Thanks to the ongoing global crisis, I’ve allowed myself much more time to read books and listen to more music. It’s been strange venturing outside of film, but it has given me some time that, in hindsight, was necessary for my writing. Case in point, finally getting around to reading Andy Weir’s best-known work, The Martian. With a big-budget film adaptation lingering around my favourite films list for the past few years, it amazes me how one rewatch could shatter the love I had for this film almost entirely.
As a standalone product, Ridley Scott directs us through a solid space drama that blends the survival of one man isolated on Mars, whilst the tension on Earth between a group doing their best for his survival explodes into shady tactics, high-risks, and desperation. Most of the cast feel relatively underutilised, Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Benedict Wong, and Donald Glover all feel relatively underwhelming, not because they don’t rise to the challenge, but because they’re not given all that much to do. They’re tools for Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels to utilise from time to time, prying at fear that never amounts to anything more than weak or disinterested. That fear is crucial, as it adds layers to the storytelling, and it’s a shame the cast on Earth can’t manage it.
Damon’s performance does capture that fear, though. The isolation and will to survive, the sheer luck that astronaut Mark Watney encounters during his year and a half on Martian terrain does make it through somewhat unscathed. It helps that Damon is so likeable in the leading role, mixing the articulation he often brings to his performances with the likeable personality of Watney. This likeability is crucial, we’re stuck on a planet with him for so long that, had he been under-written or disengaged from the audience, it’d be near impossible to slog through the film.
Still, seeing a malnourished astronaut tear apart a spaceship whilst ABBA’s Waterloo plays in the background is certainly an enjoyable moment. That’s what The Martian is full of, though. Enjoyable moments that find themselves piecing together in an articulate enough manner to create a consistent pacing, but not engaging enough to wholly care for the events of the film. The pacing is all over the place, but with a great deal of the book to cram into a mere two hours, there are bound to be some omissions. The methods used to cut out these moments is shoddy, though, pages and pages reduced to a handful of lines, a great chunk of the core message, survival, is silenced entirely by a large skip in time.
I remember adoring this film the first time I’d watched it, but after reading the source material, The Martian’s adaptation feels like a barebones piece of gaudy entertainment. Stripping away the tension and isolated hesitations and fear Watney feels, and replacing it instead with more of the bureaucracy that surrounded his trip. Hacking away at whole swathes of context, detail and interest, the film feels as stripped down as the vessel Watney uses to escape his desert hellscape. It’s still a fine adaptation, far better than it arguably should be, but Andy Weir’s prose and craft makes no signs of surfacing in this well-led, comfortably forgettable piece. I’m not quite sure why I was so fond of it in the first place, perhaps I just wanted to see Matt Damon colonise and conquer Mars.