Last November, I saw Interstellar in theaters and was surprisingly pleased by the use of physics to drive the plot. It takes creativity to turn time dilation into an interesting part of human relationships, and it takes even more to make it meaningful and compelling on-screen. The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, goes further in creating suspense with plausible, basic science and making space travel look really fun.
The Martian is set roughly in the present time with technology seemingly not so different from our own. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a 6 man crew on a manned mission to Mars when a storm hits. As the crew goes for an emergency takeoff, Watney is hit by debris and presumed dead as Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) takes off without him. Watney comes to shortly afterwards and realizes that he’s stranded alone on Mars with limited rations and no way to communicate with Earth and needs to find a way to survive. Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and more) discover he is still alive and work to figure out how to bring him home.
The movie largely follows the plot of the book and retains both the commitment to science and the humor along the way. Early on, Watney needs to create water: he figures out that he can burn hydrazine from rocket fuel, but it of course blows up and leaves him singed in a typical mad scientist sort of way. Watney himself is a bit of a wise guy, and much of the humor comes through the characters and their reactions to their situation. Although the plot is obviously geeky, each step is explained clearly and visually to make it accessible to a wide audience. Perhaps experts in particular fields may be more critical, but general consensus seems to be that the science is pretty good, the solutions are plausible, and the dangers are real, which makes it all the more inspiring to watch.
I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at pictures from Curiosity or other Mars missions, and assuming that the graphics are roughly accurate, the movie provided striking landscapes of Mars. From a story perspective, they certainly emphasizes how isolated Watney is, but I enjoyed it just as a way for me to visualize what Mars is like. Most hard science fiction comes as books, and even with the best descriptions, it can be hard to imagine alien planets, spaceships, and Mars habitats.
I will be “that guy” who points out that the book was better: I think that largely comes from how similar the book is to the movie. In some ways, the plot almost reads like a series of mystery stories, where each survival problem needs to be solved using science of some sort. Knowing what those solutions are and how they’re going to turn out took away much of the suspense, but as I mentioned above, it was still very entertaining to see live.
I opened by comparing the movie to Interstellar, and I will close with the same. There are many similarities such as cast, timing, and genre, but the two movies definitely have distinct characteristics. Interstellar is set further ahead in the future and uses science to motivate the story about the characters and their relationships, and those relationships are the heart of the movie. The Martian is, at its core, about solving problems with science and engineering, and it actually really works.