Andy Weir's novel of one man's struggle to survive on Mars has become a sci-fi sensation. The book was published to little fanfare but has become a viral success, ending up being Goodread's top sci-fi novel of 2014. The book is tense, well-plotted and uses the scientific detail to enhance the story of protagonist Mark Watney's struggle to survive. It has won over sci-fi reader after sci-fi reader, spread through peer-to-peer recommendations, and become a best seller. Inevitably, a big budget Hollywood adaptation has followed; the question is – can it live up to the book's success?
The short answer is that it does. The Martian is a superb film, entertaining from its witty first scene to the more thoughtful final few moments. Although it is two and a half hours in long, the Martian flies by and I was hooked for all of it. Watney's struggle for survival in the barren, airless deserts of Mars is tense and his fellow astronauts’ plan to rescue him is filled with edge-of-the-seat tension.
Ridley Scott is on excellent form behind the camera. His direction keeps the pace up and the film never drags, a real accomplishment for a film that is quite long and has a large cast of characters. Scott also uses special effects well, the action is intimate and focused on the characters. There are several dazzling scenes that doubtless employed an army of CG artists but no scene feels like hollow spectacle. The action drives forwards the plot and keeps the audience focused on Watney's precarious circumstances.
Scott's film is a very faithful adaptation of Andy Weir's novel. Dialogue, and at times whole scenes, are lifted directly from the book. The plot is identical to the novel: astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is the botanist on the third manned mission to Mars. During a freak sandstorm, Watney is lost and his colleagues are forced to abandoned the planet and leave him for dead. When he awakes and realises what has happened, he sets about finding out how he can survive on Mars until the next manned mission arrives in four years’ time. The problem is that he only has one year's worth of food and the airless, waterless surface Mars is a dangerous place to spend any amount of time. Meanwhile, NASA have found out that Watney is still alive and try to rescue him.
The film takes the novel's most tense scenes and expertly transposes them into nail-biting moments of cinema. The scenes when Watney's Martian habitat collapses and when he finally escapes from Mars make for tense and exciting cinema – the latter scene is one of the best I have seen this year.
All of the novel's large cast of characters are faithfully realised on screen in a series of great performances. Matt Damon excels as the ever upbeat Watney, a character he is perfectly cast for. Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Director of Mars Operations, the man in charge of saving Watney. So also Jessica Chastain, who plays Commander Lewis, Mark Watney's tormented superior officer. Other great performances are delivered by a stellar cast including Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig and Kate Mara, but a special mention must go to Benedict Wong who delivers the performance of the film as the hard pressed NASA's Jep Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng. The only actor who disappoints is Sean Bean, whose enthusiastic performance appears to have been edited within an inch of its existence.
Fans of the novel will be glad to hear that the science of how Watney grows enough food to survive on Mars and the technology behind NASA's rescue plans are not diluted for the film. They feature heavily and are ably crafted into the story so that the audience never feels talked down to or confused, whilst the novel's level of detail is preserved. The Martian shows how a hard sci-fi story can be as entertaining as any action blockbuster, when handled by a competent director with a good cast.
My only criticism of The Martian is that it is perhaps too faithful to the book. Bringing a book with so many scenes and characters to the big screen means individual moments or characters rarely get a chance to shine. The film is long and although the tension remains high, some events are rushed through. It was great to see a film that was so faithful to a book that I love, but I would have preferred a greater degree of adapting the story to the medium of cinema.
The isolation and loneliness, which the novel conveys so well, are not developed in the movie. This could have been achieved with a greater focus on Matt Damon and less on the other characters. A movie which followed his video logs would have been less tense, but would have allowed for a greater character study and would have more effectively drawn out the drama of his struggle to survive in a hostile environment. The climax and denouement scenes are substantially different to the book to show what a more Mark-Watney-focused film would have been like. It would have been interesting to see this movie.
The road which the film could have taken does not detract from how entertaining and enjoyable The Martian is. It is an excellent adaptation that translates the strengths of the book to the screen and adds good performances and tense directing. I would certainly recommend seeing it to any fan of the book or of sci-fi cinema.