Of all people, I should have loved The Martian. If I were to imagine a Hollywood film perfectly calibrated to my tastes as a) someone with a background in science, b) a gigantic space nerd and c) a fan of science fiction cinema, The Martian hits all the right targets. It’s even written by a Whedon-alum (Drew Goddard) and directed by Sir Ridley Scott. On paper, this should be my favourite movie of all-time.
Before the flames begin to lick my heels, I must rush to say that I liked this film. It was intermittently absorbing and had a few moments of tension, but I didn’t love it. And I really should have. From the moment I walked out of the movie theatre after the screening, I’ve been trying to figure out why I had that reaction.
It seems as if most people who saw this film, and hadn’t read the book, had a very positive response to it. I’m sure that some people who read the book will enjoy it as well, but I just can’t get over how “Hollywood” an adaptation this is of a gripping, original and enthralling text. And frankly, I’ve studied adaptation theory enough to know that I shouldn’t care about such things. Adaptations are adaptations and they should be judged on their own merits, not constantly compared with the original text. That’s ham-fisted and dunderheaded film analysis. But all of this is intellectual, and I can’t seem to distance myself emotionally from the comparisons with the book. I’ll accept that this is somewhat my problem and perhaps even primarily my problem, not the film’s, but in this case it really got in the way of my enjoyment.
Adaptations make changes to the original text: this is natural, normal and unavoidable. When adapting a novel to film, one has to start lopping off huge elements of the story and condensing others, just to squeeze it into a roughly 2-hour running time. The key, it seems to me, to making that work is to truly understand what made the original text good, and key into that essential emotion. In the case of The Martian, the central tone of the book is well-represented. It’s not a heavy text at all, but lighthearted and quick on its feet, just like Watney himself. And as for what was omitted and condensed (such as most of the science, a major plot twist involving losing communication with earth while using a power drill, the test run in the rover, the second dust storm and a final rover accident that almost kills Watney), it’s all understandable. Until we see what it was all cut in favour of.
One of the things that made this book so fresh and enjoyable is how it was determined to not follow storytelling conventions. About 80-85% of the text is Watney, alone, writing in his journal about his struggle for survival. Most of the remaining 15-20% of the text is spent with Venkat Kapoor at mission control. Only 5% or so is spent with the crew of the Hermes, either in flashback or in their final decision to go back and rescue Watney, in defiance of NASA’s orders. When the film was originally announced, the first thing I wondered is how they were ever going to make a guy sitting in a room talking about chemistry cinematic, and seeing the final product, my heart sunk at the realization that the strategy was simply to change the story and make it more or less a 50/50 split between Watney, who still gets half, and then 25% each to mission control and the Hermes. The ultimate result of that decision is a film that feels rushed where it should linger, and sprints to an action-movie ending that has, rather than elements taken from it, elements added to it, at the expense of what made the book great.
But even these changes could be understandable if they weren’t so obviously made to fit this decidedly non-Hollywood story into a Hollywood-sized box. Commander Lewis, for example, played here by Jessica Chastain, is a very marginal figure in the book, almost distant and introspective, appearing in only a few scenes and expressing guilt over leaving Watney behind. Importantly (for a film that purports to be “scientifically accurate”), in the book, Lewis doesn’t participate directly in the final spacewalk to save Watney: that job is given to EVA specialist Beck, as it should and would be. Lewis stays on the bridge, in charge, making decisions, which is the Commander’s job. The rescue itself is over and done with quickly in the book, lasting perhaps less than 5 pages. But of course, this is a Hollywood film, so Jessica Chastain has to get into a spacesuit and be an action hero right at the end. While some of the audience’s eyes may have widened at the climax, mine just rolled.
And then there’s the ethnicity of the cast. I mentioned this in my previous article on the trailer, and frankly I think my original reservations stand. There’s a moment in the book in which the NASA flight director asks Venkat Kapoor if he believes in God, and Kapoor replies, “Sure. I’m Hindu. I believe in dozens of them.” It’s a nice little throwaway line, and the only time in which Kapoor’s ethnic identity is specifically references. After the filmmakers changed that character’s name to “Vincent” Kapoor and cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role, someone who is obviously NOT Indian, they kept the line, clumsily re-writing it to have him say, “My father was Indian and my mother was southern Baptist, so I have a whole collection of them”. Ugh. Clumsy, and frankly nakedly exposing that the thinking was, “We have Chiwetel Ejiofor, so instead of looking for a great Indian actor, let’s just re-write the part for him.” A Hollywood decision, 100%. Ejiofor himself is fine in the role — he can play any role well — but that is not the point. The point is that there was nothing wrong with the original text. It’s a classic example of fixing something that wasn’t broken. The casting of Mindy Park with a white actress — Mackenzie Davis — is also something of a cop-out, given that the role in the book is fairly obviously Korean. Not that she isn’t good, once again, this is an issue of Hollywood compromise. Would it really have been so difficult to find a young Korean-American actress to play the role? (Davis isn’t even American, but Canadian, so clearly they looked far and wide for their cast.) At least Benedict Wong gets to play Bruce Ng from JPL, and Wong is fantastic. In fact, he’s one of my favourite character actors at the moment, almost a Chinese Brian Dennehy. And certainly, there’s no criticizing Michael Pena as Rick Martinez. Pena inhabits the role and plays it on just the right, light note. Donald Glover gets a few good scenes as Rich Parnell, and the other character acting heavyweights (Sean Bean, who doesn’t die for once, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig) do the best they can with their underwritten roles. The scientific community is, and always was, a truly integrated and international group of people. Visit NASA sometime, and you’ll see plenty of women, and every ethnic group well-represented. You’ll see people with long hair and short hair, people who play in rock bands and people who love video games and people who love fine art. But somehow Hollywood has to portray scientists as cut-off socially isolated tie-wearing nerds. The Martian film takes a stab at representing reality, and it does better than most, but it’s disappointing how it pulls back and takes the safe route in some cases.
I have to return to my original point: all my criticism are based on comparing the book and the film, which isn’t fair. The film itself is good, but left me a little cold. I was never as involved in the story as I should’ve been, and again, perhaps that’s because I knew what was going to happen at every turn, and anticipated plot developments that never came. I literally braced myself in the final sequence for the big sandstorm and the rover accident that never arrived, which was disappointing, especially since the extended final space rescue sequence was a bit over-wrought. I wondered how they were going to portray Watney’s struggles with chemistry, using hydrazine to make water, for example, and they more or less skim over the details, there, condensing several experiments into one short one, emphasizing the one time Watney succeeds in blowing himself up. The “space farming” sequence is quite good and believable, but the film lingers over Watney’s first 100 or so days (or Sols) on Mars and then races for the finish line. When Watney steps out of the shower on day 400-odd, sporting a full beard and a definite decrease in musculature, it felt to me like the projectionist skipped a reel. I wanted to see more of his struggles, sense his isolation more, focus on his problem solving, but instead the film kept cutting away to mission control or the Hermes, filled with concerned-looking scientists spouting data and plans at each other, playing power games. I’ve seen that movie before. I hadn’t seen the “one man trapped on Mars” movie before, and it would have been great if more time had been spent there.
Perhaps we’ll get an “extended cut” of the film on video (this often happens with Ridley Scott), and perhaps, as with The Kingdom of Heaven, that cut will be far superior to the theatrical release. But it bothers me how much I didn’t love this movie. I really should have. And that thought will probably haunt me for a long while. I’m glad lots of people enjoyed The Martian. I wish I could say I was one of them.