That seems like such a silly title to start a review with – of course it’s not as good as the book. The movie’s never as good as the book. But with a book like The Martian, by Andy Weir (read our interview with him here), it’s really hard to move away from it. Weir’s tale of Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, was an incredible read, constructed beautifully and, most importantly for the purposes of this review, cinematically. I’ve never read a book that could have been transferred so easily from page to screen without a single change.
As you may have guessed, then, Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard’s take on The Martian is different from the book. Not wildly, stupidly, our of left field different. But there are major exclusions and changes to the core story. And unfortunately, they only make the film version weaker.
But let’s talk about the good parts first. This movie is done technically very well. There’s never a moment where you feel like the actors were on a sound stage, or that what’s happening isn’t real. Every single actor brings a real, flawed human being to life in a way that makes you care about all of them. Of particular note is Sean Bean, who eschews playing his traditional character in favor of a disheveled, awkward man. And while we’re on the subject of casting, I want to take a second to commend the folks behind this movie for casting actors who looked like real NASA engineers. There’s a huge range of ethnicities and genders in this movie, not to mention a wider range of body types. It’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the modern scientific community.
Drew Goddard’s writing does a great job of capturing the wittiness of the book, and the jokes are on point for most of the movie. Matt Damon excels at the difficult task of showing that Mark Watney’s humor is covering for how absolutely scared he is every minute he is on Mars. And what science they do explain is fascinating.
There’s two major ways that the film fails its source material. The science, and the sense of danger. The book reads like an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy – every moment is filled with Watney not only solving the problems that beset him on all sides, but also explaining the solutions to the audience in layman’s terms. While the film attempts to recreate this some of the time with scenes of Mark speaking to his GoPro, every time a scene of Mark solving problem took place in silence I felt like an opportunity was lost.
The other place the film fails its source material is a little more egregious. The book is the definition of edge of your seat. You feel like every moment might be Watney’s last, no matter how many pages are left. But the movie takes a lot of the teeth out of the situation. Watney’s first major setback – a massive explosion in his living area – is played up for laughs. At least three near death experiences are cut entirely. And the climax of the book, the long, dangerous trek he has to make from his habitat to the craft that will take him to Mars orbit, is turned into a cheery montage. While the movie keeps you in suspense, most of the real feeling of danger is only in the last few minutes of the film. The book is terrifying. The movie is funny. It’s a subtle difference and an unfortunate one.
I understand the need for a film to change things around. But to lower the stakes rather than raise them seems to be a failure of imagination.
With all of that being said, it sounds like I’m being down on The Martian, and I want to say, categorically, that you should see this movie. It’s better than Interstellar and Gravity, and will do more to get kids and adults interested in space than any movie since the heydays of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. It’s worth your time and your money, go see it and support it.
I’d just also take the time to read the book, if I were you.