12:00 pm EDT, October 2, 2015

‘The Martian’ review: The good, the bad, the out of this world

The Martian blasts off into cinemas this weekend, and you won’t be disappointed in this new space saga.

From the moment I saw the first trailer, I have been excited for The Martian adaptation. I liked the premise; it isn’t often that a trailer for a book-to-film adaptation inspires me to go and read the book, but I did, and it was brilliant. Plus, I have always been a fan of Matt Damon, even though I really, really wish he would just stop saying things.

Related: The problem of diversity in Hollywood is bigger than Matt Damon’s ignorant comments (opinion)

But more importantly, I really love space. I am fascinated by this expanse that dwarfs us, that we know so very little about, and yet we continue to venture out into. When I was little, I watched Apollo 13 over and over, and not for the cast and not really for the plot. I watched for one of the best scenes in cinematic history (probably, anyway, it’s pretty good) when NASA scientists try to fit a square peg into a round hole to bring the astronauts home.

As I and many other have discovered (and is hilariously depicted in this brilliant cartoon), The Martian (book) is essentially a whole novel of that scene, but on Mars, in the future, with a lot of internal monologue. Author Andy Weir not only made science exciting, he somehow managed to have me on the edge of my seat while reading page after page of mathematics. Not an easy feat, I can tell you.

Which is all to say that The Martian adaptation, directed by Ridley Scott and featuring an all star cast, had some big, big space boots to fill. The movie had to capture that same spirit of adventure, camaraderie and human ingenuity, and also that something special about the book which had endeared it to audiences worldwide. So how did it do?

the martian cast

The Good

The cast: Easily one of the strongest aspects of The Martian is the fantastic, star-studded (ha ha, space jokes) cast. The film is obviously Matt Damon-centric, but the depth that the rest of the cast manage to imbue their characters with is incredible, especially given their relatively short screen time thanks to the huge cast. Most impressive are the other Ares 3 astronauts, headed up by Jessica Chastain, all of whom quickly convey the depth of friendship and camaraderie between Watney and the entire Ares 3 team despite only being on screen together for maybe five minutes in total.

The plot: Yes, there were some changes from the book but generally The Martian works very well as a movie. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard manage to convey the excitement and adventure of the book, while streamlining the plot to make it palatable for film. Yes, some audience members will miss the long and detailed explanations of the science, but we think the filmmakers overall did a great job of balancing this level of detail with the overall story of man-stuck-on-Mars. And hey, the book is always there.

the martian matt damon

The Bad

The book-to-film changes: Okay, the plot worked well, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t miss some sections from The Martian book that were cut. Most notable were scenes with Mark Watney himself. In the condensing of the story, we lost some of Watney’s range of emotions. This included his humor (the movie was funny, the book was much funnier), but also the sense of loneliness that is very present in the book, but was almost totally lost in the film. Damon did a lot with what he had, but the inevitable lack of internal monologue did show.

The pacing: The changes from The Martian book to the film also cut several key scenes that contributed to the relentless pacing of the book. In the book, Watney faces disaster after disaster, oftentimes without being able to seek help from NASA. The elimination of those scenes decreased the overall sense of danger and meant that we lost those jolts of action that made you sit up in your seat while reading the book. This loss was most notable in the final third of the film, which was primarily comprise of length (and admittedly beautiful) shots of the stunning Mars landscape, but very little action.

the martian nasa

The Out Of This World

The star of the show: The cast is good, but Damon is truly great. The film has cut down on our Watney time quite a lot, but Damon still delivers scene after scene that either involve him working in silence, or recording a video diary in solitude. An actor less compelling and charismatic might seem comical (and not intentionally), or wouldn’t be able to hold the audiences’ attention; Damon never falters. He might have done some problematic things of late, but his acting sure isn’t one of them.

The message: At its heart, The Martian is a celebration of science and human endeavor. Yes it’s a little cheesy, but in the case of the original source material, it would only be a truly heartless author who would make us love this character, only for him not to survive. The Hollywood-isation of the ending doesn’t negate the many moments of humor and heartbreak that we see along Mark Watney’s journey. And while the film may have streamlined certain aspects, it doesn’t shy away from showing us what space travel is actually like (sort of, we all know now that a storm like this one couldn’t really happen on Mars).

As The Martian makes plain, space travel isn’t just about the astronauts being heroes, but about the literally hundreds of people around the world, working to support them and bring them home. From Mark Watney to the Ares 3 crew and the NASA scientists themselves, The Martian is a film about people doing what they love, and doing it well. This is a film that not only shows you long scenes of scientists trying to solve problems; it entertains you with them.

We can all appreciate the spectacle and intensity of films like Gravity, but there is still room in the world for movies that offer a more hopeful outlook on space travel. The Martian is a movie for dreamers, about the people that actually make those dreams happen. And there’s a lot of disco music. Never forget the disco.

‘The Martian’ easter egg:

And just for fun, watch out for a hilarious scene where several characters discuss the decision to name a top secret mission “Project Elrond,” which is mostly funny because one of the characters attempting to explain it is none other than Sean Bean, who is surely fairly familiar with the Council of Elrond himself.

‘The Martian’ is in cinemas now

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