Saturday, 24 October 2015

Movie Vs. Book: The Martian

During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meagre supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Andy Weir started writing a book about an astronaut stranded on Mars. He hadn't had any success with publishers in the past, so he begun posting chapters to his website. That was 2011. People really liked it - so much that Crown Publishing made it become a best-seller. Weir tells this story through largely detailed work logs. The Martian is impressively geeky. Smart science-fiction is such a rarity these days. Our parents witnessed the first man on the Moon decades ago and we witnessed the landing of curiosity on Mars: WE are the Mars generation. That's the inspiration. Astronauts really are the real pioneers. They do something incredibly heroic, brave and risky but also incredibly necessary. This book is adapted by Ridley Scott, who transformed science-fiction cinema with Blade Runner and Alien. Once again, Scott goes back to the future, which is a familiar destination for him. Andy Weir and screenplay writers wrote us a love letter to science. They obviously skipped a lot of complications in the film, there's so much in the book but they decide to pick out some bits and leave others which is natural and not a problem at all. You definitely don't need to have read the book to enjoy the movie but you definitely SHOULD read the book because it's fantastic!     

Mr Weir, from online serial to book to screen, has brought a little appreciated genre into the mainstream: the nerd thriller. This hyper-technical genre, deeply developed by novelists does something that classic thrillers do not: it puts the nerd (female or male) in the centre of the action. The intellectual is the hero. Imagine that instead of Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg was the star of Mission: Impossible. This is an adventure for those of us who believe, deep in our hearts, that the heroes of Star Trek are Spock and Scotty: the science officer and the engineer. And writing about The Martian seems to be bringing out the geekiness even more in your humble correspondent. Still its heart, humour and rousing story of perseverance and global collaboration promise to broaden the film's appeal well beyond nerds. A lot of people - including myself - responded to the characters in the book. The humour and the way he keeps his logical, practical spirit in order to solve one problem at a time; is what makes this character compelling and super duper interesting. Andy Weir admits freely that his character has little inner life. Watney simply pushes forward, putting crises into a mental lock box and figuring out how to survive. "It could have been a deep psychological thing", he said "but that's not the kind of book I like to read and it's not the kind of book I wanted to write". 

Engineer at NASA - who are hoping to get people to Mars someday - said Mr Weir has captured something important about what make Humans want to explore. Mark Watney character represents the very cutting edge of humanity and what's possible and what we know we'll all need someday; which is: move some of the species off the planet to ensure the species survival. Nowadays still, there are people working toward that goal. "Watney's everybody's favourite" because he's the brave, resourceful American optimist. We all know a smart ass nerd just like him. Moreover, if you're going to be stuck alone with an actor, who guides you through a story with nothing but video diaries, you need someone who can exude the right amount of humour and confidence. In significant measure due to his character's mordant humour, Matt Damon provides a very good company during the long stretches when he's on screen alone. Plus the actor's physicality makes Mark's capability entirely credible.  

Matt Damon has the charm and wit to land the tricky one-liners. You try making "Fuck you, Mars!" sound cool. From there Watney must not only come to grips with the most dire situation any astronaut has ever faced, but also mends his own gory abdominal wound in a scene that is Prometheus-level in its guts wrenching body horror. Watney is supposedly a symbol of hope for all humanity in the final act. Creating at the same time a new Manifest Destiny. This movie is the Die Hard of space film. Matt Damon gets stab, he gets frozen, he gets exploded and even burnt. Scenes back on Earth provide a hectic, densely populated counterweight to the Martian aridity. The rest of the cast is diverse in a way that feels genuinely authentic. In the story the rest of us on Earth have this understanding of what this man sacrificed and the beauty of that. They do everything they can to bring him back because he represents the best of us all.   

However, there's actually one major unrealistic thing about this movie. Sean Bean is in it and he makes it all the way to the end. That doesn't make any sense. Beside that, what I loved about the book is Andy Weir just walks you through scientifically what you would have to do to survive on Mars. He follows the science but it's approachable, it's not anything that seems beyond our capacity to understand which is actually entertaining. Watch this man go step by step and do what he has to do to survive. Weir best selling novel adaptation is more realistic in its attention to details than many films set in the present, giving the story the feel of an adventure that could happen the day after tomorrow. The book is heavy with technical assessments of food and oxygen supplies, mechanical capabilities, flight duration and the physics of inter-planetary travel. They're relevant topics and things that must be very real for genuine astronauts out there. All the technology mentioned in the book is real and 100% accurate. Versions are ultimately a bit updated as it takes place in a near future. But for now it all exist. The technical details keep the story relentlessly precise and the suspense ramped up, especially if you're more turned on by science than fiction. Indeed, Ridley Scott does generate a degree of suspense in this climatic stretch. This film reflects the work of NASA and how close to reality it can be.

Sci-fi is extremely important in our culture, it's engraved in what creative people do by projecting a vision of the future, something that we aspire to. This film finds Ridley Scott and his team innovating once again, this time moving in the direction of the plausible, to present the most realistic version possible of a manned mission on Mars. Cinematographer achieves to provide the film with a fundamental documentary reality while also making a thing of great beauty. They edited a sequence with a David Bowies song in a way that gave me chills. We are reminded of two things throughout the movie. First, sometimes 3D is an effective tool in filmmaking. Second, space is a nasty place. The film is fuelled by a Disco-heavy soundtrack that is oddly perfect. If you don't laugh as the final song sounds over the credits, I'm afraid, you might be dead inside. There's an optimistic lining common to both the novel and the film that seems at one with the story itself, and not an artificial, Holllywood-induced spin. 

At its core The Martian is delightfully retro and reminiscent of 90's sci-fie blockbusters like Apollo 13 or Armageddon. Space exploration appears nothing but noble, exciting and worthwhile. Moreover, considering that the US hasn't launched a manned space mission since 2011, The Martian should do far more than just make Fox a ton of money; it could conceivably rekindle interest in the space program and inspire a new generation of future astronauts. Plus, it doesn't matter what the film is about - even if a space oriented movie helps- if Ridley Scott is directing it, I want to see it. Think about it. We can still go to a theatre today and see a new film by the man who made Alien. That's freaking awesome! I can't tell you how happy I was leaving the movie with a gigantic smile on my face, knowing that I had just seen a new Ridley Scott classic. This film is genuinely one of the best movie of the year. A tribute to human ingenuity. A movie celebrating problem solving which is what science and engineering is all about.

Overall, The Martian is the best mainstream entertainment Ridley Scott has directed in over a decade; it thankfully brought him home, it's thrilling and engaging from first launch. Bringing the book to life in those ways are pretty spectacular! 

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