The following review contains spoilers to the plot of The Martian. You’ve been warned!
The Martian is the film we need right now. When the news shows us horrific and confusing things day after day, we need something like The Martian to show us what it means to work together—whether it’s to save one man’s life, or to preserve the importance of working toward something bigger than ourselves in an unpredictable world.
I finished the novel The Martian (written by Andy Weir) moments before seeing the film. Literally. If you don’t already know, the story is about astronaut Mark Watney, who gets stranded on Mars by himself after a mission goes badly and his crew believes him to be dead. From there the plot revolves around Watney figuring out how to survive and how NASA back on Earth can help, if at all, in the process to somehow bring him home. I will say, I didn’t love the book. I liked the overall story, and enjoyed the surprisingly humorous tone, but it was exhausting at times to get through. I suppose reading some 500 video-diary entries from Watney’s POV will do that to you. And perhaps that was the point, to make you really feel the length of time that Watney had to survive on his own. But I was still excited to see the film because the story lends itself to amazing visuals, what with it being in space and on Mars and all.
Luckily I was right—I found the film so much more enjoyable. Matt Damon brings the perfect amount of wry humor to his characterization of Watney, and a perfectly cast crew on the Hermes spaceship (including Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, and Michael Peña) have wonderful little moments with one another. A couple things I didn’t love, particularly in relation to the book, was the “7 months later” time jump. That never happens in the novel. We continue to read daily updates (it skips days here and there), but never do we jump forward in that way. It takes away from the degree to which Watney struggles to survive. Maybe we could have seen a montage of sorts to see how he passed the time during those seven months. Plus, there are several more obstacles, almost deadly ones, that he faces while driving to the second MAV (his only option for getting off the planet), including losing all communication and being completely disconnected from NASA and the Hermes crew (and after working so hard to get it in the first place!). Of course, a film has to work within a certain time frame, unlike a book, so I can see why such things were sacrificed.
But here’s a couple more things I did like, and what I think makes this film a superior one—and something we haven’t seen in awhile. The cast and characters are diverse and we see not only a nation but the world invested in Watney’s, and ultimately the crew of Hermes’, safe return to Earth. The mission becomes a joint effort between the United States and China and in the process science and pioneering become bigger than just one country’s interest. Also, this is a story about survival and the drive to do whatever it takes when you’re facing extremes odds…odds that are severely against you. Speaking of whatever it takes, this story is about problem-solving. Watney is constantly a living example of ‘trials and tribulations,’ and so many people at home are doing the same. There’s a real sense of camaraderie between the NASA employees, even when personality types may clash or employees may be sleep-deprived in the process. There is one scene that particularly moved me, thanks to a little help from David Bowie. There’s a simple montage about two-thirds of the way in, with Watney on Mars, the Hermes crew on board, and various NASA employees in different settings—Bowie’s “Starman” plays as we go back and forth between the characters, all of them doing various things, from the quotidian to the important work needed to be done for the rescue mission. There was something so simple and beautiful about it, with this great rock song setting the perfect tone for the film.
In a world with bad news on a daily basis, we’ve also grown accustomed in recent years to pop culture that focuses on anti-heroes. We’ve begun to always root for the “bad” guy. Instead of a sci-fi story with a sadistic edge or a story with a clear antagonist who’s out to stop Watney, The Martian is a rarity in our entertainment landscape of dramatic stories. No one roots against him. And it was honestly a nice change to see unfold. This story has one objective—to bring Watney home—and the film succeeds in doing just that. Fortunately along the way we get to hear some sweet disco songs and David freakin’ Bowie.