At long last I managed to see this movie, not without some slight qualm due to my negative reception of the book that inspired it: but as many online reviews promised, it was indeed an extraordinary experience on many levels, starting with the script, that paid the story a great service, enhancing the details I sorely missed in the novel.
One of my main contentions with Andy Weir’s story was the perceived lack of drama, the apparent ease with which the main character not only adapts to extreme conditions, but makes fun of them, sometimes taking the situation far too lightly than warranted. On screen, we see Mark Watney dealing with his dire situation through a sort of metabolic process, first huddling in the habitat as a ferocious storm rages outside, and looking through the port with a lost, forlorn expression; then he slowly takes control of his situation, getting on with the business of survival. This phase is presented with very little dialogue, using the images in a very effective way and letting the viewers fill in the blanks – because, after all, spectators and/or readers are able to do that, they don’t need to be led through any given number of steps. And yet, it was far easier to empathize with the protagonist, to feel close to him and his plight, while the novel never gave me the sense of a man undergoing a physical and psychological transformation.
The log entries are used quite sparingly, and if in the book they are more necessary because they are not supported by visual imagery as in the movie, here they give you both a sense of progress in Watney’s journey of survival, and function as a welcome tension relief when he slips into the occasional humorous remark. While I found book-Watney unnecessarily droll, and even borderline silly, movie-Watney shows the successful results of the intensive astronaut training he received: he’s steady, competent, positive even when confronting huge obstacles or spectacular defeats. When he indulges in some fun toward his missing companions, there is always a poignant note to it, showing he does miss them and that he established a relationship with each of them, one where the mutual differences strengthened those bonds, and did not leave room for the ill-concealed scorn I perceived in the book. In this respect, the best moment happens when he finally manages to establish a contact with Earth: the emotional outburst we see when he reads the first line of text – the first human “voice” to break his silence and isolation – is something that sparked a similar response in me, as proof that I felt invested in what happened to Watney. Something that I missed while reading the book.
Once the focus shifts to Earth, we can see the various characters working to save the marooned astronaut as more than talking heads: their frantic efforts, the urgency of the situation, are something the viewer feels quite strongly, as a counterpoint to Watney’s heroic efforts to stay alive. The same happens with the other astronauts, on their way home after the hurried departure: the sense of failure, the guilt weighing on them for being still alive while one of their own lost their life, are something that comes across in no uncertain terms, as does their determination to do everything in their power to bring their companion back, once they learn he’s still alive. And let’s not forget the huge crowds following the mission on big screens put up all over the world: we viewers are ideally part of those crowds, worrying and holding our collective breath and screaming our joy in the end – it’s not cheesy nor rhetorical, just a plain human reaction that feels quite good.
Last but not least, Mars: one of my complaints was that I had almost no awareness of an alien environment as I read the book, while the movie offers breath-taking views of the red planet (“played” by a stunning location in Jordan, I learned). Those bleak yet fascinating landscapes are the superb background for a compelling story, one that manages to speak louder than words through amazing images. And for someone who usually prefers words over images, like me, that’s a huge acknowledgement.