Review: The Martian: Mark Watney – Phone Home!

The Martian: Mark Watney – Phone Home! 

Several weeks ago when I picked up the best selling book, The Martian, I wasn’t sure whether I would take to it since space exploration and sci-fi has never interested me that much. However, I was curious to see if it could interest me, and I was also very interested in seeing what a best-selling sci-fi book was like. To my surprise, I found myself hooked on the first line (one of the best first lines, incidentally, that I have read in a while, and which, to my great dismay, did not make it into the movie!). This is uttered by Mark Watney, the main character (played by Matt Damon in the movie), who happens to be accidentally stranded on Mars. And while the book contained a lot of highly technical discussions and descriptions, those technical passages are worth slogging through because once the rest of the characters have been introduced and Watney makes contact with earth, the story demands to be read. In short, this was a book I couldn’t put down. I had to know whether Mark Watney, an astronaut for NASA, would ever make it back to Earth alive.

Once I finished the book, I couldn’t wait for the movie. Typically story lines where there is a ticking time bomb (or the equivalent) make for great Hollywood fare, and I thought this one would be a prime candidate. It was hard to imagine that this would not be a great movie. Admittedly, there there was no love interest in the story, but I really believed that there was enough story to overcome that deficit.

You can already guess how this review is going to go. Unfortunately, I was not critical enough in thinking through the book to movie adaptation. This one did an ok job but it slogged on a little too long and never created the heart-stopping type of suspense that a great dramatic film deserves. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just not a great movie.

I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may have inflated my expectations too much. So…note to future The Martian movie-goers: set expectations low and you will most likely come out at least satisfied. Maybe you will even be pleasantly surprised. (Also, be prepared for the length. Skip the 20 minutes of previews, go to the bathroom before sitting down, and if you are at a dine-in cinema, I would not recommend any wine or reclining all the way back in your seat as that may make it easier to fall asleep in the less exciting parts.)

Ok – a few more details. Mark Watney and his fellow astronauts were working a mission on Mars when a sandstorm hit and they evacuated. Unfortunately Watney was struck by debris during the evacuation and assumed dead. His crew members aborted the mission and headed back to earth, a journey that will take would take then over 12 months. But against all odds, Watney lived. The entire story is devoted to exploring whether, against all odds again, how and if he can successfully live on Mars until NASA can come rescue him. There are serious problems. Actually very serious problems—including the fact that he’s relying on an oxygenator, a water reclaimer, and a building that provides the only protection between him and the highly pressurized Martian air. If any of these fail, he’s dead. Oh, and also, he has a limited supply of food and will surely starve to death before any mission can get back to Mars to rescue him.

As the supporting cast (his fellow astronauts and the scientists and managers at NASA) come together, we are treated to a variety of amusing scenes and quips as everyone tries to get Watney back to earth alive. In fact, many of these quips come from Watney himself who maintains an unnatural optimism given his very bleak situation. There are some great action scenes in space and beautiful wide-angled shots of earth and the moon and the Martian landscape. The scenes down on earth are crisp and the conversations are populated with rocket science calculations punctuated by public relations disaster management speak, which also makes for some pretty funny scenes.

The Martian is a story of survival (cue the comparison to Robinson Crusoe). It is also about geeky technological ingenuity (cue the comparison to MacGyver). Add in the lonely and dramatic landscape of Mars and the star power of Matt Damon, along with Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, and Kirsten Wiig, and this movie had all the right ingredients for a blockbuster. But sometimes great movies don’t come together even when all the right ingredients are there (cue the comparison to baking a cake with all the right ingredients, and the cake still ends up flat). This Martian fell just a little bit flat.

I can guess at the reasons. First, it’s very difficult to pull off a one-man show, which, in essence, this is. Much of the book is a long monologue about his extremely ingenious thought processes. And even though there are other characters to help provide interaction and other drama, this is still essentially about one man and his quest to get off Mars. The most interesting parts of that monologue are in the initial days of his survival, and those are well represented in the movie. But sustaining that momentum through the entire movie proved to be problematic. Second, the book was highly technical but a necessary part of the escape. But the writers and filmmakers had to incorporate those highly technical discussions into the movie. The problem is that it can be sort of boring to watch an astronaut or rocket scientist solve complex intellectual problems…in much the same way that it can be sort of boring to watch grass grow or a cake bake. That intellectual firepower is great for getting off of Mars, but not terrific for creating great drama (unless of course you are Shakespeare writing Hamlet). Finally, the intersection of time and gravity just seemed too distant to create any sustained tension. Watney was stranded on Day 6 of the mission and his final rescue day took place over a year and half later. Both in the book and in the movie there was an extreme urgency to get things done so that Watney could be saved, but somehow that urgency didn’t translate very well into tension in the film. Moreover, the physical urgency and difficulties in a zero-gravity environment just didn’t feel that visceral. Even though we know the astronauts need to float to each other in a precise movement, those sequences feel a bit foreign and the urgency is lost. I don’t know if this is because it is difficult to convey the zero-gravity environment or if it was just a bad visual translation. (I also felt the same way about the highly acclaimed but overrated movie Gravity a few years back). Whatever the reason, this and everything else contributed to the flatness.

One wonders how well the writers and filmmakers would have done with Watney in a more earthly circumstance, say stranded on an island with a nuclear bomb hidden in the ground and timed to go off within 36 hours and destroy all of humankind. Would the writers and filmmakers been able to create better sustained tension with that story rather than one that takes place some 100 million miles away from earth? Perhaps, more importantly, one wonders in that situation if Mark Watney would be as good at saving humankind as he is himself?

And maybe this question is the key to the movie. Outside of the fact that he is very intelligent, resourceful and optimistic and has become a public relations icon/nightmare for NASA, is there any other reason to care about Mark Watney? I hate to say this, but the answer is no. (By the way, for whatever reason, it worked in the book, but the screen directors took on a more ambitious task and so they will be held to a more ambitious standard.) And so here I am going to argue for a little more humanity. Maybe the writers should have taken a little more leeway and added in a love story, perhaps an unrequited love between him and the commander who left him behind? Or perhaps some flashbacks to his early days, playing with his parents and now his father, who has always wanted him to be an astronaut, has cancer and is dying in the hospital, watching along with the rest of the world to see if he is going to make it off of Mars alive. I can picture the scene now: NASA patches Watney in to his father, “Son,” he says in a raspy voice, “I knew you would call as soon as you could.” Yes, I hate to admit it, but a little more human element to Mark Watney might have helped the story in the Martian.

But the story we have in front of us is of Watney trying to escape Mars. It’s not Watney in unrequited love with Commander Lewis who left him behind and then went back to rescue him only to leave him again on earth by choosing to go back to her husband. It’s not Watney trying to get back home to say goodbye to his father before he dies. And it’s not Watney stranded on a desert island trying to prevent a nuclear bomb from going off with all the heads of state calling each other in distress at the eleventh hour in case he can’t disarm the bomb. Instead, it’s Watney, a super geeky, incredibly intelligent, creative, resourceful astronaut trying to save himself and only himself. We can care about him, but in an non-emotional way, amidst our bathroom breaks and checking our texts and emails to see if we missed anything from the people that we love.