The Martian: WWMWD? (What would Mark Watney do?)

The Martian Launch One Sheet

CAUTION: SPOILERS (well, really only one, but it’s about the ending)

I realise I’m late to the party in writing about The Martian, but I read the book way before it was cool, so I think that excuses my dragged feet. Further, for full disclosure, I am a physicist by ‘training’ – I didn’t quite make the heady heights of botanist – which may bias my judgement.

I’m just going to come out and say it: This film is pretty darn close to being as good as the book.

Mark Watney’s indefatigable, lovable nerdiness stayed true to the novel, and the ethos that teamwork and human ingenuity can overcome nature really came through. The filmmakers (including Andy Weir) did an excellent job in cutting the book down but retaining that feeling – a difficult task for any adaptation – and, they ‘de-scienced’ (yes, that’s a word) it just enough so that it was still Andy Weir’s fantastic thought experiment, but it was also accessible to non-nerds. This is something Interstellar struggled with, although, to be fair, General Relativity is way more difficult than Newtonian Mechanics, am I right?!

Wormholes: Nature’s shortcuts

But, of course, the filmmakers had to make changes to make the story more filmlike/‘Hollywood’. I felt this strongly in the third act, where Mark Watney is blasted off Mars in a “convertible” rocket to meet with the rescue crew. In the book there is the nail biting launch but he is eventually picked up by the crew. However, in the movie, as screenwriter Drew Goddard puts it, “We didn’t want our protagonist to be passive for the third act”. In this version Watney’s escape rocket doesn’t get close enough to his rescuers to be picked up, forcing him to pierce a hole in his spacesuit and use the escaping air to propel him to safety “just like Ironman”.

When I watched this scene I thought, “This is so dumb, Book-Watney would never do this.” But in the book he doesn’t need to, he can be picked up safely. In the movie, however, he still has a 100m to travel before he is safe, so, actually, “Ironman-ing” (also a word) is an entirely logical and consistent thing for Watney to do given he has nothing to lose.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the consistency of a character’s actions to audience buy-in. As a filmmaker, one must always ask, “What Would Mark Watney Do?

Finally, and for me this is the film’s biggest achievement, they showed that science is really cool. The Martian captured science at it’s best: people being presented with a problem and using logic to solve it. Or as NASA say, “Working the problem”. This film even got my younger, and hitherto totally scientifically ambivalent, sister to research space travel to Mars. Possibly one of NASA’s greater achievements…

No caption needed

For more differences between the film and the book this is a good page

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