Movie Review: The Martian

The Martian was never going to be one of my favorite films, just like the book was never going to be one of my favorite novels (although I did really enjoy it when I read it earlier this year). However, like the book, the movie was smart and funny and deeply enjoyable. Also, perhaps counterintuitively, it’s a pretty great advertisement for space travel.

The thing about The Martian–and this was also true of the book–is that there aren’t really many surprises. From the moment Mark Hadley (Matt Damon, who somehow manages to be both well-cast and almost entirely forgettable in the role) gets left on Mars, we know he’s going to survive and get rescued. The story, in both book and film, is about how he does it and about how his fellow astronauts and people back on Earth work together to bring him home.

Of course, a lot of the more technical stuff from the book was necessarily omitted from the movie. It’s probably for the best, though. Even on the page it often read like Hackaday, and a two-and-a-half hour how-to video would have pretty limited appeal. While this diminished some of the sense of danger on Mars–a big part of the tension in the novel was the series of disasters, both minor and major, that Mark had to figure out how to overcome–the sleeker storytelling left plenty of space for the far more interesting things that were happening on Earth and on the Ares spacecraft.

Speaking of the Ares crew, they were without exception wonderful. Jessica Chastain is excellent as Commander Melissa Lewis and manages to portray a complete and compelling emotional arc with relatively little screen time. Aksel Hennie’s Vogel and Michael Peña’s Martinez got some of the funniest lines in the movie. Kate Mara’s Johanssen and Sebastian Stan’s Beck were  a little underutilized, but their love story from the book was included in a sweet and subtle way that I really appreciated.

On Earth, most of the action is shot from the point of Vincent Kapoor, a character who was of Indian descent (and named Venkat, actually) in the book, but was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie. As much as I love Chiwetel Ejiofor and his performance, this is a strange casting choice, especially when there are so few roles for Asian actors in American cinema, and more especially when there doesn’t seem to have been much effort at diversity elsewhere in the casting process, either. Even Mindy Park (who I read as probably Korean in the book) was a blonde white woman, and all of the non-specified Ares crew were white. It’s not the worst movie in terms of representation, but I think there were definitely some missed opportunities–especially since by the near future when The Martian is supposed to take place US racial demographics will have changed pretty considerably. Frankly, a future as white as the one we’re shown in this movie is just damned unrealistic.

It was a good flick, though. Going into the film, probably my biggest concern was that the (extremely thematically important) collaboration with China would be left out, but it was included, albeit in an abbreviated form. The most significant changes from the book were actually on Mars, where the majority of Mark’s final journey was cut, but I found that I didn’t mind this very much. The material that was left out was mostly what was a little tiresome in the final quarter or so of the book, when the drama of Mark’s constant crises started to feel a bit overdone. That said, if they could have worked it in, I think the giant storm that forced Mark to make a major change of course in the book would have been cool to see as well as being a nice piece of symmetry to balance out the storm that got Mark left on Mars in the first place.

I don’t think The Martian is a movie that I’ll want to see over and over again, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it ages as we learn more about Mars in the next few years. It’s a beautiful film, though, full of gorgeously crafted shots of alien landscape as well as almost-but-not-quite familiar technology. It’s an optimistic story about a good possible future, and it’s the sort of movie that should make everyone who watches it want to be an astronaut. Be sure to take your kids.

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