Monday, October 05, 2015

Mars in Ascendance

After being thoroughly entertained by Andy Weir's novel The Martian, there was no way I wasn't going to be there opening weekend to see the new movie adaptation. The film tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, mistakenly left for dead on a mission to Mars. All alone on the red planet, he must solve crisis after crisis, staying alive long enough for NASA to figure out a way to rescue him.

The screenplay for the movie was written by Drew Goddard, director and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods. That Joss Whedon-groomed background gave him the perfect sensibilities for bringing Andy Weir's writing to the screen. Goddard does an excellent job of converting a story told through inner monologue into film. But his real success is in shoring up some of the flaws in the original book.

Weir's book didn't do a great job of presenting strong characters outside of the likable protagonist. Goddard's script deftly develops a number of other distinct personalities, doing a nice job in particular with the other five astronauts on the Hermes mission. Book purists may resent the main method in which this was achieved: at least three additional calamities that befall Mark Watney in the book are excised from the movie. But this isn't just a cut for time; by taking some of the emphasis off Watney in the back half of the film, the other characters (on Earth and aboard the Hermes) have more time to shine.

The film also presents a much better ending than the book. Weir's original novel actually ended a bit too soon, resolving the major dramatic question of course, but leaving out a lot of the aftermath you'd really want to know about. The movie fixes this with a nice epilogue (some of it playing out quite cleverly over the end credits). It helps the movie pack more of an emotional punch -- something it successfully manages to do several times.

That punch is thanks in large part to the great cast assembled here. The script may have polished a lot of the characters up from the book, but let's be realistic here: most of them still don't get a lot of screen time. That's where some great performers step in to do a lot with a little. Jessica Chastain plays the Mars mission commander, and really nails the most poignant moments in the story. Jeff Daniels does a lot to make the paper-pushing head of NASA a sympathetic character. Sean Bean is effective as the character arguing the human element back on Earth. (And the script has an awful lot of fun in one scene with one of his most memorable past roles.) And less well known (unless you watch Halt and Catch Fire), Mackenzie Davis stood out to me from a crowded cast.

Of course, the whole movie wouldn't work without Matt Damon. Working with no other actors, and taking up half the movie's screen time, he already faces a "high degree of difficulty." Making the wise-ass Mark Watney seem funny and endearing on top of that? And really making you feel it in the handful of moments where emotion overwhelms the character, without making it seem over the top? Now you're bordering on impossible. But Matt Damon completely nails it.

As for director Ridley Scott, some disappointed fans are already calling this his "apology" for Prometheus (a film not as horrible as claimed, but not nearly as good as was hoped). Whether or not you buy that, Scott really shows his chops here. As noted above, he gets great performances from many different actors. And he deals with a wide array of visual effects without letting them overwhelm the storytelling.

All told, this is one of the stronger book adaptations to come out of Hollywood in some time, capturing the essentials, improving the flaws, and still leaving enough on the book page for later discovery by a reader. Seeing the movie got me thinking about wanting to read the book again, even though it's only been a few months since I finished it. I give The Martian an A-.

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