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Review: THE MARTIAN

the-martian-600x450Can you imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing this film? Can you even begin to imagine?

I have been a huge fan of the story of THE MARTIAN for a long time, ever since it first appeared online as a story a few years ago. I read it several times on my computer and tablet before buying the book when it was published – signed copy, of course! – and then when I heard it was going to be made into a film I was as excited as a dog in a lamp post factory. Then, of course, after I was excited I was terrified; what if they ruined it, like other brilliant books have been ruined by film-makers in the past? What if they dumbed it down, and stripped away all the science leaving just a “Castaway on Mars” rip-off?

My anxiety was eased somewhat when I heard who was going to be directing it – Ridley Scott. Phew. “Epic” is his middle name, he would be able to handle it, surely. But… his films are SO dour, SO serious, would he be able to keep in the comedy the book is full of? ( Oh, please, Ridley, don’t make a “dark” MARTIAN, don’t turn it into a Dark Knight film..) I knew a lot would depend on the casting of the lead role: would his Mark Watney be funny, and irreverent, and sometimes just plain silly, like he is in the book? Ah… casting Matt Damon in the lead seemed a good move – a safe pair of hands, Matt, and in my mind I could see him as Watney without any trouble –

But… but…!!

All I could do was cross my fingers and wait.

As the film entered production, and as I waited to see it in my local cinema, two questions were burning in my mind: how faithful would the film be to the book, and how real would Mars look in the film?

It was very important to me, as a “Mars enthusiast”, that the film of THE MARTIAN put a realistic Mars on the big screen. Mars has not been treated well by film makers in the past. RED PLANET’s Mars was okay, suitably red and dusty and craggy-looking, but ruined by those oxygen-farting bugs. MISSION TO MARS looked promising – stunning views of Mars from orbit – until the most stupid astronauts ever to go into space “woke up” the Face on Mars and were torn to bits by a sand storm (and the less said about the end, with a gormless- and bored looking Gary Sinese meeting the worst CGI aliens ever to be shown in a big budget film, the better)…

And then, of course, we come to TOTAL RECALL – the original one, not  the recent Colin Farrell bomb.

In Arnie’s film – which is about as scientifically accurate as an episode of Blakes 7 but is a hugely enjoyable romp, let’s be honest – Mars is not just “the red planet”, it is the OH MY GOD!!! THAT IS SO RED MY EYES ARE MELTING!!!! red planet. His Mars is a planet dipped in fire engine red paint, then dusted with red brick dust and then drowned in red paint again just to be certain everyone in the audience gets it that MARS IS RED.

total_recall_1990_pic02-1024x550An honourable mention must go to the classic “ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS”. Look carefully at this poster…

Robinson-Crusoe-on-Mars

See where it says, bottom left, “Scientifically authentic”? Let’s examine it’s scientific authenticity… UFOs!! A ripped space suit! An APE MAN!! A MONKEY ON HIS SHOULDER, WITHOUT A SPACE SUIT! It’s still a fun film tho. And I was pretty sure THE MARTIAN would be rather more “authentic”…🙂

So, yes, it’s fair to say that it was very important to me that THE MARTIAN treated Mars, MY planet, always has been, with respect and, okay, yes, love. Regular readers will know of my passion for Mars, how I’ve been a “martian” since I was at junior school, long before the fictional Mark Watney ever thought about going there.

Then… the long wait until “word” started coming out of the studios about how the film was going.

Images started being released, and to my relief Mars looked… right. Well, not perfect, but much more realistic than it had been shown in other films. Just by looking at the promotional stills I got a sense of THE MARTIAN’s take on Mars, and it looked every bit as wide open and epic and noble and beautiful as I’d hoped it would. That was a good sign, and when the first trailers were released I literally cheered watching them, I was that happy and that relieved. It looked like Ridley Scott had pulled off what had eluded so many before him and made a Good Mars Film.

Release date approached, and the the early reviews started to appear, and they were all good. ALL good. It had blown people away; even the most cynical reviewers had loved it. I couldn’t wait to see it myself –

And last Tuesday night I finally did.

I swear I walked into the Brewery Arts Center a nervous wreck. I wanted so badly, SO badly for the film to be good, to not let me down, to not ruin the book in any way. And I took my seat and just sat there mentally sending Ridley Scott messages…. “Don’t you dare spoil this story for me, don’t you DARE…”

Lights down… music began…

… … … … … … …

End titles… credits roll… lights up…

…and I just sat there, staring at the screen, with a big grin on my face and all my worries and fears swept away. He did it. He actually did it. He not only brought THE MARTIAN to life, he brought Mars, the real Mars, to life too. Well, almost. But he’d done the best job yet.

I loved THE MARTIAN, and I loved the Mars that is shown in THE MARTIAN. Mars has never looked more beautiful on the big screen. Never. Watching the film, the Mars in my head, MY Mars, kept whispering “It’s still not right… where are all the rocks? It’s so flat! SO much open space! And the mountains look wrong! And… and…” But I didn’t listen. I told that voice to shut up, because the Mars on the screen was GORGEOUS, a huge John Ford western Mars, a Big Country Mars that looked noble and ancient and BIG, with sweeping vistas, a caramel sky, dust devils whirling softly in the distance, dust wafting over the ground. Yes, it was too flat, with too much open ground, but I forgave it that for just looking so stunning. Good job, Ridley. Good job.

But of course, to be fair here, I have to talk about the martian elephant in the room. Yes, that. The dust storm. The storm that strands Watney on Mars in the first place.

Obviously, it’s ridiculous. RiDICulous. Dust storms on Mars just aren’t like that. A dust storm on Mars is basically a wafting breeze carrying a lot of dust with it; it wouldn’t blow you over, it wouldn’t even bend you. So the scene where Watney and his team stagger through the dark, through a hail of jagged fragments of rock and stone is… ridiculous. But it’s in the book, and Ridley Scott obviously loved his shrapnel storm in PROMETHEUS **SO** much he shoe-horned it into THE MARTIAN too! And author Andy Weir admits that, freely; in a book otherwise crammed full of good science The Storm is just a plot device to strand Watney there. And you know, that’s ok, I didn’t mind that, because IT’S A FILM NOT A DOCUMENTARY!!!!!🙂

I loved so many things about the film. I loved the way that science is a hero in the film (and the book), and the people who do science are heroes and heroines too. I loved the fact that no-one died (I really did wonder if Ridley Scott would re-write the story so SOMEONE died, cos he loves killing people in his films). I loved that no-one had been turned into an all out boo-hiss villain. I loved the first shot of the crew on Mars, which actually made me whisper “Oh yes!!!” in the darkness of the cinema. I loved how, at the end of the film, Watney was shown surrounded by lush green, a stark contrast to all the martian hues through the rest of the two hours. I loved how they showed Sojourner rolling happily around inside the hab like a dog – and I was THIS close to blubbing when Watney knelt down and affectionately patted it goodbye, before abandoning the Hab and setting off to be rescued.

I loved how the film kept the fun of the book, which I was really quite worried about. I mean, “Ridley Scott” and “fun” go together like “politician” and “honest”, i.e. they don’t, but he kept almost all the humour of the book, especially Watney’s despair at only having disco music to listen to. ( Actually, I’d have been fine with that, but that’s just me and my taste in music… walking about on Mars with Sister Sledge playing in my helmet would do me just fine, thank you…!)

Yes, there are cliches in the film, lots of them. The JPL scientists are all shown as uber geeks, all messy desks, sleeping on couches and SF tee-shirts. The NASA chief, quite a nuanced, deep character in the book, is an old faithful Mr Stuffed Shirt who “comes around” in the end. The Chinese are deep and inscrutable… etc etc…

But he patted Sojourner goodbye, so I forgive all the above.

A few things did jar… a little… The Pathfinder landing site shown was just Anywhere On Mars, nothing like Ares Valles where it actually landed; I would have loved to have seen the actual landing site recreated, even with CGI, but sadly that was not to be. The film also gave the impression that JPL was basically a few farm barns where unwashed extras from an episode of Dawson’s Creek worked, and where a “spare” Pathfinder lurked under a tarpaulin that could be woken up with just a bit of a brush off and some jump leads. The spacesuits looked like… well, not really like spacesuits, but they were ok.

The storm was – yeah, enough about that.

What I really, really wish they had done (and I’m not even sure if this was a scene in the book) was show Watney sitting on top of a hill, or just standing out in the open, after sunset, looking wistfully at Earth, shining in the dusk like a blue star. That would have looked magical, and if ever a film could have done that image justice, THE MARTIAN was it. I wonder if they shot it and it will be in the obligatory “Director’s Cut” DVD? I’ll know when I buy it.

So, to summarise… THE MARTIAN is a great film. Is it faithful to the book? Yes – well, faithful enough; filming the whole book would have been almost impossible, unless you were Peter Jackson and used to making films that last half a day. There’s enough of the book’s science in it to satisfy the people who love the book, and not so much that people new to the story will be bored. People who go to the book after watching the film will either enjoy the additional botany and geometry and mathematics, or they will think “Huh, the film was better…” and put it down again. THE MARTIAN isn’t the best SF film ever made, not by a longshot, but it is, hands down, the best Mars film ever made, and will bring that planet to life in the minds of a whole new generation of people.

As for how it shows Mars… I’m very, very picky about this, I know, but it didn’t quite nail it for me. It almost had it, but if you *know* Mars like Mars enthusiasts do, the Mars in the film is a bit too flat, a bit too jagged-hilly, and way, waaay too stormy! The view of the dust storm boiling over the mountains is fantastic to look at, very dramatic, but not accurate – but, again, that’s ok, I can easily forgive that when the film just looks so luscious and rich, and treats Mars, for the first time, with the respect it deserves.

And he patted Sojourner goodbye…!!!!!😦😦

But above all, the film is just great fun! It is hugely entertaining, just like the book. I must admit, watching The Storm I wondered if Ridley had made a dark and brooding film and stripped away some of the humour. I mean… the guy made PROMETHEUS, a film which relishes misery and angst, wearing gloom with all the pride and joy of a goth pulling on a new black t-shirt; PROMETHEUS, a film with so many unlikeable people you lose count, and really don’t care if they die or not – is drenched in depression, and after watching it I felt like I’d been to a funeral… But THE MARTIAN is full of so much fun, and wit, and warmth, it was as if Ridley was actually enjoying himself making it. Who ever imagined they’d hear disco music in a Ridley Scott film???

I will buy the DVD, yes, and I hope to see the film in 3D too, as the Brewery Arts Centre was only showing it in 2D on the night we went. But it didn’t matter; it was a rollicking good story, and even though – as is the case with Apollo 13 – I knew exactly what was going to happen at the end, and knew he would be Brought Home, my heat was in my mouth, hoping for the best!

Good job, Ridley, Matt, and everyone else involved. Good job.

And after watching the film, one thought keeps coming back to me. Now Ridley Scott has shown a good Mars film can be made, and Mars can be shown properly on screen, the idea of someone being brave enough to take on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and do it properly, doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all…

2 Responses

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  2. Spot-on review.

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