Andy Weir’s novel about an astronaut stranded on the surface of Mars when he is left behind by his crewmates who believe him to have been killed in the duststorm which caused their early evacuation is a tale of overcoming odds, and the novel itself has seen much of that in its surprising success.
Originally published on Weir’s website, the demand led first to a Kindle edition then later audiobook and print, with the film rights having been sold even before the paper copy was released. Signed to direct was Drew Goddard, an established writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Lost but with only a single outing behind the cameras on The Cabin in the Woods.
Though Goddard still wrote the script it was eventually the prolific and respected director Ridley Scott who took up the megaphone on another meticulously crafted science fiction epic to stand alongside Alien and Blade Runner. The question was whether he would be able to approach the benchmarks set by those classic films, redeeming himself after the disappointment of Prometheus.
With Weir’s novel an almost chronological account with no narrative trickery or literary pretensions, relying instead on the intricate technical detail with which the story is told to engage the reader rather than the lure of beautifully constructed prose, it was a solid foundation almost pre-formatted to be adapted to screenplay.
With Prometheus having suffered because of a rewritten script which drifted further from the central plot, having a popular, successful and above all coherent storyline to follow should have guaranteed this would be superior to that meandering disappointment, but while The Martian certainly tells its story clearly and competently, it also does so in a pedestrian style devoid of urgency or engagement.
Where the novel begins in the immediate aftermath of the botched evacuation, here a scant few minutes are offered to meet the crew of Ares III before the anger of the red planet comes down upon them, Lewis (Interstellar‘s Jessica Chastain), Martinez (Ant-Man‘s Michael Peña), Johanssen (Transcendence‘s Kate Mara), Vogel (Hercules‘ Aksel Hennie), Beck (The Winter Soldier‘s Sebastian Stan) and the ill-fated Mark Watney (The Adjustment Bureau‘s Matt Damon) who is hit by flying debris.
The transponder on his spacesuit damaged, leading his shipmates to believe he was killed in the accident, Watney must find a way to contact Earth and survive on Mars until the next mission is scheduled to arrive on the far side of that inhospitable world. What follows is faithful but viciously abridged, the details of the science and mathematics which underpin the mechanics of the plot almost entirely excised where Weir had effortlessly articulated complex and convincing solutions.
Also gone are several of the crises and devastating setbacks which Watney experiences, conquering what appears to be impossible challenges through his sheer determination, and consequently diminished is the sense of peril which permeates the book where every obstacle must be overcome by ingenuity and any error could mean not only the failure to achieve the objective but an almost certain cold and lonely death for Watney over millions of miles from the nearest human beings.
Where Interstellar and Contact were unashamedly intellectual, unafraid to demand audiences rise to their level with genius characters talking together in scenes where every line could have been expanded to a full discussion of the concepts had time allowed, The Martian is a film where characters read their emails aloud, so afraid it is of putting the audience to the trouble of actually having to read onscreen text unaided.
While Scott has proven himself a former master of science fiction, certainly from a technical perspective, following the excellence of Gravity and Interstellar it is all too easy to become accustomed to the physical achievement but this is also unlike his previous offerings, springing from current technologies rather than leaps of imagination, yet it still requires the vision to span the solar system which is crucially lacking.
Always shown as a crescent extending beyond the borders of the screen, Mars is never seen as a whole planet orbiting in space, Watney a speck of matter on a lump of rock connected to nothing and utterly unreachable.
No attempt is made to depict the vast distances involved, the incomprehensible scale of the solar system, with even the transit craft Hermes only ever shown in conjunction with either of those planets or in tight shot, never as a fragile tin can falling through the vast black; contrast this with the early shot of the Prometheus seen as the tinest point of reflected light moving against the firmament or the approach of the Nostromo to the ringed gas giant.
What has been preserved is the biggest problem of the novel, the lack of personality of the many characters, a huge ensemble who are most often introduced in onscreen captions only when they are about to become important and given insufficient time to do more than vocalise plot points. Even the reliable and amiable Damon does little more than remain stoic throughout months of utter isolation, near starvation and constant threat of death, undeterred by setbacks and never once giving even a hint of despair, an unrealistic depiction of any human.
There are moments of magic and joy such as a discovery made by Watney in the deep desert, no less wonderful for having been expected and exactly where he hoped to find it, but the overriding feel is more inflated Discovery Channel documentary than genuine drama or excitement, an underwhelming spectacle populated by ciphers whose emotional distance sets them as cold and unreachable as the stars.
The Martian is now on general release and also screening in 3D