I picked up Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian” – the basis of a film of the same title to be released on October 2 – since the idea of storytelling by someone stranded on Mars fascinated me. How does a person marooned on lifeless* Mars survive in a poisonous atmosphere, bitterly cold, with no means of communication? (*Maybe not. News this week shows flowing water on Mars!)
From the very first page of the novel, I was intrigued. Here is a segment of the opening chapter:
Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.
For the record. . . I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them.
Mark Watney’s struggle to live, figure out how to grow food, assume his own death but then begin to imagine a rescue is the center of this tale. The book isn’t just a soliloquy. The reader sees the perspective of NASA along with that of astronauts aboard the spaceship Hermes. On the orders of Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the crew of the Hermes quickly blasts off Mars during a ferocious dust storm after receiving data showing Mark, blown away from them by tornadic winds, is dead.
Author Weir began self-publishing this story chapter-by-chapter online, getting comments from scientists and others. He refined the science, math, physics and chemistry as he developed the story and eventually received guidance from NASA. The online story became a best selling novel. The wisecracking Watney (Matt Damon in the film) is an appealing and ingenious character. We learn about him as he pens his autobiography for distant future explorers of Mars. Trained as a botanist, Watney is compelled to become a mechanic, builder, chemist, rover navigator, and much more as he figures out how to live on the lifeless planet.
Science is at the heart of the story and it is presented in a palatable manner in the novel. Director Ridley Scott and Andy Reid, interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival, made it clear that one of the intents in the filmmaking was to ensure that the science was accurate.
The filmmakers consulted with folks at the Johnson Space Center about the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), space suits, space habitats along with the instruments and tools necessary for living in the Martian environment. While the wind storms are contrived (due to lack of atmospheric conditions that would allow them), much about the Mars surface and the space equipment is accurate.
The trailer for the film shows magnificent but stark landscapes of the Red Planet with striking cliffs and incredible rock formations and canyons. Watney travels several times over this land, first to get the means to communicate with Earth (which later fails), then to get to the site of a future mission.
There are enough disasters in the novel ensuring that this can be an excellent action-adventure film. I’m interested in how the film will vary from the book, a page-turner in itself.
I’m traveling this week so cannot see the film’s opening, but can’t wait to see on the large screen the story development along with the sweeping landscapes. Watney’s character is diminished to a tiny part of nature, reminiscent of the feelings one has in the vastness of parts of America’s southwest.
The cast includes Kristen Wiig (NASA’s public affairs director), Jeff Daniels (NASA Administrator), Chiwetel Ejiofor (director of the Mars mission), Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis and many more.
Sources: Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” 20th Century Fox “The Martian” website, IMDb website, Ridley Scott interview