Whilst doing a bit of rapid-fire research for this review I came across a very interesting and quite fascinating (to me that is – it may do absolutely nothing for you dear reader) piece of info regarding this space age re-working of Robinson Crusoe. The Martian is based on a self-published e-book (the ones I don’t read) by Andy Weir. That’s right – one of those millions of self-published books, floating about all over Amazon, actually became a best seller and is now up there on our gigantic screens
Mr Weir was a computer programmer (and still may be for all I know, if he’s not given it all up in favour of fame and fortune) who wrote code for World of Warcraft 2, as well as helping to programme the smart into your average smartphone. However, although Mr Weir’s proper job was writing code (I’m pretending I know what ‘code’ is, which I don’t, but apparently a 5 year old can do it if you believe those Barclays’ adverts) – anyway Mr Weir had long harboured a desire to one day break through as an author and so, when blog writing became all the rage many blogging moons ago, Andy Weir decided to set himself up with an online personal blog.
In 2009 he began serialising a story on there, chapter by chapter, about an astronaut who gets marooned on Mars. Being a self-confessed science geek/nerd, Weir wrote this story very much as a hobby, so he could spend happy hours researching every scientific element of the plot online to get his facts right; sometimes relying on feedback from scientist pals reading his blog. Non-science type people then took notice of The Martian and began emailing Weir to ask if he could supply it via e-reader. Requests then came in that he put it on Kindle, which led to Weir publishing it on Amazon for the lowest possible price (he was still thinking in ‘hobby’ terms here) for 99 cents a pop, quickly selling a stunning 35000 copies, which led to Random House getting in touch, who published the book ‘properly’ before Hollywood came calling – which is a story just about incredible enough to rival Mr Weir’s own Mars based tale.
(Andy Weir is also responsible for a strange short story, so short it qualifies more as an overly long paragraph, called The Egg, which became a sort of tiny internet phenomenon – check it out.)
Mr Weir and I have something in common – we have a fear of flying. I last flew in 2004, vowing never to board a plane again, EVER – following a night-time incident on said plane (involving much running about by worried air stewards and the mention of smoke in the loo and shall we tell the captain?) An incident which no-one else noticed, being that the other passengers were blissfully in the land of nod while I remained alert gripping my seat in terror. Andy Weir last flew in 2007 also vowing never to get airborne again, but is unforthcoming regarding the details.
But, on to the film. Me and the husband went last night. I’d booked us row F, seats 11 and 12, as I always do, being a creature of habit. We made our way to row F to find six strapping young men occupying the middle of the row, including our seats. I shyly and politely pointed out the error of their ways, in case they were not strapping young men but unruly thugs. They were adamant I was wrong, so hubby and I took one of them to the end of the row and pointed to the MASSIVE ‘F’ painted on the side and to our tickets, with F and 11 and 12 printed on them. In spite of the fact that a GIGANTIC ‘F’ stared said young man in the face he remained defiant, until one of his mates looked at their tickets and realised they were for row ‘E’ (which, to be fair, could have looked like an F if you maybe weren’t wearing your glasses or hadn’t looked at your tickets at all, deciding that row F was much the better bet.) Very nicely they all moved out to the row in front. I sat down to find car keys and other sundry items placed in the cup holders and so spent a few pleasant minutes handing these belongings back to the strapping young men.
On looking around the place I realised that I was actually awash in a sea of testosterone; that I was in fact the only woman in the nearby vicinity. This led to a profound psychological insight – beneath this female, middle-aged persona there beats the heart of your average nerdy, Discovery watching, geek-laden male of the species (this is the kind of rubbish that goes through my mind while I’m sitting through the interminable pre-film adverts.)
Right, get a grip woman and start talking about the film.
The Martian is good, with obvious similarities to Interstellar and Gravity, not least that Matt Damon can also be found marooned on a hostile planet in Interstellar, whilst Jessica Chastain makes an appearance in both movies. You must see it on the big screen, because the sweeping martian vistas, the deep reds, browns and oranges of the alien landscape (looking a lot like the Grand Canyon and Arizona worked as stand-ins), and the vast star laden canopy of space will diminish and become ordinary on your TV monitors at home – even if you’ve got those 48” ones.
Matt Damon is Mark Watney, part of a team of astronauts living on Mars after a successful mission to the planet (see here for related martian thoughts.) One night a dust storm comes rolling in, big enough to destroy everything in its path, causing the team to escape the planet back to the orbiting space station. In the blinding storm Mark is hit by a flying satellite dish (at least I think that’s what it was, the storm was a chaos of flashing lights and darkness so it could have been a martian dustbin lid for all I know ) and disappears into the Martian night, leaving his crew no option but to leave him behind.
We find him the next morning half buried in red sand and alive. Oxygen is low in his suit but he makes it back to the crew’s living quarters (the Hab) discovering that a large metal rod is embedded in his abdomen. Not appearing to miss a beat, although breathing rather rapidly, he heroically pulls out the foot long rod, before going on to perform surgery on himself (shown in graphic but bearable detail) to remove part of the rod still embedded, thus preventing infection and stapling (yes stapling!) the wound up afterwards. I’m still not sure if the stapler used was medical or the kind found in your average office supplies. And there Mark’s lonely life begins.
It’s clear from the beginning that this cast away in space is not going for introspection, depression or pessimism. Mark Watney is instead a shining solitary beacon of hope, endeavour, ingenuity and human cleverness – all the things we’d like to think we’d be if we ever found ourselves alone on an alien planet.
He talks into his laptop – to no one – creating a log of daily events peppered with humour: Hi, ‘I’m Mark Watney and I’m still alive…….obviously’ and ‘I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.’ He works out he has probably 3 years of space-type food left, if he rations and, as another mission to Mars will take place in 4 years, realises he must find a way to grow his own if he’s going to survive to be rescued.
Mark it turns out is a Botanist and gets to work creating a small field of martian dirt enclosed in heavy duty plastic sheets where he attempts to grow potatoes, using his own toilet waste (eeugh! and I’m using a polite euphemism here) as fertiliser, and water made from setting light to hydrogen (I think, I’m not a scientist) getting himself comically blown up in the process.
The first little green shoot that appears in his martian field is a nice moment, as Mark says ‘hi there’ to this first sign of life on the planet, in a scene that will make you understand why people sometimes end up talking to their herbaceous borders.
Mark’s solitary life is lived against a backdrop of 70s disco music, the only music brought along by another crew member and a music genre Mark detests with a passion; along with episodes of Happy Days. A crop of potatoes appears allowing him to survive on a diet of baked potato and ketchup (when the ketchup runs out he defiantly dips his spuds into crushed up pain killers, just for something to dip them into.) He trundles around the planet on a pressurised rover vehicle, which saves his life at one point, discovering something called the Pathfinder (which apparently has really been up there on Mars since the 90s) conveniently buried in the sand on one of these sorties. The Pathfinder is a robotic thing/satellite and Mark digs it up, gets it working and uses it to communicate with Earth via writing messages on bits of plastic taped to sticks in the dirt.
Gaffer tape, or duct tape, is actually the star of this show. Mark uses it to seal a breach in his helmet, to create a door on the Hab when one section of the Hab is blown apart, to hang up his plastic sheets – it would seem that the key to survival is a copious supply of sticky tape. Somebody should get hold of Bear Grylls and make him aware of this.
We continually cut between the goings-on on Mars and at NASA headquarters. NASA employees run around frantically trying to get Mark home, using a strategy seen in Apollo 13 (the Tom Hanks film, who also gave us his Robinson Crusoe in Cast Away) when they use a replica Pathfinder to mirror what Mark is doing up on the planet, enabling communication.
To cut a long film short (2 hrs 21 mins) – Mark eventually gets continuous digital communication going between him and Earth and is rescued by his crew on the space station, who manage to pick him up after he takes off from Mars in the MAV (Mars ascent vehicle) and the crew captain goes out to pull him to safety in that jet propelled chair thing George Clooney used in Gravity.
I’ve not seen Matt Damon in much (not a fan of the Bourne series, except the Jeremy Renner one) but he’s good in this. Likeable, funny, vulnerable and sad – taking to his solitary confinement on Mars like a duck to the non-existent martian water.
The martian space suit the costume design team came up with is pretty good too. Think Star Wars storm trooper meets extreme sports enthusiast, and all in fetching orange, black and white. The space helmets are subtly different to the NASA ones too, allowing more visibility of the actor’s face so every emotion can be registered, important when your star spends quite a lot of time suited up.
One more thing. Sean Bean plays a rebellious NASA flight director, using his distinctive northern accent, and there’s a nicely comic touch when the NASA bigwigs meet to discuss Mark’s predicament and one employee likens it to the Council of Elrond in Lord of the Rings (the strapping young men surrounding me LOVED this bit) – I’m thinking maybe Sean Bean was cast just for this moment?
The Martian is space-a-rrific and science-mongous – an engaging smorgasbord of geek-filled and nerdy delights. The running time is maybe over-long, and would have benefitted from some judicious editing, particularly with the NASA related stuff but that’s my only criticism. I never buy DVDs these days but I’ll be grabbing a copy of The Martian when it comes out.