Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Martian

Andy Weir’s 2015 novel was an interesting fictional account of how an astronaut stranded on Mars might struggle to survive, using his scientific knowledge and training.  A major flaw in the story was the relative absence of an inner perspective.  The novel recounts the various solutions that the astronaut, Mark Watney, devises to overcome the problems that face him.  But it doesn’t tell us about his inner feelings: what is it like to wake up and discover that one’s companions have fled the planet; how the utter isolation, the lack of companionship, the desolation of the Martian landscape makes one feel?  It’s as remarkable that Watney doesn’t lose his mind as it is that he manages to survive, to preserve his physical existence.  Maybe the fact that he had to stay busy trying to save himself is the answer.  He had no time for inner emotions, no time to contemplate his situation.  Or maybe he is just one of those people who doesn’t need or even notice the absence of human companionship.  The novel didn’t satisfy my need to know more about the astronaut’s perspective on his situation.
The 2015 film adaptation (dir. Ridley Scott) of the novel at least partially addresses this issue.  It gives us some sense of how Watney regards his situation.  Yet even in the film he’s clearly the kind of self-reliant individual who takes solace in action and motion, who uses his mind and training to try to save himself, who doesn’t abandon himself to despair.
There’s a clear connection between the film and Apollo 13 (1995, dir. Ron Howard), about the three lunar astronauts who use ingenuity and resourcefulness to save themselves when an explosion virtually disables their spacecraft on the way to the moon.  Like Watney, they decide to “science the shit out of this.”  Much of the fascination of Watney’s story, both in the novel and the film, is following his efforts to do just that. Like the novel, the film limits itself to what is scientifically plausible—at least, I didn’t notice if it violated that principle.

The film seems well made in every sense.  It’s effectively edited.  It employs a cast of effective actors.  Matt Damon is very good in the role of Watney.  Cinematography is a major strength in the film.  The Martian landscape looks absolutely real.  Undoubtedly the filmmakers took good advantage of years of photography of Mars by rovers and satellites.  The shots of vast expanses of Martian landscape, contrasted against Watney’s tiny outpost in the red deserts, make us feel his isolation.

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