OK, so let’s get this out of the way at the top: the book is better. Straight up, no question. The book isn’t, itself, brilliant by-the-way, but it is entertaining and one heck of a fun ride despite its weaknesses (especially the last quarter). But, much like the movie, it was a runaway hit.
The movie is very nearly a one-man show and Matt Damon was born to play this role… or perhaps he did it to redeem his Interstellar character who suffered a similar fate with very different results. Damon utterly captured the sense of Mark Watney’s wry humor, dogged effort, and sense of intelligence. Supporting his efforts, Jessica Chastain (Miss Julie) and Kate Mara (Fantastic Four) also got to strike a blow for strong female roles in this flick, outshining their male crewmates Michael Pena (Ant-Man), Sebastian Stan (Ricki and the Flash), and Aksel Hennie (Hercules). On the ground crew, Chiwitel Ejiofor (Z for Zachariah) performed a fine, if bland, mission commander, while Sean Bean (Jupiter Ascending) got to have more levels with fewer lines. Jeff Daniels (Looper), however, left me rather cold and cliche.
In the smaller performances that shined, Mackenzie Davis (What If), Donald Glover (Lazarus Effect), and, especially, Benedict Wong (Kick-Ass 2, Marco Polo) were at the top of the list. Each had a moment or two that took over the screen nicely, though Davis didn’t really get her due as compared to the character in the book.
As you can see, more than once above I’ve referenced the book. Usually I can let that go and double track, but writer Goddard (Daredevil, Cabin in the Woods), who is up for the Oscar this year, did an interesting job adapting Weir’s book and came so close to the originating material that I had trouble dropping all expectation. He caught most of the story, but, to my mind, skips along the surface rather than capturing the real sense of challenge. Perhaps it is because he and director Scott (Prometheus) left in too many obstacles rather than allowing a few to really block Damon’s character, or because the resolutions came too easily due to clipping down of the time in the scenes, but I’m not quite sure. The book has similar challenges at times, but you get a lot more of the “sciencing the shit” out of things to solve them, which helps. I’m willing to watch it again to see if I can figure this aspect out. I know my first viewing was tainted by my own expectations and knowledge. However you slice it, though, Goddard is a great writer and I always appreciate his scripts for their sense of depth and humanity.
The Martian, book and movie, tapped into something in the public zeitgeist. Whether it was the sense of the ability to succeed against all odds during troubling times, or the need for an heroic character for everyone to get behind, I don’t know. For me, I loved the depth of the science involved and the sense of possibility as well as the reminder of why space matters and how dangerous the endeavor is. Interstellar focused on the need and the pure wonder of space on a very intellectual level. This film was closer to home and more visceral. They serve different purposes for audiences. It was also quite haunting (though unintentionally as he was still alive when the film released) to hear Bowie’s Starman at one point in the film.
If, like me, you missed this one in the theater, make time for it now–it is a great ride and has enough meat to bring you back for more later.