Four years ago, a writer named Andy Weir, sick and tired of getting rejected by literary agents and publishers, decided to self-publish his science fiction novel The Martian on Amazon Kindle for the minimum price of 99 cents. The book sold over 30,000 copies in three months, and eventually, of course, a publisher noticed this and put it in print where it became a best-seller. So this is one of those happy occasions in which word of mouth triumphed over lazy business-as-usual thinking in the publishing world. Naturally it was made into a movie that was released a couple months ago. I finally saw it recently, and for those who haven’t yet I can report that The Martian is a highly entertaining film about which I have minor reservations, but can still recommend to anyone who likes quality Hollywood moviemaking.
This is an example of what some might call “hard” science fiction. There are no aliens; the Martian of the title is actually an astronaut named Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who is stranded on Mars after an accident during a bad storm prevents him from joining his crew, as they make an emergency exit from the planet, believing that he’s been killed. Since it will take about five years for anyone to return and rescue him, Watney (who is a botanist) must figure out how to grow his own food while trying to contact NASA and let them know his situation. The story is a sort of variation on Robinson Crusoe, in which the hero must use all his knowledge and ingenuity to stay alive.
There’s a parallel story on Earth, telling how the people in NASA come to realize what has happened and try to launch a rescue mission. This involves a host of A-list actors, including Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig as various NASA officials, and Jessica Chastain and others as members of Watney’s crew. A big plus is that the screenplay by Drew Goddard is often very funny. Damon’s character, stuck in the most dangerous situation one could imagine, lets off steam with sarcasm and black humor, and it relieves the audience’s tension as well.
The director is Ridley Scott, who has come to specialize in these big budget spectaculars. I attribute what misgivings I have to certain choices that the director has made. The process of survival, for instance, involves a lot of years of hard work by the main character, but the rescue story on Earth takes so much screen time, that it doesn’t allow for much of a sense of that long, lonely slog on Mars. More silence would have helped, but Scott relies too much on the common habit of playing a pop song over the action. Yeah, I love David Bowie’s “Starman,” as much as anyone, but songs tend to take my mind out of the picture.
The last third of the film reminded me a little of Apollo 13, which was a true story and for that reason somewhat more stirring, but the film looks great and succeeds in evoking a mood of adventure that is sorely lacking in most mainstream product these days. The Martian should definitely be seen on the big screen in order to fully appreciate the eye-popping visuals, and luckily it will still be playing in theaters for awhile.