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Movie Review: The Martian [Contains Spoilers]

(image: 20th Century Fox)

(image: 20th Century Fox)

Ever since I finished Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, I’ve been waiting anxiously for the movie adaptation. The book seems tailor-made for the film treatment: straightforward plot, engaging characters, exciting story. The only hesitation I felt was in regards to the vast majority of the book that takes place in stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s head, via his mission logs. Would a movie be able to capture the workings of that brilliant but irreverent mind without lots of montage/voiceover? I’m pleased to answer yes to that question, thanks to clever use of cameras, Matt Damon’s performance, and some brilliant editing.

But what of the rest of the movie? Ridley Scott visually creates Weir’s “lived-in” Mars beautifully, and a world emerges where Mars missions have become as normal as ISS resupply missions are today. Matt Damon’s Mark Watney and his five crewmates are part of the Ares 3 Mars mission, charged with landing on Mars, living there for 31 Sols (A Sol is a Martian day) and studying/taking samples. Unfortunately for the Ares 3 crew, a brutal sandstorm causes them to abort the mission and evacuate the planet. In the process, Watney is struck by debris and left for dead. Except (spoiler!) he’s not. The movie then becomes a survival story for Mark, and a desperate, beyond-all-odds rescue attempt begins on Earth.
I’ve heard the book (and now, movie) described as a treat for “people who loved that one scene in Apollo 13 where the NASA scientists have to figure out how to jerry-rig the CO2 filter, but wanted more of that” (and there’s a relevant XKCD, of course). Full disclosure: that was my favorite scene in Apollo 13, so this movie was right up my alley. Watney’s problem-solving on Mars is engaging, NASA’s problem-solving on Earth is tense but rewarding, and the brilliant cast delivers on every level.
Jessica Chastain was perfectly cast as Ares 3’s Commander Melissa Lewis, Kate Mara delivers understated perfection as sysop/computer specialist Beth Johanssen, and Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie portray the rest of the crew admirably. They don’t get a lot of screen time, but they infuse what they do get with enough of the characters that we get who they are and how they interact with each other; these aren’t cardboard cutout placeholders.
That’s not even mentioning the heavyweights in the cast on Earth: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor shines as the director of Mars missions, fiercely invested in the rescue mission. Jeff Daniels is wonderful as Teddy Sanders, NASA administrator who gives the tough press conferences and makes the high-stakes decisions. My personal favorite surprises were Mackenzie Davis as Mindy Park and Donald Glover as Rich Purnell. To say more about their individual character arcs would be to spoil too much, unfortunately.
There are some changes from the book, of course, this being an adaptation. Most of the changes and cuts I was fine with, with a couple of exceptions. In the book, Mark Watney encounters near-constant setbacks and problems he must solve with his own ingenuity. A couple of these are translated masterfully to film, but I felt there could have been at least one more in the movie. His Martian excursion begins to feel almost routine, rather than surviving by the skin of his teeth and the speed of his brain. The biggest change comes in the ending. Not in what happens, but in how it is executed. Spoilers ahead!
In the book as well as the movie, the crew returns for Watney in the Hermes, their spacecraft that makes the round-trip from Earth to Mars for each mission. Watney, meanwhile, launches from the future Ares 4 landing site in their escape vehicle that has been sent ahead to prepare for that mission. The goal is for the Hermes to intercept Watney, but things happen and their intercept course needs to be adjusted drastically. So far, so good. Commander Lewis makes a bold call to blow the nose off the ship to decelerate them so their relative velocity to Watney will be low enough to catch him, and then (in the book) Beck successfully spacewalks out to Watney and retrieves him with Vogel’s help. In the movie, Lewis decides to go out and get Watney herself (the implication being that her guilt at leaving him behind on Mars is driving her to make sure she gets him back) but the tether isn’t long enough. So Watney executes his own plan (which is mentioned in the book but nixed by Lewis) to get out and up to her.
Ultimately, I think the movie decided to sacrifice a bit of character integrity for dramatic license, but on the whole, I enjoyed it enough to recommend enthusiastically.

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