I know this is a film review, but in this particular case, I’m going to start off with the film’s source material. The Martian is a fantastic book! It is funny, engaging, at time intense and emotional, and most of all, it is geeky. It is possibly even better as an audiobook, and audible have a great version that I listened to in the run-up to the film’s release – if you haven’t listened to it yet, you should seriously try it!
So as you can tell, I am a fan, and because of that, I came to the film with both anticipation and apprehension. It is the sort of book that, on the surface, seems eminently filmable, but on reflection, is actually a lot trickier. That’s because of its overwhelming focus on the main protagonist and essentially his diary, but with some brief EVAs onto Earth and the Hermes spaceship. There is also the fact that trying to develop what ends up being a near 400 page book/11 hour audiobook into a 2-3 hour film would mean cutting some corners, and if recent series like Harry Potter, Hunger Games and the Hobbit, that isn’t always good thing.
My concerns were raised when I discovered who was helming the film. Directed by Ridley Scott is a phrase which in previous years would’ve got many a person giddy with excitement. But, like many of the notable directors of the 1980s, recent offerings have been rather more miss than hit – Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Robin Hood (2010) and The Counselor (2013) in particular come to mind. Even his last journey into space with Prometheus wasn’t exactly a resounding success, although I will admit that while it is a way off the level of Alien and Gladiator, I do actually quite like it.
But were my concerns misplaced…? Well, if you want to know that please keep reading below. I have tried to avoid spoilers where possible, but, as ever, there will inevitably be some, so if you don’t want to know anything about the film before watching, it’s probably best to hit the pause button here and come back once you’ve been to the cinema.
Well, the main premise for The Martian is remarkably simple – Ares III Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and is trying to survive until the next scheduled mission, Ares IV arrives in four-five years. That may seem rather dull, but it really isn’t, and here is the official trailer to prove it:
There’s not much more to add to the trailer without giving away some major spoilers so…
Well, there is good news, and there is bad news…
The good news…
The first thing I want to say is that, despite my initial misgivings, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a good film which manages to capture most, if not all the key plot points in Weir’s excellent book.
Matt Damon puts in a good performance, and for the most part, the film takes care to keep check of the little details, like Damon’s weight and muscle loss at the film progresses. Honestly, they have probably made the best film they could from the source material, while still engaging with a wider audience who haven’t read the books.
The Martian features some fantastic visuals and epic vistas. The landscape of Mars is shot brilliantly, providing some stunning images and really emphasising the alien yet familiar nature of the world.
The film manages to maintain the book’s funnier moments and some of its scientific geekery, without necessarily overloading a non-geek with so much that it is off-putting. While there are some tweaks to moments I found particularly funny in the book, most, if not all of the key scenes I wanted are here and, most importantly, done well.
It is also quite cleverly shot with a focus being on Watney’s video logs, but thankfully not exclusively done through this. While it probably would’ve made it more true to the book, it would also have come across like just another second-rate found footage film. Instead Scott employs the video logs as the means through which Watney can engage with the audience, switching between video log footage and normal footage regularly. It makes for a more effective story-telling device than simply relying on one or the other, and goes some way to emphasise some of the isolation Watney is experiencing. It feel at times that we, the audience, are the people Watney is talking to, but without it ever feeling forced or disingenuous.
…the bad news
As for the bad, well The Martian doesn’t quite hold to full story of the book, which was slightly disappointing. Once again the screenwriters decided to change things, seemingly at random or to make something more of a spectacle. I can understand the need to edit some things out, if only to save time, but I felt that the changes detracted rather than enhanced the story – but that is only going to be relevant for book readers.
Matt Damon aside, I struggled to really connect with a lot of the other characters. I think part of that comes from having far too many bigger names in the film to make it flow with the same ease that it does when Damon is on screen. While most probably aren’t quite A-list stars, I think some even lesser known faces would’ve been welcomed to bring a little more cohesion. Instead it seemed that people like Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig were simply dropping in for cameos while the rest of the film progressed around them. Even the likes of Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Chiwetel Ejiofor struggled to generate any chemistry or drive in the film, which was disappointing, especially when we’ve seen just how good they can be when they’re on fire.
The other, and possibly the worst, issue I had with the film is that it didn’t quite convey the same sense of isolation and aloneness as other films of a similar basis like Castaway, or even the book it is based upon. Instead the film dips in and out of this in a way which doesn’t quite have the same impact as it does in the book. I suspect this is mostly because of the fact that we see much of this in the book through the eyes and mind of the lead, which is something that is very difficult to portray in a film, but it has been done before so it is possible.
With all that said, however, I really cannot stress enough how relatively minor those issues are to the overall film. They may be enough to prevent The Martian from being an all-time classic, but it is still a very good film.
The Martian hits just enough moments of levity and sympathy, without even descending too far down either route. There was a palpable tension in the cinema during some of the more dramatic scenes, and even as someone who know the story, I was swept along with the anxiety and nervousness. It is an interesting, funny, and generally very good film and probably the best on-screen adaptation that could’ve been done of an excellent book.