Mars is There, Waiting to Be Reached – Bringing it Home is the Problem

A poster for the film 'The Martian'. Source: Fox Movies

A poster for the film ‘The Martian’. Source: Fox Movies

If Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar took liberties with the laws of nature in space, The Martian brings the universe back down to earth. It’s storyline is more grounded in reality – proof that the drama of interplanetary space-exploration provides a director enough plot points to make a riveting film without resorting to the fancies of higher-dimension physics. Ridley Scott has had a tendency to improvise but not always in brilliant or successful ways, so he’s better off on The Martian’s count for having had Andy Weir on his side. It was Weir’s book, which he self-published in 2011, that really set the tone around the idea that we don’t need black holes to confront us with the unknown when surviving on Mars for 500 days will do the trick.

The fidelity of the film toward the book is its strongest suit. This is an important consideration because one of the most significant selling points for the book – as it will be for the movie – is the scientific accuracy. The Martian was released on Friday, less than a week after NASA announced it had found signs of liquid water on Mars. The timing is incredibly fortunate for both NASA and Scott: the film makes it easier for NASA to communicate the vagaries of space exploration and why progress has been so cautious, while Scott will score for having been able to cash in on public interest in Mars.

Although Drew Goddard loses just two marks for adapting the book into a very taut screenplay that retains the spirit of the original, there are some deviations in the science. The gist of the plot is that an astronaut is stranded on Mars and he must survive until NASA sends a rescue mission his way. In telling his story, most of the inconsistencies are inconsequential: the dust-storm that kicks the narrative off in the beginning is too dense for what we know to be a thin Martian atmosphere; the huge dark-grey cloud that descends out of nowhere on the edges of the screen during thoughtful soliloquies; there’s no reason why Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut, took almost a month to realise he could communicate with NASA by drawing stuff in the sand that satellites orbiting the planet could relay; and how groaning noises of metal grating against metal could be heard in space during the last few minutes of the film when that’s physically impossible (this is where Gravity scored with its silences).

The really consequential discrepancy, which both Weir and Goddard ignored in their scripts, is radiation. Mars doesn’t have radiation protection in the atmosphere like Earth does – let alone space. Weir seems to have skirted around this problem by implying that there’s something in the spacesuit’s material that blocks harmful radiation, but if he had delved into solving this problem the way he did the others, the book might’ve been longer – and the movie more fictitious – than what it is.

But credit must also go to the cinematography, whose biggest success in The Martian might have been to capture Watney’s aloneness – as opposed to plain old loneliness – on Mars. This is achieved by juxtaposing familiar objects against unfamiliar landscapes: think not so much the careful unwrapping in Avatar as much as the you’d-better-not-get-used-to-this in Moon (2009).

Yet, for a good screenplay, there are two counts on which Goddard disappoints. First, there is one obvious shortcoming you’d miss if you hadn’t read the book. For the most part, the book is epistolary – built around the stranded astronaut’s journal entries – and where it isn’t, it’s laden with subtextual narratives. The effect is for the reader to come away with a sense of tediousness interspersed with anxiety. And before you think this wouldn’t work in a movie, think 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s a lot of science and engineering that Watney does to stay alive but most of it required oodles of patience and conviction, which is missing in Matt Damon’s portrayal of Watney outside of stressful situations. This is too bad because in the book, Watney’s enviable optimism is defined by contrasting it against the tedium, while on every other count Damon pulls off Watney and his humour-in-the-face-of-adversity quite well. In fact, Scott and Goddard would have to share the blame on this – for not taking the mood far enough when they could have.

Another aspect of the film that’s a blemish on an otherwise good job has to do with one of the characters. Jeff Daniels as Teddy the Director of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mars missions chief Vincent Kapoor and Jessica Chastain as Mission Commander Melissa Lewis are perfect – all three wear their characters with a thoughtful dignity. Kristen Wiig as the agency’s PR chief is good, too. Where the depiction fails is with the role of Mitch Henderson, a NASA engineer to whom Commander Lewis and the crew report. In the book, Henderson is a feisty chap not afraid of sticking to his ground, taking risks, and simply doing what needs to be done. In Weir’s imagination, he drove the plot back on Earth, in NASA, by forcing Teddy’s hand and setting the story on its breathtaking crash course.

In the movie, Henderson is essayed by Hollywood’s favourite fall-guy, Sean Bean, who’s got more resignation wrought on his face than gumption. Spoiler alert: after the scene where he gets Commander Lewis and her crew to mutiny but is pulled up by Teddy for breach of procedure, Bean looks shifty and apologetic. In the book, Henderson’s giving Teddy the lowdown, which is more emotionally satisfying and likely closer to the truth for a man of Henderson’s character: a man given to taking risks with five astronauts on a half-planned rescue mission between the orbits of Earth and Mars. In fact, through all parts of the movie where NASA is involved, there’s not enough tension in the air, not enough of a clash of emotions, not enough sleeplessness.

Overall, The Martian would have to be a 3.5 on 5. It scores by sticking to the hard stuff about space and showing up the enterprise’s demands on human intelligence and fortitude, by not getting carried away with the engineering involved and not dumbing down the science-speak too much, and by getting Mark Watney safely home in a 140-minute ride that’s worth the painful scene of Damon stapling himself in the beginning. Where it loses is in not doing better to convey the ennui involved in sticking it out on Mars, by not pitting people on Earth against each other more, and by scripting Sean Bean’s Mitch Henderson to be more like the gullible Ned Stark from Game of Thrones than the roguishly valiant Boromir from The Lord of the Rings.