Earlier this year, I read The Martian by Andy Weir, and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it the way most peopled seemed to. Which, honestly, kind of feels like my personal theme for 2015, much to my annoyance. I’m totally okay loving an It-book; like, despite the name of this blog, I’m not actively looking to disagree with my fellow nerds. It just seems to keep happening to me.
Still, I was really excited to see this movie because I felt like a lot of the problems I had with the story wouldn’t actually be applicable to the film itself, and I was excited to see if this was the rare — nay, the first — film that I enjoyed more than the book when I’d read the book first. Up until last week, that had never happened.
But now it has because I thought The Martian was a pretty solid film.
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars after his crew understandably assumes he’s dead. Now it’s up to Watney to figure out a way to stretch his extremely limited resources and figure out how to survive long enough to be rescued.
1. First, before we get into the review proper, I’d like to say that flu shots are mandatory at my job, unless you want to wear a surgical mask all winter. I didn’t particularly wanna do that — it would clash horribly with my Converse, not to mention my red cloche — so I got my flu shot like a good little employee and received my free movie ticket as bribed goods/cinematic incentive. Said movie ticket bought me my entry into The Martian, so thanks flu shot! I will still probably get the flu at some point, knowing my luck, but you saved me $7.75!
2. Also, it’s actually been a few weeks since I saw The Martian, so I’m probably going to forget stuff. I’ve been pretty busy finishing up some last minute writing things, so I’ve been kind of neglecting the poor blog. (See last week, where I wrote not a godamn thing.) But if I drag my lazy ass out of my apartment to see a movie, then I better damn well write something about it. So.
The Martian isn’t quite the adrenaline thrill ride I was expecting it to be. Despite some similarity in situation and theme, this isn’t exactly the same type of edge-of-your-seat experience that Gravity was. That’s not actually a complaint or compliment, just something I noticed throughout: The Martian is really a long series of tasks and jokes, occasionally punctuated by something going horribly wrong. I feel like a lot more went wrong in the book, like, shit seemed to break down every other page, which really, was part of the fun. (Kind of like watching all the many technology fails in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Moral of that story: your gear will inevitably try to kill you.)
Ultimately, though, I feel like dialing back on some of the disasters was a smart call, kept the movie from feeling cheap and overstuffed. At the same time, though, I didn’t quite leave the theater with the pumped sort of adrenaline that I was hoping for. There’s something about the ending that felt off to me; unfortunately, I still haven’t quite put my finger on what the hell it is. I’m sort of hoping I’ll figure it out as I write. (No promises.) As it stands, I really enjoyed this movie, but there’s something about it that’s not quite making it a solid A-grade film for me.
3. Still, I did feel the movie made some significant improvements over the original novel. One of them? Character interiority.
Matt Damon isn’t too popular in certain circles right now, but he gives a pretty great performance as Mark Watney. In the book, Watney is cheerful to a fault. He’s upbeat, sarcastic, and almost insanely optimistic — which is actually one of the things I really enjoyed — but for a book that’s mostly told in the first person, I don’t feel that Watney shows much in the way of interiority, and that bothered me a bit. I mean, the guy is grappling with some serious shit. I’m all for optimism, but there were times when Watney’s near-total lack of introspection made the character feel less realistic to me.
In the film, though, Damon manages to give Watney some much needed emotional depth while never abandoning the character’s distinct personality. The movie doesn’t rest quite as solely on his performance as, say, Gravity rests on Sandra Bullock’s, but it’s fair to say that Damon’s carrying the lion’s share of the weight, and he handles it well. There may or may not be a moment in this movie where he made me cry, the total bastard.
4. The supporting cast is also excellent, although we should probably at least mention the casting choices of Mackenzie Davis and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Both actors give strong performances in this movie (I was particularly pleased with Davis, who manages to do quite a lot with a fairly small role), but — as you are all probably aware by now — their casting was controversial because their characters were different ethnicities in the book: Vincent Kapoor is Indian and Mindy Park is Korean.
I’m not sure how much I have to add to the discussion, nor am I sure how much my opinion really matters here, as a white person. (If you haven’t read it yet, you should definitely check out Aziz Ansari’s essay on race and Hollywood. The Martian is touched on; also, Short Circuit 2, and Ansari’s own new show, Master of None.) But since it is my blog and saying stuff is kind of what I do here, here’s what I got: as someone who’s lucky enough to have more than adequate representation in Hollywood, I found that Ejiofor’s casting personally bothered me less than Davis’s because at least he isn’t white. And I know that’s problematic because that suggests that PoC are just interchangeable, which is bullshit. And yet. It still bothers me less. Also, neither bother me nearly as much as, say, Gods of Egypt, which — according to a brief scan on IMDb — appears to have a whole one black actor in it, despite the fact that the movie is about, like, GODS OF EGYPT.
Okay, guys. Good to see we’ve learned absolutely nothing in the past century.
5. Other great supporting players: Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, and Benedict Wong.
I really enjoyed Chastain and Wong in particular. She’s so competent and awesome — I would totally watch a spinoff movie about Commander Lewis’s NASA adventures, set to the Greatest Hits of Disco — and Wong’s just delightful, funny as all hell. A great supporting cast can make all the difference in a movie, and The Martian has an outstanding supporting cast.
6. Speaking of disco, man. This movie just nailed their soundtrack.
We’ve got David Bowie, ABBA, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Gloria Estefan, etc. Estefan probably made me laugh the hardest, partially because of the moment Mark refuses to turn the beat around, and partially because I listened to a lot of Gloria Estefan as a kid. In fact, I’m listening to her right now, for old’s time sake. Man, it’s been a long time since I heard “Conga.”
I love it when soundtracks are as pitch perfect as this. It’s not only accurate to the source material; it also just nails the story’s upbeat, optimistic tone. Like a great supporting cast, a great soundtrack can make all the difference in a movie, and I had this one stuck in my head for days.
7. And some of the cinematography in this film is just gorgeous.
There’s one shot near the end of the movie with Watney and a bunch ribbon that’s really damn pretty. Also, some pretty breathtaking views of Mars. I could definitely see this being a spectacular movie to watch on IMAX, except that I’ve discovered I’m just too lazy to go all the way to San Francisco to see a movie I could just catch in a regular theater five minutes away.
My point is, Ridley Scott, you have mildly redeemed yourself from Prometheus. MILDLY.
8. The Martian (the book) is chockfull of science. Like, so much science. There’s basically technobabble falling out of Mark Watney’s ass. (Actually, that’s almost literal. The science of shit does play a significant role.) I am decidedly not a technobabble person, but one of the things that I think Andy Weir does really well in his novel is to make the majority of the science interesting, or at least comprehensible, to the the layman who only went as far as biology in high school and generally prefers to read about ghosts and monsters to physics and duct tape.
For the most part, I think the movie handled the science pretty well too. Like I said before, The Martian often feels like a series of tasks and jokes, so in a way, the whole structure of the story is Mark narrating a 2h, 22min step-by-step list of shit to get done. Frankly, it’s amazing that the film isn’t dull as hell, particularly since the story has no real antagonist, only an objective: survival. But it’s worth mentioning, too, that I was pretty aware of that structure while I was watching the film, that as well-crafted as The Martian is, I rarely got fully lost in the story. It’s not really slow, but there’s something about the pacing that feels just a little off to me, at least on the first viewing.
9. Here’s one thing I don’t mind spoiling for you even a little — cause, really, it’s not a spoiler, just a relief — that infuriating part in the trailer where it looks like Watney has a wife and kid waiting for him at home, even though they don’t exist in the book? Totally a misdirect, and I’ve never been happier. Honestly, that was one of my favorite things about reading The Martian, that Watney has parents praying for his return, instead of the oh-so-typical wife and child. Good on you, movie.
10. Finally — and this is deeply important — at one point we see Naked Matt Damon Butt.
[Pic of Matt Damon Butt OR Stunt Double Butt not available. Think of the children, for God’s sake.]
The funny thing about this: we’re supposed to be focusing in on how skinny Matt Damon is because, at this point, he hasn’t had much to eat in a long time. However, for some reason, his weight loss went right over my head — maybe because I’d been specifically looking for it in his face, like Mockingjay, Part I, CGI style — so I was mostly like “. . . uh, why are we looking at Matt Damon butt again? This feels, like, random.”
Pretty much everything else I want to say includes Spoilers, so if you’ve already seen the movie, read the book, or otherwise fear not what ye may learn, continue on below.
First, the part where Matt Damon blows himself up is pretty great. Also, the moment where he has an emotional breakdown during launch. Ugh. That totally got me. Curse you, Damon.
Now, let’s move on with what I assume is an unpopular opinion: even in the book, I kind of felt sorry for Teddy (Jeff Daniels).
Teddy is the director of NASA, and as portrayed by Daniels, he comes off as a bit arrogant, cowardly, and just generally slimy overall, more concerned with PR than actual lives. I feel like this is how I was supposed to read him as well, so the performance isn’t inaccurate, but . . . he’s faced with this decision, right, about whether to risk the lives of the other five astronauts for the chance of saving one, and personally, I think it’s a much harder call than the story wants to pretend. I feel like Teddy is almost a stand-in antagonist for the story, and I kind of wish he wasn’t because the ethics here are interesting, and it wouldn’t be that hard to see his side of things, particularly if the rescue mission had failed and the astronauts had died.
Luckily, this is optimistic, not nihilistic, SF, so the mission is a success and nobody bites the big one. I was definitely relieved, especially when Ridley Scott (or possibly Drew Goddard) changed it so that Commander Lewis ended up being the one to grab Mark out in space instead of Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan). I gotta admit, I was worried for that lady, and I was fully prepared to be annoyed on her behalf if she died rescuing Watney.
Also: I find that I have mixed feelings about substituting Lewis for Beck. On one hand, Lewis saving Watney feels thematically consistent with her refusal to leave anyone else behind, and also, I like Jessica Chastain. On the other hand, it feels less practically consistent given Lewis’s role as Mission Commander on the ship, not to mention it’s pretty much the only thing Beck really contributes to the story.
They also deleted the majority of Beck’s romance with Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), which I totally understood, given the time constraints . . . but that ends up making Beth giving birth during the end credits feel hella weird and thrown in. Like, I know there’s a time jump, and the two did have that one “appropriate sparks are flying; someone cue the power ballad” moment on the ship, but like, it’s still maybe two seconds in the whole movie? Perhaps the next step we should see in their relationship is a date or something? It’s just so quintessentially cliche Hollywood: we don’t have to tell you a love story. We’re just gonna give you a guy, a girl, a Look, and a baby. Happy ending, motherfuckers.
And even now, there’s something about the whole ending that’s just not sitting right with me, but for the life of me, I still don’t know what it is. I’ll have to rewatch the movie at some point and see if I feel the same, but maybe the last five minutes just feel . . . unnecessary? I’m wondering if the movie might have been a touch stronger if it just ended with the team in space, on their way back to Earth.
After all, I’m pretty sure they were going to make it. Presuming they still have duct tape, that is.
Mark Watney: “I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the greatest botanist on this planet.”
Mark Watney: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”
Mark Watney: “Technically, Mars is international waters, meaning Maritime Law applies. And since I am illegally commandeering a vessel in international water under maritime law, that makes me a pirate. Mark Watney: Space Pirate.”
Mark Watney: “Fuck you, Mars.”
Mark Watney: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
Mark Watney: “If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab beaches, I’ll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So, yeah.”
Mark Watney: “I’m not gonna die here.”
Mark Watney: “I am dipping this potato in crushed up Vicodin. And no one can stop me.”
Mark Watney: “Of course I’m going to be the fastest man to ever travel in space, because they’re sending me up in a convertible.”
Mark Watney: “No, I will not ‘turn the beat around’.”
Annie Montrose: “I’m sorry, but you have not thought this through. I mean, what are we gonna say, “Dear America, remember that astronaut we killed and had a really nice funeral for? Turns out he’s alive and we left him on Mars, our bad. Sincerely, NASA”.”
Solid film. Takes tricky, dense source material and makes it work. Great acting. Great soundtrack. Doesn’t necessarily leave a huge lasting impression, though, and something about that ending still feels off to me.
Carry duct tape with you everywhere, cause that shit will save your life. Also, science.