Andy Weir’s novel of The Martian was a fun and thrilling tale of survival with a completely charming, science nerd protagonist, Mark Watney. Ridley Scott’s movie version of the book is visually stunning but lacks a lot of what made the book great.
During the third manned mission to Mars, Ares III, the crew is forced to abandon their base because of a violent storm. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is struck by debris and presumed dead, but he survives and must now figure out how he can survive and stretch his food supply four years when the next mission arrives. The big issue I have with the movie is that, despite running over 2 1/2 hours, it feels weirdly rushed but strangely also doesn’t feel bloated either. The big hurdles that Mark needs to overcome, like growing crops or driving thousands of kilometers to the landing site of the next mission, are glossed over with montages or time jumps without really explaining what Mark is doing or how he did it. The meat and potatoes of the book is Mark nerdily and humorously describing what he’s doing and there’s only the bare minimum of explanation in the movie. The movie also doesn’t really let you get to know any of the side characters either and they’re only distinguished because of the natural personality that each actor brings to their role (the cast is ridiculous though with Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Pena co-starring).
The key to everything rests on Matt Damon and he does a solid job grounding everything as Mark. He unfortunately doesn’t fully channel the science dork personality of the book and the movie doesn’t let him go on some of the fun tangents from the book. It does do a great job of bringing one of the funnest running jokes to the movie though with Commander Lewis’ (Jessica Chastain) love of disco that becomes the bane of Mark’s existence. The other characters have some fun moments as well and overall, it’s a looser, more laid back space disaster movie compared to dire stakes of movies like Gravity or Apollo 13.
One thing you can always expect from Ridley Scott is amazing scenery and attention to detail and The Martian is no exception. It truly feels like it’s set on Mars and it’s bleak but also has a certain beauty that you can see would draw people like Mark and the Ares crew to want to explore and risk everything to visit. All the equipment feels real and both Mark’s habitat on Mars and the Hermes spaceship with the rest of his crew feel like actual, lived in spaces. One of the little details I liked was how casually and quickly the crew navigates the zero-g of Hermes.
The Martian film feels like the cliff notes version of the book and while it has some of the same tone and style, you really need to read the book to get the full experience. Since I read the book, I was able to fill in the gaps and know what Mark was doing, but I can’t imagine how it would be for someone going in cold. It’s a solid survival movie but it’s kind of disappointing compared to how great and fun the book was.