Updated: Same review but now with more science
In space no one can hear you scream. Not a bad thing if you have to listen to disco every day for a year.
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” says astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian, as he ponders his situation, which isn’t good at all. He’s stranded on Mars with not enough food, not enough water, and no way to tell NASA that he’s still alive.
And science the shit out of it is exactly what he does in Ridley Scott’s highly enjoyable adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel.
It’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars, or more accurately, it’s MacGuyver on Mars (Crusoe never had to come up with a way to make water). Watney has to improvise all sorts of physics, chemistry and botany (and yes, at one point, he even saves himself from certain death by using duct tape).
The science in The Martian is by all accounts accurate, with one exception:
Storms on Mars are never that severe.
I read and sort of enjoyed the novel. It’s a definite page-turner and I was drawn in by the problem-solving science in it and the can-do attitude of the protagonist. But at no point in the novel did I have any idea on what it feels like to be the only human on Mars. There are no existential asides, and Watney never falls into despair at his situation (other than having to listen to a lot of disco music, a recurring joke in the book that’s repeated in the film). Also, Watney is a smart-ass and not as funny as he thinks he is. And after finishing the novel I still didn’t really have a sense of what Mars is like (other than cold, desolate and unforgiving).
But that’s okay – it’s not that kind of book. Instead it’s a paean to science. It’s about never giving up. It’s about problem-solving, not navel-gazing. And in the context of real-life exploration of Space, it’s fitting. When the time comes to colonise Mars, we won’t be sending poets to do the job.
The film, though, does a much better job of making you feel how utterly terrifying and utterly weird Watney’s situation is, while still managing to be a humorous, exciting two-hour science lesson.
This is one of those rare times when the film is actually better than the book.
Watney does the math, and Math Damon (sorry) is very good in the role. He is one of our most relatable actors, getting by on his charm and his everyman qualities, as well as convincing you he probably can do all the things that Watney does.
Jason Bourne would probably do okay on Mars as well.
Unlike Castaway, which focused on Tom Hanks alone for almost its entire running time, The Martian cuts away from Damon and back to Earth frequently, as NASA desperately tries to work out a rescue plan in scenes reminiscent of Apollo 13. In these scenes The Jet Propulsion Lab in California gets equal billing with NASA, and it seems to be staffed entirely by plucky, eccentric boffins.
As for director Ridley Scott, his directorial touch is both light and humorous, and The Martian is his most satisfying film in years. After heavy, plodding work in Exodus, The Counsellor, and Prometheus, he seems to have got his groove back. This is the Scott of things like Matchstick Men and Thelma and Louise: breezy, assured, and in full control, and working with a strong, gripping plot. The two hours zips by.
Oh, and just so you know, it’s not based on a true story.
Verdict: Four Potatoes out of Five
all photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox
UPDATE: A new You Tube Channel, Science vs Cinema, examines the scientific accuracy of the movie.