A few weeks ago I encouraged all of you to go check out Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (or the audiobook version, if you’re like me and spend a lot of time in the car). Even if you’re not usually a fan of astronaut-survivalist, will-he-or-won’t-he dramas, this book has great messages about the human spirit and includes lots of diversity to boot.
Last Friday I went to see the film on opening day—I was excited enough to fork over $23 for my ticket, popcorn, and some cherry Coke for The Martian. And with recent announcements about NASA finding water on Mars, the buzz for this film couldn’t be any better. So how does it measure up? Is it as good as the book? Well…
Spoilers below the cut.
Overall, The Martian is a good movie! There’s excitement, tension, drama, earnest heartfelt displays of emotion, and the tiniest bit of romance. It’s the story of how NASA astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on the surface of Mars, but to everyone’s surprise, turns out to be alive.
To quote Watney, he has to “science the shit” out of everything in order to have any hope of staying alive long enough to get back to Earth. That is, if he can figure out how to communicate with NASA with a broken communications antenna, if NASA even can bring him back, and even if they could, if they even want to risk it. The book’s still better, but we already knew that. Convinced? Good, go throw your money at this movie. Now let’s break it open.
Matt Damon was a fine Mark Watney, I don’t have any gripes about his acting in the movie (besides a few awkward funny lines, but they’re supposed to be awkward, so I’ll give them to him). The filmmakers may have gone with the overgrown hunk look at the beginning of the film to draw a greater contrast to what Watney looked like near the end, after weeks and weeks of extreme rationing. Sure, there are a lot of gorgeous “Martian” landscapes to look at, but one of the most striking visual moments for me in the film was seeing Mark Watney transformed from a muscly superhero body to a scrawny, scabby, human twig. In the book you don’t get a real sense of the toll surviving on Mars takes on Watney’s body, outside his initial puncture wound and really sore muscles from moving stuff all over the place by himself. The audience gets a real sense of how desperate and close to death Watney really is, despite his generally positive outlook and iron determination.
As for the rest of the cast, they were subject to typical Hollywood anti-diversity treatment. The most glaring is probably transforming Venkat Kapoor, the practicing Hindu and Director of the Mars Program, into Vincent Kapoor, the Director of the Mars Program who isn’t much of anything but had a Hindu parent and a Baptist parent. Make no mistake, Chiwetel Ejiofor played a great Kapoor. But are we really supposed to believe America is okay with a Black man being a director at NASA, though only as long as he’s sort of a Christian? There’s a line in the book where someone asks Kapoor if he believes in God, and he says “Many, I’m Hindu.” But in the movie, he makes a non-committal comment about his parents’ religions. It might seem like such a small thing for me to make a big stink over, but it’s precisely because it’s such a small part of the movie that I’m disappointed that Hollywood felt the need to not just get rid of that line, but to rewrite it entirely. It really says a lot about the way non-Christian religions are portrayed in our film industry.
Hollywood did an almost passable job translating the book’s racial diversity into the film, though it only seemed like they cast non-white actors when it was absolutely necessary. Eddy Ko and Chen Shu play the Director and Assistant Director (respectively) of the Chinese Space Agency. Their scene together in China actually took place in Mandarin with English subtitles, which was nice (and realistic). Benedict Wong plays Bruce Ng, the Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs. Mindy Park, the woman who first spots evidence of Watney still being alive on Mars, is Asian in the book, but played by (white, Canadian) Mackenzie Davis in the movie. Donald Glover was a surprising casting choice as Rich Purnell, the genius physicist who probably has some form of Autism or Asperger’s. Purnell’s race isn’t mentioned in the book, and his “maneuver” is the idea that saves Watney’s life.
The biggest difference between the book and the movie isn’t all the stuff they had to leave out for time’s sake, or that most of the book takes place in Mark Watney’s head or his journal entries. The biggest difference is the way Watney’s character translates to the audience and how it affects his place in the narrative. In the book, we’re privy to a lot of Mark’s thoughts. We really get to know him as a spunky, obnoxious little nerdy individual. He doesn’t spend time opining philosophically about his condition; he doesn’t have time for that. He’d rather grumble about his only source of entertainment being old 1970s television reruns and disco music (left by his astronaut companions), and wonder how Aquaman can control whales. NASA is impressed by his genius-levels of resourcefulness, which would give MacGyver a run for his money. It’s obvious that Watney is uniquely qualified in having a shred of a chance of surviving on the surface of Mars, completely alone.
In the movie we still get plenty of dorky lines from Watney, but we don’t get as much insight into his character, probably because we really aren’t spending as much time in his head. Couple that with a really hunky version of Matt Damon playing Watney, and you basically get Spiderman’s personality in Captain America’s body. I saw the movie with a friend, and the first comment she made when we got out of the theater (after OMG that was so good!) was how it really seemed like yet another movie about saving the smart, pretty, American WASP dude… just like every other survival story out of Hollywood. “Cast Away in space” wouldn’t be too far from the truth, regarding the parts of the movie we spend with Watney. In my previous post I talked about how Watney’s individuality gave the story a universal appeal. Yet it seems like Hollywood bought into stereotypes that are “supposed to” be universal (we’re all white, heterosexual, American men after all, right? Right?) and tried to make us care about an individual. Sure, I cared about bringing Watney home, but it’s easier to care about a character when you get to know them for who they are as a unique person, not because the writers play into major stereotypes that few people in the audience will actually identify with. It’s not just white American men who go see movies, after all.
The Martian isn’t a perfect movie, and the differences between the book and the film really highlight a lot of the diversity problems Hollywood still has. But most of the changes to the story made sense, and didn’t compromise the greater narrative arc too much. It would have been nice to figure out a way to translate Watney’s individuality more fully, but that might just be a problem with the medium of film itself: you can’t include everything from the book. A lot of times those decisions made sense. Sure, the movie left in the tiny romantic subplot between Johannsen and Beck, because it’s cute. And it cut the part where Johannsen tells her parents not to worry if they screw up the Rich Parnell maneuver and don’t hook up with their extra supplies, because the crew decided that she’s the designated survivor who gets to feast on her dead companions in order to survive the trip back to Earth… because while totally compelling, cannibalism isn’t exactly palatable to the average American moviegoer. Translating a book to film is always about making choices. It’d just be nice if Hollywood could do more to make those choices reflect diversity, especially if it’s in the source material.