If you haven’t read the book, the portents aren’t good for The Martian’s cast. Sean Bean is in it. Things rarely end well for Sean. And standing in the centre, face up in all the posters, it’s Private Ryan his own damn self. Let’s review the form sheet. Matt Damon got stranded in outer space in Interstellar, and pulled a succession of colossal dick moves to get himself rescued even if it doomed the whole human race. Matt Damon had to get rescued from being stranded in Normandy and the whole squad got itself killed doing it. In Elysium he went into outer space, killed most of the people he met and died trying to save a kid. Now he’s stuck on his own on Mars, and the tag line for the whole movie is “Bring Him Home.” Meanwhile, this is a Ridley Scott movie, which starts with a deliberate echo of the opening frames from Alien. Scott’s never been to space without having to bulk order body bags. If all you’ve got to go on is the filmography, this thing is shaping up to be a blood bath.
Well, nobody dies. Sean Bean has to take early retirement, meaning that he comes about as close anyone does to dying. If you’ve read the book, this won’t be a surprise of any kind, but Neil Degrasse Tyson got set on fire on the internets for giving away this shock ending to the world. If you want to know roughly what happens, go check out the post on the book; the movie is tremendously faithful to the book, just cutting the number crises back a bit and simplifying some of the side action around the rescue mission proper. All the big beats are still there, but there isn’t quite same amount of trip-hammer “and NOW what?” which the characters had to put up with in the book. And it’s got all the strengths and weaknesses of the book. It’s good natured and positive about human nature, and it takes joy in the very idea of problem solving and the importance of science. And although the movie tries to grapple with the balance between saving one life and risking other lives to do it, the movie does not more than the book to think about the social cost of spending space programme kinds of money on one man in space rather than on thousands on earth. As close as it comes is the idea that everyone is ready to make sacrifices to get this one guy home.
Like the book, the movie is wonderfully uninterested in the characters outside of their predicaments; we never see anyone at home or in any way off the job, but thanks to the decision to hire decent actors, the characters still make an impact as individuals. The one thing I wondered about was the crew of the Mars Mission, who were still using each other’s surnames after being cooped up in a coffee can for a couple of years.
It’s a great looking movie, which is the least you’d expect given the director. Mars feels right, though after the fact I found myself thinking that the gravity wasn’t right, and of course lots of people have quibbled about the atmosphere, which in reality hasn’t got remotely the density to work up a stiff breeze, let alone a mission-threatening dust-storm. Thing is, while it’s happening it feels right, and really what more do you want. You can have another quibble at the scenes set on the Hermes, which is way too airy and open for a space vehicle on a long duration mission. Radiation proofing and the general need to save weight everywhere on space missions means that a real Hermes would be as cramped as a submarine. But that would have been horrible to film in and we wouldn’t have had the lovely zero-g transits that punctuate most of the Hermes scenes. I can forgive those kinds of things under the rule of cool.
If you’ve already read the book, the movie does a job of making the characters come to life. If you haven’t read the book yet, there’s a lot more in the book than they could get into the movie; if you enjoyed Mark Watney solving problems, he solves lots more of them in the book. It’s a good solid fun movie. And it’s the first thing I’ve been to in ages where the cinema was packed. And I think it’s good news that people are flocking to a movie which is full of positive messages about the value of science and human nature.