Like many fans of literate, thoughtful, plausible science fiction, I greeted the news that Ridley Scott would be directing the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s the Martian with great enthusiasm. The fact that the script was by Whedon alum Drew Goddard was even better news, as this story is about a character with a deep knowledge of pop culture, a wicked sense of humour and more than a little nerdiness: a perfect “type” for this genre. The book itself is a thrilling read, with Mark Watney, the astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars, wise-cracking his way to survival. So much of the book concerns details of scientific solutions to survival problems that at first blush it seems challenging to adapt to cinema, but not impossible by any means. Just as long as the film didn’t make the mistake of making this story “too Hollywood”. Alas, from the looks of the trailer, that seems to be exactly what has happened.
Bearing in mind that these observations are based on the trailer, not the finished film, here are some things I consider to be essential to the success of any film adaptation of The Martian:
- The main character is first and foremost a nerd, and shouldn’t be played by some sort of handsome muscular leading man. That would be a classic example of “Hollywood-ing.”
- About 85% of the story takes place with one character in an enclosed environment on Mars. Everything else is B story.
- The characters at Mission control, in a very accurate representation of the types of people who go into science, are an eclectic mix of ethnicities, with the main character being Indian (his name is Venkat Kapoor). Another important character has the surname “Park”, which, though it could be British, is clearly written to be Korean.
- There’s very little action in this story. It’s about one man solving problems using his ingenuity. That’s what the story’s about. Any deviation from that basic premise is needless puffery.
- The crew of the mother ship that left Watney behind, the Hermes, is referenced throughout the book but rarely seen, at least until right at the end. And frankly, they’re the most cliched and least interesting part of the story. You can feel the momentum of the book slow down, and things start getting very conventional, each time we flash to them. On my second reading, I pretty much skipped every segment featuring the crew.
So, based on the trailer, how’s this adaptation looking?
- They cast Matt Damon as Mark Watney. I’m sure there are Botanist/Engineers who look like him somewhere in the world, but I have certainly never seen one. Okay, so he’s the only geek who has the ripped body of a movie star. I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense. If there were a nerdy engineer who also happened to be carved from granite with a movie star’s face, they would probably be an astronaut.
- The trailer features very little of Mark Watney himself, and much more of the crew and mission control. This is not promising.
- Venkat Kapoor is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Now, I’m no Anthropologist, but Ejiofor is of Nigerian descent. Africa is a different place from India, right? As fine an actor as Ejiofor is, surely they could have found at least one Indian actor to play this role. India only has the biggest film industry on the face of the earth, after all. They have a couple of good actors. (And, by the way, the Korean character is now played by someone from my city of Vancouver, which is great, but she’s not Korean.) (Let’s not forget that Sir Ridley has a problematic relationship with ethnic casting. For examples, see Exodus: Gods and Kings.)
- The trailer is chock full of action sequences, focusing on the finale involving the Hermes. Again, this is a trailer (the trailer for Das Boot would have you believe it’s an action movie, too), but not promising at best. Hopefully it’s false advertising.
- The crew is featured , if anything, more than Watney, and “cast up” to prominently feature the two female crew members, one of whom is the Captain, played by a stern Jessica Chastain. Not the story I remember, in which, aside from the captain, the most important members of the crew in the book are the German scientist Vogel and ace pilot Rick Martinez. These two characters make only the briefest of appearances in the trailer.
- The most troubling thing, though, is a shot of Watney looking at a photo of a woman and child and crying. It’s very important, and very refreshing, that Watney in the book is not married, and is in fact a single guy, and fine with it. The issue simply doesn’t come up. I found that aspect tremendously appealing. We need more positive images in our culture of single people, and Watney’s romantic life is simply not relevant to the story. Creating some sort of “family backstory” would drag it into cheap sentimentality. Perhaps that shot is some sort of mistake, or misdirection, but that presumption gives the film the benefit of very serious doubt. A much more likely and plausible explanation is that the marketing people simply wouldn’t stand for a character who didn’t pine over his wife and family while away in space. It reminds me of the episode of The Simpsons in which Milhouse’s father is fired from the cracker factory because he got divorced. “Do single people buy crackers?” his boss asks rhetorically, “We don’t know. And frankly, we don’t want to know. It’s a market we could do without.” I imagine precisely the same words being spoken at a script meeting around a polished table in California.
This analysis, however insufficient, suggests an adaptation that has been carefully mutated to fit within the narrow confines of a Hollywood movie. We really shouldn’t be surprised. Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations of Hollywood movies, especially if we generally don’t watch them. Films from other industries, including other American industries (so this isn’t a slur on all American cinema) are free to create stories that make sense, with characters that act in ways consistent with the needs of the plot. They don’t always succeed in that, but at least they’re free to try it. Hollywood movies, as has been proven time and time again, aren’t really “films” at all, but “products”, designed to sell popcorn to pre-teens. They operate under constraints that are in some ways as stringent as anything produced from the Soviet system. Watney isn’t allowed to be single, because leading men have to have a love interest. (I’m reminded of what my thesis supervisor told me in grad school, “Hollywood’s major theme is a celebration of heterosexuality.”) Jessica Chastain’s character is prominent because this product has to “appeal to women” (of course, the assumption that women are a single, homogeneous demographic is deeply anti-feminist and offensive, but hey, it’s Hollywood). Ejiofor is cast, rather than a logical actor, because there aren’t any other African characters in the story, and someone in marketing decided that it simply wouldn’t do to make a film like this without that demographic represented. In Hollywood filmmaking, logic does not apply, only marketing, hitting points on a audience survey, and carefully avoiding offending anyone or saying anything the slightest bit controversial.
The tragedy is that, at its heart, this story isn’t controversial in the least. A straight-ahead adaptation would have been magnificent and refreshing in science fiction cinema, ranking right up there with Duncan Jones’ Moon. Once again, since this impression is based only on the casting, style, trailer and clips, it could be that every single piece of that marketing machine is pointing me in the wrong direction. But I doubt it.
I’ll still see the film, of course, but my enthusiasm for it is severely tempered.