“The Martian” and the Earthlings

There’s one question everyone I know is asking about the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian: Did they mess it up?

The book became a surprise self-published bestseller by drawing on a detailed and realistic understanding of the actual science and technology of space transportation—an outstanding example of “hard sci-fi“—to propel a suspenseful plot in which our hero, astronaut Mark Watney, has to figure out how to survive alone on Mars with inadequate supplies, then make a treacherous journey across the planet’s surface for a daring rescue operation.

But for some reason, everybody seems to think that Hollywood is going to mess it up. Actually, it’s for a very good reason. Aside from its general tendency to ruin our favorite books, Hollywood tends not to do well with stories that revolve around science and technology. For all their skill at special effects, the people who actually make the stories tend to assume that audiences go to the movies in search of a constant wave of big emotional stimulation, but anything that asks them to engage the thinking part of their brains is hopelessly boring. So a lot of us worried that Hollywood just wouldn’t get The Martian.

I am happy to report that they didn’t mess it up. The suspenseful, science-driven plot is there, just shortened a bit, with a few minor plot twists omitted to keep the film inside its running time. Matt Damon does a fine job of carrying the film and captures the offbeat sense of humor that makes Mark Watney so likeable and helps relieve the dramatic tension. In one particularly amusing segment, Watney gives a long disquisition on maritime law, in which he concludes that his journey to commandeer a NASA vehicle technically makes him a pirate. And not just a pirate, but a “space pirate.”

This trailer will give you a very accurate sense for the film.

And if that doesn’t make you want to go see it, probably nothing will.

I was also happy to see that the characters’ overly frequent use of obscenities—the one annoying flaw of the novel—has been mercifully pared down to perhaps a dozen particularly salty words. That was a real surprise to me, because Hollywood is the only place I’ve ever been where people actually use the F-word in conversation as frequently as the characters in the novel. I suppose they wanted to keep their PG-13 rating and not do too much to scare families away from a film that has no sex or violence—another Hollywood rarity.

But the question isn’t just whether they altered the plot or the character. It was about the overall focus of the film. The choice is captured in two speeches from the original novel.

In one, Watney offers an explanation for why so many people back on Earth are going through so much trouble to try to rescue him.

If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are [people] who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.

This was actually used in one trailer for the film.

The other speech is about how, “at some point, everything’s going to go South on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work.” You have to solve one problem, Watney explains, and then solve the next problem, and then solve the next problem, and “if you solve enough problems, you get to go home.” Part of this is used in the other trailer for the film.

These are both good speeches, but there is a difference of emphasis. The first is about a benevolent view of human nature, but it’s from a more emotional, “human interest” angle: how “every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” The second is about scientific and technological problem-solving; it’s less about emotions and more about the use of reason.

So the biggest question I had going in to the film was: which speech would make it into the movie, and which speech would set the tone for the movie?

Either emphasis would make a fine film, but the first is much more in Hollywood’s comfort zone. Here’s an instructive comparison. A lot of people have compared The Martian to Apollo 13, including myself, in a review of the book.

There is a famous scene in the 1995 film Apollo 13, when the astronauts are having trouble with their carbon dioxide filters. They need the filters to keep their air breathable, but the filters are the wrong size because they were taken from another part of the ship. Back at Houston, one of the mission controllers brings a group of engineers into a room and tells them that they have a few hours to solve the problem, using only the tools and materials available to the astronauts. They brainstorm and come up with a solution. I remember thinking at the time that I wished the whole movie had been like that one scene. Apparently, I wasn’t alone; that scene has already inspired a successful television series (BBC’s “Scrapheap Challenge,” which came to America as “Junkyard Wars”). The Martian takes the same idea and makes it into the whole story.

Others have made the same observation, and Andy Weir has described this as part of the inspiration for his book. But why was that scene only five minutes of Apollo 13? Well, because it was a Ron Howard film, and he’s all about the touchy-feely emotional stuff. Apollo 13 was a good film, mind you, but it tips the balance of the story toward emotional “human interest” rather than rational problem-solving.

Based on his past work, The Martian‘s director, Ridley Scott, could have gone the same direction. But he tipped the balance the other way, and it’s the second speech, the one about solving problems, that makes it into the film and sums the whole thing up.

That turns out to have plenty of emotional power of its own, because Watney’s description of his struggle for survival—you solve one problem, then you solve another problem, and if you solve enough of them, you get to live—is a description of life itself. It’s a description of how we got out of the caves and learned how to make fire and plant crops and build cities and cure diseases and build steam engines and factories and learn to fly—and eventually learned to build rockets to explore other planets. It’s a description of what every individual has to do in his own life to make his way in the world—to acquire skills, to choose a career, to set and achieve your personal goals.

For one man alone on Mars, science and technology and using your mind to solve problems is a matter of bare survival. For an entire species here on Earth, it’s about how to thrive and prosper and do amazing things.

That’s the message The Martian has for us Earthlings, and it’s great to see Hollywood take that seriously and present it on the screen in such a dramatic and entertaining way.

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