So how does someone utilise such a well-mined setting with a new approach? Andy Weir’s novel doesn’t shock with an original premise – man fights for survival in a war with his environment – but the sci-fi setting mixed in with heavily researched and meticulously described scientific problem-solving, show us the Mars of the real world, fighting against the mind of a real man. There’s no faster-than-light travel to save the day, and no aliens and or rogue AI to end it.
Set in a very near-future, the film deviates only slightly from the novel; the usual condensing of plot points and trade-offs don’t diminish the highs and lows Damon’s Mark Watney experiences in his fight for survival. For every fist-pump at an obstacle surmounted, there’s a hanging of the head for a new one revealed. All this while a supporting cast of NASA scientist bicker among themselves over the best way to get Watney home, with enough interesting interplay and tension to keep the Earth bound scenes gripping, even if you feel that 2 hours of Matt Damon fixing stuff, and being smug about it, would still make for a very watchable movie, as I do.
The release couldn’t have come at a better time either, with Mars itself receiving renewed media interest thanks to the recent discovery of flowing water on its surface. A more cynical person might suggest an under-the-table deal from the film studios encouraging NASA to sit on the information until the movie came out. Personally I think it’s just a coincidence, but maybe I’m naïve, and the sort of impressionable person who, after watching The Martian, thinks they would stand a pretty good chance of surviving on an alien planet alone, if only I had some potatoes, duct tape, and the mind of a botanist, engineer, geologist astronaut.
One of the most surprising elements, that has thankfully survived the adaptation process, is the humour. The Watney of the novel has a quip for every situation, presumably a deliberate attempt on Andy Weir’s part to keep the maths and engineering from becoming too dry. While still true of the film, it also shows why he doesn’t just give up and accept his fate. Making jokes about his situation is his way of coping with them, his way of not accepting the insurmountable odds he must overcome to survive. Sometimes these are just inane ramblings, like when Watney asks the all-important question, “If Aquaman can only control fish, how come he can talk to whales?” in one of the promos for the movie. And sometimes it’s there to demonstrate his hope, like his assertion that in order to survive he has to “science the shit out of this,” which after hearing, you feel sure you’ve never heard in a sci-fi movie before. Watney and the film itself often show how aware they are of their own genre, through little quips like this, as well as pop-culture references. A favourite being when the Lord of The Rings’ Council of Elrond gets a mention at NASA, made all the more confusing and satisfying with a sheepish Sean Bean sat in the corner, wearing an expression that says “Boromir who…?”
Without sounding cliché, any good story, sci-fi or not, is a human story. The setting makes this film different enough, but the humour, the scientific accuracy, the landscapes and Damon’s performance are what set this film apart. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think you can grow potatoes anywhere too.