I just got back from watching The Martian movie and then eating ice cream and discussing the minutiae with a bunch of my wife’s high school physics students. So I had a pretty fun afternoon.
I went into the movie with high hopes: I was predicting to people beforehand that it would likely make a better movie than book, because a movie can get away with less-developed characters, and acting talent can make up for a lot of shortcomings in the material itself. Also, sweeping landscape shots are just the thing you need for a story like The Martian. They can communicate very efficiently what it would take pages to convey in the book. So was I right? Was the movie better?
Yes! At least, I think so. It was a rare space exploration movie that got almost everything right. Of course there were some nitpicky issues but overall it does a fantastic job of showing a bizarro future where NASA has a lot of funding and is sending humans to Mars. It conveys the excitement and drama of human space exploration, and the heroes are heroic as much for their brains as for their courage. This movie is going to inspire a lot of people to be scientists and engineers, or to at least take more of an interest in these sorts of topics.
As for comparing with the book, they streamlined some of the plot, which was fine by me. They did sadly skip over some technical details that I think could have made things easier to understand (like why he cut a hole in the top of the rover), but a movie has to keep moving. More importantly, having Matt Damon bring life to the relatively two-dimensional character of Mark Watney helped a lot. As did having a supporting cast that was also very well-acted so that, for example, when he is finally able to exchange messages with his crewmates, their banter is much more emotional than I recall in the book.
Yes, but what about the science? Much like the book, it’s mostly pretty good. As before, the biggest issue is the sandstorm at the beginning which is unrealistically forceful. But hey, as I noted in my review of the book, the author acknowledged this and made it as a deliberate artistic choice, and I’m generally ok with bending the rules if there’s a good plot reason to do so. What I like less is when fiction is unrealistic for no apparent reason and there’s very little of that in the movie (though there’s always some).
A new nitpick that appeared in the movie is the landscape. The book spends little time describing the landscape, instead describing potato farming and water production and other technical aspects in loving detail. The movie can’t get away with that: it has to show the landscape, and boy is the landscape of Mars in this movie dramatic! And hey, if people think of Mars as a planet of spectacular cliffs and dunes and canyons, that’s good! Because it is!
We just wouldn’t land people near them. Watney is supposed to be in Acidalia Planitia, which is a wide open plain. Those spectacular geologic formations in the movie would be fascinating scientifically, but likely too dangerous to land nearby. (EDIT: My smart friends point out that we could totally land people near large cliffs like that. The benefit of having a human pilot is that your landing uncertainty shrinks down to only a few hundred meters. I had been thinking that all the pre-supply stuff had to land autonomously, but if you can have a human pilot land it, then a site like the one depicted might be ok. But it’s still not what Acidalia Planitia would look like.)
And as for the Pathfinder landing site. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any towering cliffs or sand dunes in this picture. I mostly just see a lot of rocks that would be a pain to drive over:
But whatever, I can’t really complain too much that the movie made Mars look extra awesome.
Bottom line: this is a great space exploration movie. You should go see it. Take someone young and impressionable. I hope this movie wins all the awards and makes all the money, so that Hollywood will continue the recent trend of making relatively realistic science fiction blockbusters about the drama of space exploration, instead of yet another superhero reboot. Maybe, just maybe, that will lead to enough increased public interest that what we’re seeing in movies like The Martian will no longer have to be just science fiction.
PS: If you have more questions about the technical details of the movie or book, post a comment and I’ll try to answer!