Of all the literary genres to adapt to the big screen, "hard sci-fi" is arguably the trickiest. Get too fanciful with the fiction and your audience could lose its suspension of disbelief. Delve too deeply into the science and you risk putting everyone to sleep. Thankfully, The Martian -- based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir -- traverses this tightrope with the assurance of a Michael Jackson moonwalk. It is Castaway for NASA nerds and the best movie Ridley Scott had directed in years. We just wish it had a few more quiet, reflective moments.
[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead!]
The story behind The Martian's conception is nearly as fascinating as the plot itself. After being soundly rejected by multiple publishers, Andy Weir decided to release the novel on his website for free, followed by a self-published Kindle edition. Within a couple of years it had stormed up the best-seller lists and been optioned for a movie with sci-fi god Ridley Scott attached as director. How's that for a Cinderella story?
For those who've been stranded on a deserted planet for the past few months, The Martian is a survival story that follows the plight of Mark Watney (Matt Damon); a NASA astronaut who wakes up alone on Mars after a freak accident causes his crew to believe he died.
With limited food and oxygen, Watney must work out a way to survive for four years -- the amount of time it will take for another mission to reach Mars. But first he needs to find a way to contact Earth. Meanwhile, the top dogs at NASA and the crew that abandoned him face struggles of their own as the world is made aware of the situation.
Taking a cue from the similarly-themed Gravity, The Martian wastes no time on setup. Barely five minutes into the movie and the shit has already hit the fan. We wouldn't have minded getting to know the characters a bit more prior to the stranding, but this is a minor quibble. From the moment Watney is left alone, you are sucked into his story and fully invested.
Mark Watney with the rest of the Ares 3 crew.
Like the book it is based on, The Martian scores points for not dumbing down the realities of space travel or succumbing to flights of fancy. The author is a computer scientist and self-confessed "space nerd" with an almost pedant-like devotion to accuracy.
In a lesser story, this focus on realism might have been boring, but here it is never less than riveting. Watching Watney solve a litany of seemingly impossible problems with his botanist and engineering smarts is truly fascinating.
In a clever deviation from the book, the film has Watney explain his strategies and experiments via video logs rather than writing them down in a journal. This helps to keep the explanations engaging without resorting to cheesy voice overs. (The fact Damon makes for a hugely likeable hero doesn't hurt either.) In short, it's the best science lesson you're ever likely to have
Indeed, the film is so bang on that real astronomers and NASA scientists have given it their seal of approval. If your knowledge of botany, engineering and astrophysics is a bit sketchy, none of this really matters -- but it's still nice to know that the science behind the film is as plausible as it looks.
These attempts at accuracy also extend to the special effects -- there are no gorgeous vistas or over-stylised spaceships to marvel at. Mars looks about as drab and boring as your average Curiosity photo and NASA's tech is plain and functional (if a little too shiny). Again, this slavish devotion to the real world could have been tedious, but it really enhances the sense of immersion. Prometheus this ain't.
"Should've brought my iPad."
Is it perfect? Not quite. A part of me wishes the film had excised the scenes with NASA to fully concentrate on Watney and the crew that abandoned him. Instead, the feeling of extreme isolation and solitude is frequently broken by cutaways back to Earth. Imagine if Castaway had decided to keep constant tabs on Helen Hunt -- that's what this feels like.
Sadly, this robs the film of some potentially powerful moments. For example, when Watney finally discovers that the world is aware of his survival we should be crying along with him: instead, the audience already knows. (And yes, I'm aware that these sections were all in the book, but adaptations are expected to make cuts that serve the story.)
To make matters worse, the NASA personnel is filled with bizarre stunt-casting including Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Kristen Wigg. As you'd expect, this takes you out of the movie a little -- particularly when Wigg does her comedic "bitchy" routine and Bean starts talking about The Lord Of The Rings. No really.
Oh, and if we're being needlessly nit-picky, the cast are way too glamourous to be astronauts. We're expected to believe that Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Mackenzie Davis, Kristen Wigg, and a guy who looks like a dreamier version of Mark Ruffulo are all nerds who work for NASA. Riiiight.
In space, no one can hear you swoon...
Despite these stumbles, The Martian is a brilliant and intelligent movie that will frequently have you on the edge of your seat. The climax is a real nail-biter even if you've read the source material. (The film also gets extra props for name-checking the Infocom text-adventure Leather Goddesses Of Phobos. Now that's nerdy!)
Every blue moon, a science fiction film comes along that manages to tell a highly entertaining story without dumbing down the core science. The Martian is one such movie. See it on the biggest screen you can.