Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Thinking About "The Martian", Part II: The Film

WARNING! This post contains spoilers regarding the science-fiction film "The Martian", starring Matt Damon.  If you haven't seen the movie yet, beware! 

Lucy and I went to see the movie last week, and in my spare time I've been mulling over a Blog entry on the subject of films based upon beloved books. Short answer: both of us were very disappointed in the 2-D version we saw, primarily on the points of location, changes from the book and tension (or lack thereof) in the storyline.

So here are the pros and cons...

On the plus side, we both thought Damon nailed the role of Mark Watney.  Very enjoyable performance, capturing the character's sense of humor and resourcefulness very nicely. His tantrum in the rover was perfect!
On the minus side (yes, we are there already!) there were some major problems with the production...

1) Locations: the movie was made in the amazing Wadi Rum preserve of Jordan, which appears to be the hands-down favorite for Martian film-making; "Mission to Mars" (2000), "Red Planet" (2000) and "The Last Days on Mars" (2013) were all filmed there. In fact, if you watch "Red Planet" and "Last Days..." you can see the exact same craggy, red-rock mountains in the background as in "The Martian".

The problem is that the other films were not overly specific as to WHERE on Mars their stories were taking place, whilst "The Martian" is. Ares 3's HAB is located in Acidalia Planitia, a huge plain in the Martian northern hemisphere. There are no mountain ranges, red or otherwise, in Acidalia Planitia; it is literally horizon-to-horizon low hills and VERY dry ancient stream beds with a sprinkling of impact craters. Wadi Rum just doesn't work as a setting, especially as the film labels the site as Acidalia Planitia.

2) Changes from the book. I should know better than to expect a film's writers and director to follow the plot-line of the book, I really should!  Still, one can dream...

a. I thought it funny that 'Venkat Kapoor' became 'Vincent Kapoor'. What, Bollywood was busy that week?

b. The traverse from Acidalia Planitia to Schiaparelli crater is reduced from a dangerous 50-day+ trek through challenging Martian terrain (during which Watney, in the book, has to deal with an enormous dust-storm and having his rover tumble end-over-end down a slope of the crater) into an empty, dull, long drive. The biggest threat to safety and life looks to be the potential of our hero's running out of 1970s TV to watch.

In fact, after the airlock explosion incident (which the film minimizes in danger, leaving Watney with a partially intact faceplate to duct-tape) there is simply no existential threat to be found in the remainder of the film leading up to the actual rescue (more on that below). No threat, no tension. Nap time.

Hermes' making a pit-stop
c. Yes, it was cool to hear Bowie singing "Starman" during the Hermes resupply rendezvous. But isn't that supposed to be one of the most tense parts of the book AND the film? Hermes is ripping past Earth at horrific speed, and if they don't do this resupply right then EVERYBODY will die; the crew and Watney as well. The scene is played like a routine pit-stop, and one of the last opportunities for dramatic tension slides by as we all rock on.

d. The single biggest change in the story (aside from increasing the interior size of the HAB and decreasing that of the rover) lies in the second half; the rescue scene. The entire climax of the film was altered so that Commander Lewis could lose all credibility as a professional military officer and astronaut by show-boating
the rescue, ditching her own plan and almost literally pushing the astronaut designated the rescue man out of the way to assuage her guilt for leaving Watney behind. Right...

If you haven't read my blog post on Weir's book I'd recommend you go there and read my criticisms about the similarities between the book "The Martian" and the film "Red Planet"; at this point I'll just add that the altered final act of the movie "The Martian" makes it even MORE a clone of the 2000 Val Kilmer/Carrie Anne Moss picture. In fact, the climactic rescue scenes are virtually identical now!

e. Compounding that silliness was the ridiculous "puncture the glove" action by Damon's character; I guess that those space suits have very large reserves of breathing air in addition to internal gyroscopes to stabilize Watney's flight. In any case, I think he's gonna lose that hand.

And, finally, the scene that made me turn to Lucy and whisper "WTF?"... the shaving scene. Watney has finished remodeling the MAV for the flight to intercept Hermes, written a note for future visitors to the site and buttoned-up the rover. Time to go--but first let's knock that face-fungus off. We next see him standing in front of a mirror, carefully cleaning up his phiz.

For mining-rights on Phobos and a free, all-expense-paid trip to Ganymede (paid for by someone else, I suppose...), WHERE was he shaving?!? He'd already ruined the MAV's atmospheric integrity (assuming it had ever had any) by ripping it apart, the rover's interior space was about the size of a large phone booth (and he'd already closed it up, remember?), and the nearest HAB was 3200 km away back in Acidalia Planitia.

So where was he?

Okay, vitriol expended! Obviously the many flaws in the film kept me from enjoying it very much. Lucy agrees; she gives "The Martian" a 4 out of 10. I actually gave it a 3. 


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