Based on the sci-fi novel by Andy Weir, this film begins at Acidalia Planitia on Mars, where the crew of Ares III are eighteen days into their exploration. Unfortunately, they are forced to abort when threatened by a storm – and even more unfortunately, mission botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by flying debris during the evacuation and lost. Believing him dead and under pressure to leave, the other astronauts take off and start heading home. However, Mark is still alive – and he is now stranded on Mars, with a limited food supply, a shelter designed to be used for thirty-one days, and no way to communicate with anybody. Surviving until the next Ares mission arrives in four years will take some serious resourcefulness and know-how.
I’ve already done a review of the book – which remains the best book I’ve read this year so far – and I was worried that in writing this review, I’d end up repeating myself. This film is a very faithful adaptation with only a few minor changes, and the cutting out of some obstacles which would probably have just interrupted the flow here; thus, many of the things that made the book so good are present here as well. It’s an exciting and clever story of survival; it’s got lots of genuinely good humour; and Mark Watney is a very likeable protagonist. Of course, there’s less room to go into detail about the technical details involved in Mark’s improvisation, but the film gets the balance right, providing what background is necessary and trusting the audience to make assumptions themselves from the visual input. When Mark starts farming potatoes, he needs to explain to the audience how he can make water by burning rocket fuel; but when he uses his own faeces as manure, the extra details about introducing terrestrial bacteria to Martian soil aren’t necessary for the audience to understand.
With the story in the visual medium, we can also enjoy the awe-inspiring but forbidding Martian scenery, plus the music – which largely consists of a disco soundtrack, since that’s the only music available to Watney. The visuals and (instrumental) music combine to create a real sense of how alone Watney is, particularly in the earlier scenes. Matt Damon’s performance goes a long way here as well. He successfully captures Watney’s humourous nature from the book, which makes him a more fun hero than if he just brooded all the time. However, Damon also makes Watney a bit more emotionally vulnerable than in the book, which I suppose is more realistic; we see him getting angry and upset, and sometimes appearing to lose hope. This is definitely a character that the audience will be rooting for.
I’m not generally a fan of Ridley Scott as I find most of his films to be quite long-winded, and The Martian occasionally feels like that; some parts, particularly ones set on Earth as various NASA staff make their own efforts to help Watney, come off as rather dry. Other parts can feel rushed, or maybe that’s just me judging based on the book again. But it still retains the excitement of the story; the storm scene in the beginning has great tension, and the ending is handled especially well. I enjoyed The Martian, and hopefully people who haven’t read the book will enjoy it too. Rating: 4/5.