One-sentence summary: The Martian is a shipwreck story set on Mars, with the twist that we also see NASA watching the survivor and figuring out what they can do. Does that sound good? Okay, you should read the book.
Oh, this is supposed to be a movie review?
Okay, let me split this up into multiple sections.
If you haven’t read the book
Then you should probably read the book, by Andy Weir. It’s pretty light, with a fun snarky edge from the main character, Mark Watney. It’s got a pinch of the hard science from Andromeda Strain (Crichton), but is completely irreverant while it does that.
Do you have to read the book before seeing the movie? I’d say probably not; you could go read it afterwards as sort of an “extended edition”. It’s not really a surprise that the movie couldn’t fit everything in; that’s how movies work. But the book is good. At least Mark’s parts. (More on that later.)
Do you have to read the book? No, I guess not. If I could only pick one, I’d pick the book, but the movie’s good too. If all the above sounds intriguing but you don’t read much these days, seeing the movie’s okay. I remember seeing that The Martian is what Interstellar should have been, and although it does not have the same aims, tone, or spectacle, I’d say it was much more of a success and a much better movie.
(Should you watch it in 3D? I don’t know; I just watched it on a normal 2D screen. It was fine.)
If you have read the book
Then, honestly, the movie doesn’t add too much. There are some interesting differences, which I’ll go over in the “spoilers” section below, but it’s basically the same thing.
Which is good! They didn’t ruin the book! And I still enjoyed the movie, and both Mars and SPAAAAACE are very pretty. But for me, reading the book was actually good enough, because the feelings you come away with are very similar.
That’s really it for the “review” part of the review, but I’d like to point out the bit of problematic casting here. Weir’s book has a reasonably diverse cast, although that was largely for identification purposes:
I didn’t set out to deliberately balance the crew. For the most part, I just wanted them each to be unique enough for the reader to tell them apart without prompting. It’s a real problem in written fiction. You don’t have the face on-screen or voice being heard to remind the audience who’s who. They need to know it immediately from the name.
So there are no two people on Hermes who are the same demographic. […] You’ll find I pulled the same trick with the NASA characters: Teddy (white guy who is in charge), Mitch (white guy who isn’t in charge), Venkat (Indian), Annie (white woman), Mindy Park (Korean woman), Rich Purnell (African American).
(from Sophie Milam’s interview with Weir)
I’m fine with Weir’s choices, less so for the casting of the movie. “Vincent Kapoor”, who’s supposed to be half-Indian, half-British (not broken down more than that), is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s ethnically Nigerian (Igbo, according to Wikipedia). “Mindy Park” is played by the white Mackenzie Davis—though her ethnicity is not identified in the book, Weir specifies his intent above, and “Park” is a very common Korean surname.
This has come a way from some of my past opinions. What changed? Turns out I’m learning a few things, which I’ll discuss in a separate post.
There’s a second problem I had, which is somewhat humorously put by this tweet:
From Saving Private Ryan to Interstellar to The Martian, America has spent a ridiculous amount of money to retrieve Matt Damon.— Rachel Appel (@RachelAppel) October 3, 2015
It didn’t actually bother me in the movie, but in the book there’s enough time spent on NASA’s plans to help Watney that I started thinking about the money being spent to help Watney. I mean, seriously. I support funding the sciences and space exploration, but this is one man. You could probably very directly save a ton of people by paying for antibiotics and shipping them somewhere with some treatable bacterial outbreak for less than the cost of their first attempt.
Finally, Matt Damon is apparently a jerk, but there are a lot of celebrities who are jerks and already rich and famous, so…
There are a handful of things they changed from the book. Obviously, they took out a lot of issues Watney had to face, like running out of oxygen because of the excess nitrogen. (Or whatever that was with the water that wasn’t just explosions.)
In the book, the NASA scenes actually felt a little boring. Watney was where all the action was, and all the fun. The movie may have actually done better here, although I wonder how I would have felt if the book had had no Earth scenes and then the movie had added them. Probably would not have been happy.
I didn’t like them trying to amp up the catch scene at the end. Knowing how the book did it, it felt weird, and it made…Beck?…less important.
I missed some of the jokes and camaraderie in the text-chat. In particular, Mark’s message when “the whole world was watching”, but also telling Beck to tell Johanssen how he feels, and them already getting together. More seriously, Lewis’s allowing anyone to veto the mission in the book felt very professional, whereas the movie’s equivalent scene was pretty much peer pressure.
I actually liked the professor-type scene at the end. The book ended a little soon for me.
SEAN BEAN DOESN’T DIE.