Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Movie Reviews: The Martian

Opening weekend got away from me, but I really enjoyed seeing The Martian so soon after reading the book and wanted to talk about it.

Rating: B+
Run-time: Quite long (141 minutes)
Release date: October 2, 2015
Adaptation faithfulness: high
The verdict: If you love science-focused sci-fi and have the patience for the impressive run time, this one is absolutely worth it.

I'm doing some compare-and-contrast with the book, so brace for spoilers.

Why it was worth seeing on opening weekend: 

Above all else, this movie is gorgeous and nails the feeling of being all alone on an entire planet, and of how incomprehensibly vast space is. The long shots of Watney trudging along with the rover drive home the lonely majesty of the place, and I could have watched that alone for hours. The crew also did a good job with the zero-gravity shots; they look effortless and normal, not like the centerpiece of the special effects. The sets are lovely even for ordinary things, and the NASA control rooms are so realistic that the eye just sort of glides through them.

The movie sticks closely to the book's formula of explaining the variables of the problem one at a time to reflect Mark's thinking on the subject until he manages to hit on a solution. The problems arise in a realistic way, particularly the wonderful internal explosion when he's trying to create water. I'm impressed at how exciting even the most mundane stuff seems-- in the book it works because of the way Watney wrestles with these concerns, but in the movie you can see his giant ink calendar on the walls and more viscerally understand how long he needs to last and how precious even one day of food and life is. Matt Damon does a good job with Watney's snarky personality, for the most part, and there are even a few new lines that could have been in the book: "Mars will learn to fear my botany powers" definitely got the biggest laugh in my theater.

The short version is that I enjoyed all the ways that the movie stuck to the book, the casting was solid, and you can really tell that NASA collaborated on the movie. On the whole, I did enjoy myself; it's hard to see how to address most of the problems I did have without arguing for a four-hour movie.

The red pen: 

It felt like the movie was simultaneously trying to cram in too much word-for-word adherence to the book and not quite hitting enough. This meant that some characters got a little shortchanged, and for all my complaining that some of the characters sounded too much like Mark in the book, the tinkering in tone for the movie made some of them come off as bland instead. Annie Montrose, the press director, was a particular disappointment. In the book, you can feel her ire seething off the page, but in the movie she's been dealt a hand of "someone in this scene needs to look scared and sad: let's go with the only woman in the room" and has much less scope for threatening people. The actress was fine, but the script didn't give her a lot to work with.

For the most part I thought that the cuts worked well-- the dust storm looming over Watney in the book is suspenseful in a broad way because it adds shape to his long journey, but it's also resolved with minimal fuss and takes a lot of time to explain, which makes it perfect to cut from a movie. Unfortunately, time constraints meant losing one of my favorite parts: when Watney is working on the rover, he accidentally destroys his connection to the NASA staff who have been keeping him alive and sane and thus has to make the long cross-country journey without any ability to call for help. He walks into some dangerous situations and is totally isolated, and NASA can only watch and hope and worry that their next satellite shot might reveal his corpse. It's tense, dramatic, and comes off as one of the most psychologically rich portions of the book. In the movie, that connection never breaks once it's established, which does a lot to ease the mental strain on Watney. It might have added more time down the road, but once it's two hours and twenty, go for the extra ten minutes and pull in more panic.

The resolution, much like in the book, is abrupt, though movie adds the frankly stupid detail of Commander Lewis doing the manual rescue despite having less experience because she feels guilty and allows that to compromise her reasoning. Anyway, Watney gets back on the ship, he reunites with the crew, fade to black...but the movie adds a brief epilogue about Watney teaching future NASA recruits and saying that space is unforgiving but if they solve enough problems, they get to come home. It's certainly one part of the book, but the thematic focus at the end is on how much humanity cares when one person is lost, since Mark's ingenuity still would have ended with him dead if another nation hadn't cannibalized its own space program, if his crewmates hadn't left their families alone for another year and a half....if more people along the line had chosen budgets or pragmatism or the good of the many over saving him. It's a little thing, but the ending would have been better ending just after the rescue or showing Mark with his parents or just marveling at the sound of a crowd after so long alone.

The verdict: Go see it, preferably on a big screen to appreciate those gorgeous special effects. It's long enough that I wouldn't see it twice in any reasonable timespan, but I'm absolutely glad I did.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Apollo 13 definitely has the same "be a good engineer to live" vibe to it, and it's also a space rescue, though over a much shorter timespan.

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