Every once in a while, there is a story, piece of entertainment, what have you, that captures the attention of everyone except me. This piece of entertainment will be aligned with everything I enjoy in a story, but the premise is something I side-eye. And then I consume said piece of entertainment and BOOM. My heart grows three sizes and everything I say or think is related to this piece of entertainment for about a week.
This was The Martian for me.
My Dad really wanted to see it when I visited opening weekend. I wanted to read the novel first, but sometimes you have to tell yourself “What the hell, man?” and take a leap.
This was a glorious, glorious leap.
The Martian was originally self-published by its author Andy Weir in 2011. In early 2013, two things happened: 1. Crown Publishing purchased the rights to publish the story and 2. it was optioned for a film by Twentieth Century Fox. So it was kind of a sleeper but the marketing of the past year, particularly for the movie, really sold it to the mainstream audience. The movie is directed by Ripley Scott and stars Matt Damon as Mark Whatney.
The movie I saw first and I walked out with a huge smile. I loved it so much I wanted to talk about it all the time. Finally, on Monday, I walked into Half Price Books and bought the paperback. The novel is about 400 pages and I read through it in two days with a full-time job. I highly recommend The Martian, both novel and movie, to everyone.
Spoilers for novel and movie ahead.
For a movie (and novel) about a man stranded on a deserted planet, it is surprisingly funny. The novel more so than the movie because the novel, as the longer form, takes advantage of the space and fills it with sarcastic wit and swearing. The movie focuses more on the dramatic side of things, but it still keeps the humor in most places, such as Whatney’s growing dislike for disco music (a la Commander Lewis who brought the music, apparently). The movie then goes on to use several disco songs as part of the soundtrack.
The Martian takes a high-brow concept—what is likely to turn me off more than anything—and delivers it with a low-brow execution. In the book, Whatney is sarcastic and geeky and not afraid to confess some embarrassing stuff. Whatney has a similar personality in the movie, but the humor is somewhat removed, probably due to the medium. The movie is more dramatic and faster paced than the novel, which slows down in the second half as NASA is suffering from the weight of trying to get him home and Whatney loses momentum once his habitat is mostly livable.
Surviving Mars is not an easy endeavor. Whatney survives no less than two explosions, both in the movie and the book. One explosion is used for humorous effect and the other is a plot device. Whatney encounters more problems in the book, and he often attributes the source of these problems as his own stupidity. He acknowledges this fairly often. In the final third of the book, when Whatney is gearing up for his big road trip, he packs five full meals instead of his standard 3/4 rations to eat for five celebrations: 1. Left camp today, 2. made it halfway, 3. arrived at destination, 4. last meal on Mars, and 5. “survived something that should have killed me.”
The movie features a similar sense of humor, and it is this that made the movie for me. I was expecting something a lot more dramatic than complaints about disco and exclamations about being the greatest botanist on the planet. This is really the brunt of why I love the movie. It defied my expectations and delivered a real yet lighthearted story.
There is a lot of accessible science explained in the book. Whatney (or Weir) does a great job explaining the solutions for Whatney’s problems in layman’s terms. Moreover, he does a great job explaining why something is good or bad and what it means for Whatney both in the short-term and long-term. The movie is less detailed about the science, but it has the added bonus of visual aids.
While we’re still talking science, my favorite parts of the movie are when we get giant landscapes of Mars with dust tornadoes in the background and little swirls of wind and dust. It shows that, despite being described as mostly dead, Mars comes alive in the landscape with wind and rock formations. The scenery was gorgeous! And the majestic landscapes with such barrenness drives home the idea that Whatney is all alone and at the mercy of this unforgiving wasteland.
Both movie and novel touch on the worth of a single man’s life. How do you justify the money to save the life of a man 140 million miles away to Congress? The novel takes this question deeper than the movie. Whatney mentions but does not attempt several methods of suicide that would be less painful than starving to death. And then there is a scene in the novel where Johanssan assures her father that in the event the supply pickup at Earth fails, she will survive because the crew would sacrifice themselves to feed her and Whatney for the remainder of the mission. The one moment where the book got really dark passed like a Martian dust storm. I, for one, am grateful for that. Whatney touches but does not engage in dark themes, and I believe it makes for a more interesting read. Those are the themes a reader would have to explore more in-depthly, taking apart the humor and sarcasm and finding the darker meaning in the lighter portions of the novel.
The one problem I had with both movie and book the slight sexism. Both novel and movie made a show to include women in science-type positions: Commander Lewis (mission leader) and Johansson (computer geek) in space, Mindy Park (satellite communications specialist) and Annie Montrose (Director of Media Relations) on Earth. These are great contributions, but I have two points:
- Whatney only loots through the personal belongings of his female crewmates. He does this to find entertainment, and he finds it in the personal belongings of Lewis and Johansson. Looting through the male crewmates’ personal belongings is not mentioned in the movie and is given a small throwaway line in the novel. It feels unintentional because Lewis and Johansson are the more developed characters from the Ares 3 crew, but it still begs the question why Whatney didn’t bring entertainment himself?
- There are no women making big decisions on Earth in both novel and movie. Of course all communications positions are women, and of course they do not have anything to contribute to the larger conversation of funding, supplies, and/or resources. Aside from being present and relaying information, they do not do much to get Whatney home.
Regardless of this, The Martian is amazing. It is so amazing I live-tweeted my reading of the book, even made my own hashtag for it. If you ask me about The Martian, I will happily engage in a discussion about it. Until then, I leave you with this quote which, like much of Whatney’s commentary, speaks to the hearts of everyone: