the bogus “star power” or “best person for the job” reasons usually offered — to cast Ejiofor and Davis in Asian roles, which ends up depriving talented Asian actors of opportunities and once again needlessly erases Asian faces from the screen.

    So boo on the film for that. (Yay for everything else.)

  • Bluejay

    It’s a Lord of the Rings reference that is meta-hilarious because onscreen, Sean Bean (aka Boromir, future king of Gondor), as one of the NASA honchos, is involved in it.

    That was brilliant. I was half-hoping Bean would rub his forehead and intone, “One does not simply mount a rescue mission to Mars.”

  • Hank Graham

    I feel I should step in to defend Scott about Ejiofor. Apparently, the role was to have been played by a Bollywood actor who had to pull out at the last minute, only a few days before they started the shoot. Ejiofor was who they could find in those few days to play the part.

    I know nothing of how Davis got cast, but in the case of Ejiofor playing Kapoor, I don’t think Scott should get harried about it.

  • Bluejay

    I suppose “last-minute replacement” is a better excuse, although I wonder how much effort they put into the search. Surely there isn’t just one Bollywood actor (or British or American actor of Indian descent, for that matter) who could’ve made himself available for a Ridley Scott film.

  • Christine

    Would you guys recommend that I read the book before watching the movie? I’d like to, but I’m not sure if it will still be in theaters by the time I get to the front of the library hold list (currently at #156…)

    Your description of the Apollo 13 air filter scene has got me excited, MaryAnn. I always loved that scene – as an engineer, I love seeing real science/engineering save the day. We need more of that. I liked Interstellar for that reason too, although it’s on the sci-fi technobabble side.

  • Bluejay

    I think the movie stands on its own, but the book is a terrific read, with lots of stuff you’d appreciate as an engineer. If you have the budget for it, the paperback and e-book versions are just $9 on Amazon.

  • Danielm80

    I hate the change in race. We see so few Indian actors in American films that this was a huge missed opportunity. But Chiwetel Ejiiofor’s performance is so expressive that it almost redeems the decision. I felt as though I could actually see what he was thinking just by looking at the expression in his eyes or the movement of a vein in his forehead. And what he was thinking seemed much more complex than the words written in the screenplay. He gave the character a level of depth that’s rare for any actor, of any race.

    Sadly, I can’t say the same thing about Mackenzie Davis. There are a number of Asian-American actresses I’d rather have seen in the role.

  • The Ejiofor casting isn’t great (except, you know, he’s Ejiofor), but at least they didn’t replace the Bollywood actor with a white actor.

  • *** MINOR SPOILER ***

    You can almost see Bean itching to saying, “I should know what the Council of Elrond is. I was there.”

  • I think it would perfectly fine to see the movie first and read the book after. You’ll still get plenty of surprises in the book!

  • Bluejay

    Yay… progress? :-/

    It would be nice if an Asian actor could play a character who was written as Asian. There are so few of those opportunities.

  • Bluejay
  • Kathy_A

    FYI, MaryAnn, Boromir would never have been king of Gondor, just the steward.

  • Kathy_A

    There’s an excellent interview of Andy Weir (the book’s author) done by Adam Savage of Mythbusters on the Tested YouTube channel (I can’t link to YouTube here, but just search for “Adam Savage Andy Weir Tested” on YT). It was done after Adam read the book and while the film was being made. In it, they both geek out over the Apollo 13 filter scene–Adam calls it possibly his favorite moment of cinema ever.

    In the book, Weir does have NASA learn from that filter debacle by making all of the filters, hoses, and just about everything possible standard across all of the equipment made for the ARES missions.

  • Don’t tell Boromir that.

  • Wish it said *why* the exec wanted to save that scene…

  • I do seem to recall something about standard equip in the book. But I was wondering about the real NASA today…

  • Kathy_A

    For those interested in the book, I can also recommend the audiobook. The actor who reads it is fantastic, including doing all of the voices pretty well, including the various international accents. His interpretation of Venkat’s voice is particularly good, IMO.

  • Hallah

    True, but there aren’t an abundance of black actors playing NASA-types in the movies, either.

  • Bluejay

    I support black actors being more visible in these kinds of roles. Surely there’s a way to do it without taking roles away from other minority actors who could also use more visibility.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, they did once build a space shuttle (Endeavor, I think) entirely from spare parts. But that’s not quite the same thing.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Please let’s ensure that, at a minimum, everyone gets to bring their own personal shitty stuff with them.

    Is this explained in the book? If the movie mentioned it, I missed it. But he had access to at least three crewmember’s laptops. Surely one of them had something worth listening to.

  • Kathy_A

    IIRC, Johannson had the Agatha Christie books, but I can’t remember if Beck or Martinez had brought anything. I’m guessing that Vogel’s stuff was all in German.

  • Yes, in the book it is explained that everyone had a certain weight allowance for personal items. Lewis’s was all music and sitcoms (presumably the weight coming in the form of a hard drive). Martinez’s was a small wooden Christian cross that comes in handy at one point.

    I guess we can figure that on their Earth-Mars ship, there were more entertainment options. I can’t recall if the book had the weight limit just as a thing for the Mars landing, but that would make the most sense. (Computer storage is cheap and light and shouldn’t be as much of an issue on the interplanetary ship.)

  • Martinez had the wooden cross, which becomes essential to Watney’s survival.

  • clayjohanson

    “You know that awesome scene in Apollo 13 where the NASA guys back in Houston have to make the square air filter fit in the slot made for a round air filter using nothing but bits and pieces of the stuff found on the little spaceship hurtling toward the moon? And they actually do it?! The Martian is like that, except that’s the entire story, one problem like that after another.”

    https://xkcd.com/1536/

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Hmm, that’s an awfully far stretch in service of a cheap joke. Computer storage is more than just “light”. It’s practically weightless. A modern 32 gb micro SD card can hold a days worth of low resolution video, 15 days of music, or about 10,000 books, and weighs less than a gram. They could all bring their own for way less than the daily variations of one crew members body weight

  • Owen1120

    Also, Andy Weir has seen every classic and modern Doctor Who.

  • LA Julian

    Because there are no South Asian actors in England, where Indian and Pakistani family names are more common than Saxon ones in large parts of London….right! I’d almost believe that there are none willing to work with Scott because of his racism, but I can’t think that any South Asian actor, so often relegated to a role as a hospital porter or cabbie or terrorist, would turn down a major film role out of pique.

  • Nice!

  • sharon1026

    I haven’t read the book, but saw the movie today in 3D. I loved it! By the time it was over though, I was exhausted! There was one stomach clenching scene after another and the finale was a jaw clincher.
    All in all, a really wonderful ride of a movie.

  • Thera Pitts

    This was a great companion to the book, which I loved, but left me with a need for a visual reference to go with a lot of it. There were moments where I found myself going, “oh, that’s what that’s supposed to look like.”

  • Thera Pitts

    There is a possibility that the right people just didn’t know that Mindy was supposed to be Asian until it was all said and done, since she wasn’t a big character and it wasn’t referenced in the book aside from the name (which sounds like it could be a Caucasian surname, although it rarely is). Still seems like a pretty big oversight to me.

  • Bluejay

    which sounds like it could be a Caucasian surname, although it rarely is

    That’s the thing. There *are* Caucasian Parks, but a LOT more Korean Parks. It should have been a big signal about the probably ethnicity of the character, the same way “Chung” or “Patel” or “O’Shaughnessy” would have been. It speaks to a lack of cultural awareness on the part of the casting director, seems to me.

  • Danielm80

    One of the “right people” would presumably be the casting director, and it would be a basic job requirement to know the race of the character…unless the director made a deliberate decision to go in a different direction.

  • Yeah, but that’s the problem in a nutshell: presumed whiteness unless proven otherwise. White is not the default for humanity, just as male is not the default for humanity.

  • Thera Pitts

    I’ve been annoyed by Hollywood’s “white is the default” attitude for some time.

  • Thera Pitts

    Didn’t say it was okay for them to not be aware of that (it isn’t), just that it’s a possibility they weren’t.

  • Danielm80

    And I’m saying that if you’re a casting director and you don’t know the character’s race, you should be fired.

  • Thera Pitts

    Agreed

  • Me too. For some weird reason, as much as I tried when I read the book, I had a hard time imagining daytime on Mars. It’s space, it should be dark all the time, right?

  • Bluejay

    Since Mars does have a thin atmosphere (as well as dust) to scatter sunlight, the sky does have some color instead of just being space-black all the time. Mars gets reddish daytime skies and bluish sunsets (this one is pretty).

  • But the surface of Mars is not “space”! :-)

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