Saturday, 28 May 2016

film review: The Martian

This is the film of the book, and is a sufficiently faithful version that I’m going to quote my book review where appropriate.

The third Mars mission has had to evacuate and return home because of a dangerously strong storm. Due to a freak accident, Mark Watney [Matt Damon] is left for dead. But he’s not dead. And now he’s alone on Mars, without enough food, air, or energy to last the several years it would take rescue to arrive. Not that he can call for help. So, as he says, he’s "gonna have to science the shit out of this".

Actually, I disapprove of that phrase. In reality, he’s gonna have to engineer the shit out of this. Which he proceeds to do.

Watney is competent and resourceful, and he does have resources to be resourceful with: all the equipment the crew left behind when they abandoned Mars. Mars keeps throwing problems at him, and he keeps figuring out solutions, knowing that the first problem he can’t solve will kill him for sure.

The film is great. It departs from the book in necessary ways: many subplots are removed, reducing the complexity, but keeping the overall story. They also cut my favourite joke, about Mexican food, but there’s loads of snappy repartee. The cuts make Watney’s task seem easier and more linear, and the sheer duration seems compressed, but he still has to struggle, growing his food, making his water, making his air, transporting himself, coping with being alone. And he’s not the only one who is competent: everyone is competent. Even the earth-bound NASA bureaucrats are competent. Even when they make seemingly poor decisions, it’s for what they think are the right reasons, to protect the overall vision, or the returning crew, or something larger than themselves. Okay, this is a massive helping of competence porn, but, hey, it makes such a refreshing change from the standard “let’s have the character make yet another silly decision just to move the plot along”.

Inner dialogue from the book has to get translated into video diary entries and visuals, and works well, for the most part. Mars is indeed The Red Planet, bleak and inhospitable, but beautiful. My main technical gripe is the gravity. Mars has one third Earth gravity (or just twice the moon’s gravity), which would affect Watney’s movements. This could be used to advantage, explaining how he can do all that heavy manual labour on a reduced calorie potato diet, but this Mars has earth gravity. But there’s one point which really jarred for me. There are some parallel scenes, where the engineers back on earth are mocking up solutions, and Watney is performing these on Mars. These actually work really well, as the slick Earth-bound solutions are contrasted with Watney’s duct-taped improvised versions. But at one point, Watney has to cut a hole in the roof of the rover. We see the two versions: earth engineer drills a load of holes; Watney drills a load of holes; earth engineer attempts to break through and fails; Watney attempts to break through and fails; earth engineer bashes on the panel and falls through; Watney bashes on the panel and falls through. But gravity is only one third as strong on Mars; Watney’s bashing would not have had the same effect. Also, the point of doing things on earth first (rather than actually in parallel) is to check the procedures will work and will be safe: that fall would not be safe when performed in a pressure suit in the near-vacuum of Mars’ atmosphere. So there was an opportunity to do something clever here, but it was missed for the laugh of the parallel falls.

However, that’s a really geeky complaint, given the rest of the film. There are several changes from the book, and of course there are further technical mistakes, but overall, it's one of the most faithful adaptations from a novel to screen that I’ve seen. If you enjoyed the book, you will enjoy the film. Read the book first, then watch the film for the visuals and great translation; or watch the film first, then read the book for the subplots.

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