Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Martian Review

When I heard a movie of Andy Weir's fantastic book "The Martian" was being made I was very excited. I listened to it on CD (R.C. Bray's reading was wonderful) and was completely riveted. Which was funny because, as I stated in the review for the book, the narrative is so chock full of minutia that I was amazed it kept my interest. I mean, knowing he may be stuck on Mars for years Mark Watney the protagonist has to not only parcel out his food and water rations, he has to figure out a way to get more. He does this by figuring out an ingenious, if rather disgusting but necessary way to provide fertilizer to dead Martian soil. He is a botonist after all who realizes that he's going to have to "science the shit" out of the situation in order to survive. And STS he does, ciphering how many potatoes could be grown from the potatoes in his rations. He needs to figure out the amount of soil he'll need, the amount of water he'll need, what he'll need to do to make that water (yes, he even figures out a way to make water) and how to accomplish it all in the Hab (The Habitat) the shelter that was erected for the scientists to live while they stayed on Mars. We're talking major algebraic soliloquies here. And yet I was engrossed.

And much later in the novel when the story shifted from Watney's first person to a third person account of NASA discovering he was still alive and deciding to mount a mission to save him, the hard science kept right on rolling. 

Andy Weir scienced the shit out of the whole novel but you didn't mind even if you didn't quite get all of it cause the notes of tension were so expertly played. 

Which leads me to the movie. It had many positive qualities in particular the respect for science as the problem solver. There were no big explosions, no easy answers. This was Sci Fi not fantasy. The sort of Sci Fi movie you don't often see.

I missed the chance to see the movie in the theaters. Judging by what I was seeing on my TV, I can only imagine how gorgeous it looked on the big screen. It's a beautiful film--wonderfully shot, particularly the Martian landscape which looked a lot like the American Southwest.

That could have been part of my problem with the movie. Now again this is Sci Fi and as we all know from Mars rover photos, the surface of Mars resembles a desert on Earth. I didn't expect the director to throw in giant Martian crabs or flesh eating fauna to thrill me into believing this was an alien world. But by the same token, nothing made me really feel as though this was anything more than a guy who's been through a desert on a horse with no name. Yes, he's in a space suit or encased in a "hab" (habitat with artificial air) but it didn't seem like it would be a big deal if he parked and stepped out for a breath of fresh air.

There, perhaps, is the rub. I felt no real sense of urgency in the film. Certainly not the heightened sense of urgency that came through in the book.

There were two things especially that were ever present in my mind while listening to the book. First was that at least initially it seemed every time Watney took a step forward to ensure his survival, something came up to push him back. I can't tell you how many times I bellowed, "No!" in the car as the latest mini crisis challenged Watney's survival. It literally was always something.

Then there was the monotony of his existence. Again, the minutia. Before he could make grand plans on meeting up wit the next Mars mission to arrive in a few years, he had to work out the details of his existence until that time: grow potatoes, create the soil, make the water, figure out air rations, etc. Establishing the routine so that he could then free up some time to think long term.

And speaking of long term, here's possibly the key: Watney would have to survive on Mars for years. The manned mission he's holding on for isn't due for four years. When NASA discovers he's alive and decides to mount a rescue mission, the rocket they're going to use hasn't been completed yet and even with a stepped up schedule it won't be for months. Once launched it won't reach Mars for years. In a push button world, that concept is big!

But I didn't get that sense from the movie.

Part of it could have been the way the story was told in the movie. In the book, we're hanging with Mr. Watney for a good portion of the beginning, as marooned as he is in some respects, uncertain if he can figure out a way to contact NASA. We're privy to every genius idea he comes up with to fix the latest problem that has challenged his existence, and we're there as he painstakingly implements the solution. 

About halfway through, the narrative shifts. Someone at NASA has discovered that vehicles have been moving on the surface of Mars and brings it to the attention of her boss. Time is spent to figure out if indeed Watney could still be alive, time is spent figuring out if a rescue mission is even feasible. We go from Watney's one man first person narrative to a third person narrative filled with a cast of characters ensconced safely on Earth.

Spending so much time with Watney first clearly establishes the loneliness of his predicament. Rescue, if it comes, which he isn't sure it will, won't come for years. A lot of time for him to run up against that one problem that he just can't fix. The urgency of the situation did not come through as clearly for me as I watched the movie. 

Time seemed to pass too quickly, a feeling only heightened by the "Starman" montage that appeared as we saw scenes of NASA and Watney working on their parts in the rescue mission. Don't get me wrong, it was a cool clip, but it did little to give me a sense of the weight of time hanging over the project, or for that matter the sheer scope of what they were undertaking.

None of that is to say the film was bad. It's definitely worth view and I regret not seeing it on the big screen. I just wish I could have gotten as wrapped up in watching the movie as I did in listening to the book. 


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