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.