Life on Mars

Matt Damon brings Andy Weir’s The Martian to life on the big screen.

If your daddy was a particle physicist and your mamma an electrical engineer, it’s a pretty safe bet that somewhere along the way your genetic influencers are going to bring you into contact with science and space, and sooner or later your gaze will tilt naturally upwards toward the stars and the heavens above, and ponder the worlds beyond.

Despite the stellar curriculum vitae of his parents, Californian Andy Weir led a life less ordinary. An Arthur C Clarke fan and sci-fi buff, who was working in the sphere of computer science and programming, until in 2009 he began turning science into fiction. After some less than celebrated attempts at writing, he hit upon the idea for The Martian — a story that combines elements of Castaway, Lost in Space, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Apollo 13 — which he released in serial form for free on his personal website. Were it not true, what happened next would be the very stuff of futuristic fantasy, for Weir’s serialization started to pick up viewers and fans who suggested he might want to release it in book form. Weir agreed, and released a kindle ebook of The Martian for 99 cents, and watched it rapidly ascend the Amazon charts, bringing the story to the attention of a literary agent, and in short order Random House and Hollywood in the shape of Ridley Scott and Matt Damon. The American dream writ large, and a very happy 43 year old high on the hog of the New York Times Bestseller list hits publishing pay dirt right out of the block. You couldn’t make it up.

But his success is no fluke or hyperspace hyperbole, there is matter to this momentum. The Martian is a riveting read, benefiting from confidently and humorously written research, imparting knowledge and education, friendly physics, notepad calculus, botany 101, ingenuity, practicality, resourcefulness, the deification of duct tape, the downside of disco music and more Murphy’s law setbacks than you can shake a particle accelerator at. Helpfully, there is also a welcome absence of existential, navel gazing-style internal debate as to the meaning of life and the legacy of personal existence — this is man up on Mars.

The bare bones of the plot:

The Martian revolves around the crew of the Ares 4 and their mission to Mars, which is cut short in dramatic circumstances due to a dangerous storm on the Martian surface, Unfortunately for on-board botanist, Mark Watney, he becomes stranded during the evac, and is left behind on the planet. Alone, injured, with no means of communication and only enough food for 31 days, The Martian then becomes a flat-out race against time, the capricious nature of fate, and the struggle to survive the harsh environment, hostile elements and deafening loneliness of Mars.

So, what’s it like as a read?

The book fairly rattles along gaining pace and momentum through the stylistic device of Watney’s diary entries — little vignettes of daily triumphs and disasters — cataloging deep space life, ultra extreme weather conditions, and his own frustrating attempts to overcome his predicament alone on the red planet, with the only levity provided by nightly re-runs of 1970s and 80s sitcoms, and the exasperation of inheriting his commanding officer’s disco music collection. The irony of listening to I Will Survive whilst wearing a white suit is not lost on this interstellar castaway.

There are sly winks and reverential nods from Weir both visually and texturally to Apollo 13’s ‘steely-eyed missile man’, alongside the gallows humor of being the personification of Bowie’s Space Oddity floating in a tin can, calorie counting, calibrating and re-calibrating options, twisting and turning in claustrophobic confines whilst having his plans scoffed at and swatted aside by the gods of fate; hysterical laughter gives way to bitter tears, and then again to gritted teeth determination against the endless knock backs, and what emerges is a keening, straining desire to live, balanced against the longest moonshot of odds.

This dynamic is given a further tension twist by the parallel story arc of mission control’s dawning realization, from chance discovery on satellite images, that crew member Mark Watney is in fact alive, and that perhaps the state funeral awarded him in absentia was a tad premature. Marshalling the forces and seismic brain power of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and enlisting the co-operation of the Chinese Space Program, the world at large wakes up to Watney, and from the moment of discovery they, like us, are put through the emotional ringer as hope flickers and dies and reignites, measure for measure, in the attempts to get him home.

The fundamental impetus at the molten core of The Martian is indeed this archetypal against-all-odds scenario, where a character has to starve their own demonic voice of doom and despair, and surmount their personal Everest to endure and survive. This is something that we have seen, heard, and read, many many times before, of course. Here however, it is given a Martian makeover, freshened by the oddness of the setting, and the loudly implicit question posed in almost every daily diary revelation, of each test of the human spirit… what would you the reader do in this situation? How would you the reader cope? What resources in your own skill set would ensure your survival? How do you buy time when the earliest rescue mission is 4 years away and you have only a month’s worth of food? And how do you let your fellow man know that you are still alive, when your funeral has already taken place back on Earth? It’s not rocket science. Except of course, it is.

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, the ever-reliable, Jeff Daniels — self-referencing the Newsroom — and Chiwetel Ejiofor, inhabit the characters on the big screen with the, ‘in his element among Alien landscapes’, Ridley Scott directing. Whilst I would usually say that the source material of a book and one’s own head visuals normally trounce the pared-down screenplay and film version, on this occasion, despite a few omissions understandable due to the constraints of time, a highly enjoyable film has emerged to double rather than lessen the power of the original story. The film of The Martian is, unsurprisingly then, doing great business at theaters, and, according to the usher I spoke with, turning people away at every screening — a testament to the marriage of a familiar story archetype, with the alien nature of the set up, and our insatiable thirst for adventure in space, and close encounters with the final frontier.

Andy Weir’s American dream is alive and kicking back down on Earth, but through his protagonist, Mark Watney, we get to ask is there Life on Mars?

You bet there is.

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Originally published at foundinmusic.wordpress.com on October 15, 2015.

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