Last December I read Andy Weir's The Martian. My blogging frequency was pretty low back then, so alas, no review was ever written. Last Friday my group at work went on an outing to see film version of The Martian at one of those funky luxury theaters with reclining seats and everything. Must talk with the wife about securing such a setup at home...
Like any good geek, I love space. I knew everything there was to know about the Apollo missions, all but two of the moon landings happening before my birth, and the space shuttle, which I eagerly awaited the first flight of (and was disappointed by countless delays). I had my Space Shuttle Operator's Manual as well as the fictional Mars One Crew Manual. I've also devoured The Case For Mars. I'd like to point out I'm massively disappointed no human has walked on Mars. I'm 44 years old folks, I'd really like to live long enough to see us visit Mars in the flesh.
So, The Martian. The Martian is your great man vs. nature story. But short of "The Cold Equations", I can't think of someone with a deck stacked more against them than our protagonist, Mark Watney. Watney is a botanist on the Ares 3 mission to Mars. The six-person crew is forced to abort their mission due to extreme winds (Andy Weir has admitted that such a windstorm actually wouldn't happen on Mars, one of the few outright scientific boo-boos in his book and this film). During the evacuation, he is struck by a flying antenna and blown away. His life signs all go negative prior to losing contact with his suit. The rest of the crew tries to find his body but with their ascent vehicle about to topple over in the high winds they are forced to launch.
And then some time later Watney wakes up. The antenna had pierced his life support monitor, making his crewmates think him dead. And he nearly was dead, though the antenna and his blood managed to seal his suit shut. He limps back to the hab module. He is alone on Mars. The main antenna has been lost. The backups are all up in space aboard the Hermes, their interplanetary vessel. He has no way to tell anyone he's alive. There's another mission coming to Mars in several years, but he'll be dead of starvation by the time they arrive, should nothing else go wrong.
And so Watney is forced to improvise like crazy. He needs to find a way to grow crops on Mars. To get more water. To find a way to contact Earth. To make his limited supply of equipment serve him in ways it was never designed to. He needs a heat source that won't drain electricity? Well there is the sealed but radioactive module they buried when they first arrived... It'll generate heat. What can he use to fertilize soil? (The book details this a lot more than the movie, but suffice to say his own waste products do not go to waste...)
The film largely focuses on Watney, but it also showcases what is happening on Earth and on the Hermes. It preserves the novel's use of log entries from Watney - not quite to the same extent as the book, but it is a useful technique for an isolated character to explain what he's doing or thinking. It also preserves Watney's humor and snarkiness. There's a lot more I can say that would give away major plot points - I won't, though to be honest, the joy in this film isn't in what happens but in watching it happen. It was pretty faithful to the novel and I still greatly enjoyed the film.
I think what I most admire is it played straight. It didn't need anything supernatural, it didn't go for contrived action sequences. It embraced both the isolation and beauty of being the only person on an entire planet. The struggle not to be the first person to die on another planet. A little bit of a mental breakdown as Watney declares himself "the best botanist on the planet", decides he's technically a Martian since he's put down crops and colonized the planet, and decides he's actually a space pirate. Not to say he even remotely approaches crazy, but you definitely feel the strain he's under as he struggles to survive. There's not a single person out to get him. Just a whole uncaring planet.
I mentioned it above, but it bears repeating - Mars is absolutely beautiful to behold in this film. It's something I'll never get to see with my own eyes but it would be a tragedy if no human ever experiences such sights for real.