A Novel by Andy Weir | A Film by Ridley Scott
A lone astronaut is stranded on Mars after a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to leave him behind. Battling a brutal landscape where nothing lives, he must rely on his ingenuity and luck in order to survive.
One of the things that made The Martian such a terrific novel was how Andy Weir deftly combined serious science with a suspenseful and human story. Science is crucial to the plot—Mark Watney uses his vast knowledge of chemistry and physics to survive–and Weir doesn’t shy away from the intricate details. I sometimes had to re-read passages to try to figure out what exactly Watney was doing with nitrogen, CO2 filters, and hydrogen fuel cells, not to mention keeping track of acronyms like MAV, MDV, JPL, EVA, and RTG, but it never distracts from the enjoyment of the book. Instead it adds a richness and authenticity to the story. But unless you’re planning a trip to Mars, you don’t need to understand all of the science to appreciate how Watney is able to use his training as a scientist to survive seemingly insurmountable odds.
This is good news for the film, which doesn’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time on detailed scientific explanations. Matt Damon is good as Watney, the amiable rocket scientist you’d most want to grab a beer with back on earth. He’s the main character—being stuck on Mars alone—and the success of the film hinges on the audience’s ability to to identify with him and root for him. As he’s proved in the Bourne movies, Damon is a dependable everyman and an effective blank slate on which the audience can project itself. But I missed some of the irreverent personality that the character had in the book. As written by Weir, Watney’s an appealing smartass, and I couldn’t help but wonder what another actor could have done with his particular brand of gallows humor. I think Chris Pratt would have been perfect, but even if he was considered, it might have been too soon after Guardians of the Galaxy for the actor to shoot into space again. The rest of the cast is strong in supporting roles, particularly Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis, the mission commander who feels responsible for leaving Watney behind, and Jeff Daniels as Teddy Sanders, the NASA head who leads the effort back on Earth to bring him home.
Book vs Movie:
- Watney uses a video log in place of the novel’s written log. It’s a clever way around the main structure of the novel, but you lose the intimacy you had when reading his logs and feeling like you were in the HAB right along side him.
- The book beautifully describes the vast and desolate terrain of the Mars’ landscape, but there’s something so thrilling about seeing those first shots of the jagged sandstone mountains and dusty plains. It’s easy to believe Ridley Scott jumped in his ship to film on Mars rather than use the copper-hued Wadi Rum dersert in Jordon as a stand-in for the red planet.
- I missed the tension of Mark’s journey to the MAV—the dust storm that NASA knows about but he doesn’t, the devastating tumble the rover makes down the hill, the sheer feat of the trip itself.
- I wished they had found time to include one memorable short scene from the book: Mark’s parents at home in Chicago watching the rescue unfold from their couch, along with a guy from NASA who’s clearly there in case things go south. Once they know the mission is a success, they all hug.
- The film has Lewis tethered to the ship bringing Mark in, not Beck. I understand they wanted to give her something more heroic to do, but it was an unnecessary change and actually undercut her role as a commander charged with overseeing the operation—something no less heroic.
- The novel ends abruptly with Watney’s rescue by his fellow crew members, but the movie includes an uplifting new prologue in which see the characters adjusting to their lives back on earth. The crew are doing just fine after their two-year ordeal. Lewis is at home with her husband, Vogel’s reunited with his wife and kids, and Johanssen and Beck are together now with a baby. And in what amounts to a love letter to the space program, Martinez is preparing for another mission and Watney is now imparting his wisdom to a new generation of aspiring astronauts.