The Martian is a perfect science fiction film and a perfect adaptation of a perfect science fiction novel. I loved everything about it from start to finish, both on its own merits, and as an adaptation of one of my favorite novels.
This never ever happens. I always love the book more than the movie, except in very rare cases like Children of Men in which an exceptional film is made out of flawed source material, by recognizing the potential of the novel and transforming it into what it could have been. In this case we have a tight and gorgeous story that equally excels on page and on screen.
And just as an initial aside, a couple of notes just for the book readers: you will be pleased. The spirit of the novel is entirely intact, and in fact very little of substance was changed at all. A couple of set-pieces (and I love the fact that in this story, every “set-piece” is an exercise in problem-solving, not explosions) were removed: the sand storm on the way to the climactic launch, the frying of communications before he leaves, and the flipping of his trailer. But it felt right, more just tweaks of pacing. And Ridley Scott couldn’t help upping the ante in the final sequence (Mark does indeed “go Ironman”), which eh, but it’s a small quibble. In addition, the characters (including Mark) are given an epilogue back on Earth, which feels perfectly organic and I think is a narrative improvement on the way the book cuts immediately after the rescue. Especially since the final shots include the launching of the Ares VI for Mars, which is the real triumph of the story.
Mark is given more texture than he is in the book. He is allowed brief screams of rage. He is allowed to have an angry edge at times. The book’s Mark is experienced almost entirely first person, and so is just from a different perspective, because all we see of him there is what he decides to write down in his journal. But this doesn’t diminish his humor in the face of impossibility, but in fact enhances it, the way that a dash of salt in cookies makes them taste sweeter.
The story is a very simple one, if you haven’t seen a trailer or read the book. There’s a mission to Mars, one crew member gets left behind, and he has to survive on a deserted planet until he can be rescued. It’s MacGyver crossed with Castaway, tossed into space. But well-done stories often sound simple when cut down into sound bite form. This is a brilliant movie. It is tense and hilarious and both deeply intelligent and introspective. It’s also a movie that treats its audience very intelligently. Details are rarely explained and it simply expects you to pick up on them. Which is an interesting contrast with the book where by virtue of its first person narrative, Mark explains everything.
The Martian is the latest entry in what has become a very particular sort of science fiction story, that has developed a familiar set of beats. Sort of like how a cynic can claim that every romantic comedy is exactly the same story, as is every sports movie, there’s a pattern to this sort of science fiction movie. The universe bears down upon a person, that person perseveres and sciences their way to survival, and the frontier is pushed back ever so slightly in triumph. It’s a set of beats I could listen to everyday though, a particular archetypical story that does not grow old to me.
This is a story of man versus nature. It’s a story of how the universe is incomprehensibly vast and indifferent to our very existence. We teeter by our fingertips at the edge of a yawning void, and yet we can ignore it most of the time because of the safe nest we inhabit. This is a story of those who venture beyond that haven and push back the darkness.
There’s a wonderful passage from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death by Black Hole, in which he describes how one of the most overlooked, but awe-inspiring upon reflection, discoveries in science was the spectral lines of stars. Because with that we learned that everything we could see to the ends of the universe was made of the same stuff we had on Earth. That the heavens were not magical, not alien, not the domain of angels, but something that could be touched and understood. It was in a small sense a counterpoint to all the mysticism left in the world, an empirical rejection of the belief that the universe was shrouded in darkness we could not penetrate. It was the moment when we, this most impossible and delicate of creations, dust that through sheer force of will animated itself and crawled out of the mud to stare at the stars, realized that we could reach them. That we could understand them. That for all the vastness of the universe, it was fundamentally comprehensible.
At one point Mark says, trying to articulate his lack of any regret for the journey into space that might kill him: “if I die doing something greater than myself, I can live with that.” It’s a line that a thousand movie heroes would understand, but there is something so heartbreaking and noble when it is spoken by a man who isn’t fighting other men, but who decided to leap into the unknown, to live and die for knowledge and exploration rather than our own internal squabbles.
But The Martian is not just about a man fighting against nature, it’s about the way the entire world bends itself to his rescue. One of the things that Andy Weir got so right was the way that there wasn’t simply one guy who magically was responsible for all of the different things. There wasn’t some crack team that did all the work figuring stuff out for Mark. No. There are a dozen different individuals who each pull out an idea at their own time.
It’s all built on the shoulders of giants. At one point a character arguing against rescue argues “it’s bigger than just one man”, to which Sean Bean (who manages not to die) insists “no it’s not”. And what he’s getting at there is the root of why we do this. Because if you accept that it’s just one man, then you haven’t just calculated away the rescue, you’ve also rationalized away the space program itself. Why put a man on the moon? It’s just one man. He’s not saying that it’s not bigger than one man, he’s saying that it’s not just one man. It’s all of us stranded on Mars because that one man is our symbol, our representative. When a man walks on Mars, we all walk on Mars, because we are all the shoulders that we each stand upon.
And that’s the beautiful truth that runs throughout The Martian, that Andy Weir got so right in his novel. When we send our heroes to ride pillars of fire into the heavens, they do not climb alone. Because we’re all steely-eyed missile men and women.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.