Before reviewing Ridley Scott’s filmic adaptation of The Martian, I first must parse my problems with Andy Weir’s novel. Weir’s debut book about a lone astronaut stranded on Mars comes complete with much of the baggage that traditionally attends first novels: a strong protagonist whose voice is probably a little too close to the author’s, a cast of characters too large to be properly developed, and a story that loses steam in its back third. This is not to say that I disliked the novel, which has one of the best opening lines and scenes in recent memory, but I do feel that the book takes a half-measure in terms of telling Mark Watney’s story. One of the unique powers of literature is to bind the reader fully in the mind of a character. As such, Weir’s novel is strongest when Mark Watney is talking directly to the reader and it is weakest when Weir adopts a third-person perspective to relate the actions of those off-planet. The book would have been much stronger had it simply told Watney’s story using his own logs and not jumped outside of Mark’s perspective to tell the reader what’s going on away from Mars. But Weir did not do this, and so his novel is second-rate, a decently-written science fiction potboiler with a great hook that fails to rise above its genre.
In short, the main problem with The Martian is that its author did not have the confidence to tell his story in the way that it was begging to be told. Instead of correcting this error, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Weir’s novel fixes the parts of the story that did not work in the book at the expense of those that did. While the book tells the story of Mark Watney stranded on Mars, the movie tells the story of the human race working valiantly to rescue a stranded astronaut. The story is the same, but the focus is slightly different, and for understandable reasons. In the modern Hollywood environment, having parts for a large, diverse cast of actors can be the difference between getting a movie made and not. Less cynically, a tight, tense, single-character survival tale would go against the tone that Ridley Scott clearly wanted for The Martian, a kind-of pro-humanity, anti-authoritarian heroism that feels distinctly old-fashioned. No matter the reason, The Martian is the most commercial film of Scott’s career. There is nothing so memorable here as the caesarian section scene from Prometheus or Blade Runner's one-sided duel between Decker and Roy Batty, but in their stead is safe, efficient storytelling, complete with a score that tells the audience exactly how to feel at every moment and spotless, beautifully designed interiors to contrast the sunbaked Martian surface.
Arguably the worst choice of the whole production was casting Matt Damon as Mark Watney. Damon, who has built a career on affability (or at least attractiveness) in the face of danger, is too chiseled and confident to pull off Watney’s nerdiness. The triumphant stingers that Watney tags onto his little science lectures feel more like mocking lines from a jock when Damon says them. He almost can’t help but curl the corner of his mouth for a couple of the lines, as if Damon the man is sneering at the words even as he says them. It doesn’t help that when Watney stops shaving in the movie’s third act Damon turns into the spitting image of Leonardo DiCaprio from Django Unchained. Damon is simply the wrong man for the role: he is a very convincing astronaut, just not a terribly good Mark Watney.
The rest of the casting is much better. Chiwetel Ejiofor slips comfortably into the (race-shifted) role of NASA engineer Vincent (Venkat) Kapoor, the passionate head of engineering who squares off against Jeff Daniels’ politically-minded NASA director in numerous boardroom scenes to discuss the possibilities and details of rescuing Mark. Jessica Chastain pours some heart into the part of Commander Lewis, who feels responsible for leaving Mark on The Red Planet and ultimately makes the decision to turn her ship around and go get him. The only holes in the cast are Kate Mara, who has as much on-screen presence as an undyed sack of flour, and Donald Glover, who makes a convincing case for his complete inability to play a character of any kind. Yet together the ensemble is enough to bolster their half of the movie and keep the parts that do not take place on Mars compelling.
The music is simultaneously one of the movie’s greatest strengths and largest weaknesses. Music plays an important diegetic role, as Watney is stuck on Mars with only the tunes that he and his fellow crew members brought along, which turns out to be almost entirely disco. Watney listening to disco and watching old sitcoms was one of the most iconic through lines from the book, where it functioned as a clever way to depict his loneliness and isolation. These scenes translate fantastically to the screen, and one of the best moments in the film is Damon begrudgingly tapping his foot to “Hot Stuff” as he pilots his rover across the desolate Martian landscape. Another standout music choice is the use of David Bowie’s “Starman,” which plays almost in its entirety during a lengthy montage. Less successful is the standard Hollywood score overlaid on the film: for a story with simple drama, the tendency of the score to mirror the emotions onscreen exactly can be overbearing at times. The film could have only used diegetic music and been better for it.
The gratingly theatrical score belays how safe a movie The Martian truly is. The nerdy, smart-alecky tone of the novel is replaced by a much more accessible, overtly optimistic attitude. Watney’s character and peril are reduced in favor of increased breathing-room for the rest of the cast. Even the profanity is kept to the mandated PG-13 maximum, allowing Watney only one of his signature “fucks” before muting the rest of his cursing behind windows and grawlix. As such, the film lacks much of the tension that should be present in Watney’s situation. The story is a matter of immediate life or death, yet, after the scene in which Watney wakes up and staggers back to the Hab, the movie never sits with this fact, never makes the audience truly believe in Watney’s predicament in the same way that the novel does.
The reduction in tension is the necessary side effect of widening the focus on the off-Mars storylines, and it results in the book and film having different strengths. In the novel, the reader identifies with Watney’s character and feels his struggle on a visceral level, and so they read about the events taking place on Earth and aboard the Hermes from the perspective of hoping that the characters will be able to save Watney. In the film, the viewer watches the whole affair from on high and is encouraged to identify with all of the characters equally, from Watney to the Hermes crew to the NASA gang. By spreading the dramatic tension evenly, Watney’s peril becomes less acute, which works to the detriment of the story’s tension, yet this same move encourages the audience to care about more of the characters’ individual stories. As such, both the film and the book play to their strengths, although each one hedges its bets enough to keep them both from being masterpieces.