Ok, let me get this straight… unlike my last review, this post will contain spoilers. LOTS and LOTS of spoilers. You have been warned.
I went into the movie today, expecting a fair amount of changes from the book. There were a lot of aspects of the book that would have seemed dry, and not very entertaining on the big screen. I also knew that unless I wanted to watch a 5 hour movie, that there would be parts that would be cut. The book was a compilation of log entries and real-time narrative, so I figured that the movie would spend more time on the narrative and less on the storytelling-via-log-entry device.
The movie opened with what amounted to a flashback in the book. The actual narrative telling of the crew escaping Mars, and presuming Mark Watney dead. This honestly made a lot of sense, since in the book you hear about the disaster from Mark’s perspective first, in his opening log, and then you experience the narrative midway through the story. In a 2 hour movie there’s no reason to tell the story twice, so this was a good move.
Once we’re following Mark along on Mars, the movie visually presented much of what he wrote about in the logs. Sometimes with excruciating detail, such as the removal and suturing of his initial wounds. There was a lot of graphic detail in that scene that wasn’t expounded upon in text. Once Mark is up and running however, we get to see a lot of montages of his work and what he’s doing to survive.
One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about the book was the “log entry” format for telling the story. Although I think it would have been a very cool movie if they had kept it that way, simply showing us what Mark shows us in his video logs, I realize that a film like that would never have been a blockbuster. Instead we have the occasional narrative log entry, with lots of scenes of how Mark is trying to survive. My biggest issue with this, is that often, without the narrative context of the log, you have no idea what, or more importantly why, he’s doing what he’s doing. If you’ve never planted a garden before, you may not have any clue that Mark was doing something very important by collecting the crew’s poop to start his soil. The movie simply showed this step, and didn’t expound on it.
Much of Mark’s time was shown in this manner, and for the most part the movie showed all the main highlights from the book, at least in quick passing scenes. What you miss however, is the science that went behind what Mark was doing. You miss out on seeing him problem solve, and fail, and try again. All you mostly see are successes, which in my mind really downplayed the fun science and perseverance theme that the book had.
Obviously, in a 2 hour movie they couldn’t have Mark experience every problem that was in the book, but there were a few omissions that really bugged me. About 75% of the way into the movie Mark starts his journey to the Ares 4 MAV site, after modifying the rover to carry all of the stuff he needed to survive. The movie made a lot of alterations to not just this journey, but in the actual rover he drove there as well. In the movie he only took a single rover, and appeared to be able to fit everything onto some trailers that he pulled the entire way. He also brought Pathfinder with him the entire trip, and was never out of contact with NASA back on Earth.
This is a major change from the book, as in the book he loses all contact with NASA during the trip, and has to problem solve his way around a major sandstorm. In the movie, this entire journey is compressed into a few repeated minutes of him setting up his solar panels, sleeping, and driving with a stern look on his face. While he’s driving they explain the modifications he’s going to need to perform on the MAV and he doesn’t like it. Then he gets to the MAV and makes the changes. The entire ordeal of flipping over in the rovers is skipped, as his lack of communication until he reaches the MAV.
Granted, I felt like flipping the rovers was one tragedy too many in the book, but by making the entire journey to Ares 4 so underwhelming, you don’t get any sense of how big a deal it was. It almost makes it seem like he could have headed off to there anytime he wanted. Heck, it appeared that the MAV had supplies in it, so he probably could have made the trip, gathered those supplies, and even headed back and lived a lot longer on the planet while waiting for a rescue.
Most of these issues are just minor quibbles when it comes to the conclusion. The alterations to the way that the climax played out had both my wife and I rolling our eyes. In the book, after all of the maneuvering, airlock blowing, and thrust corrections were done, Beck heads out and rescues Watney from the MAV capsule. In the movie, the airlock blows, but of course there’s still a problem. Watney is still too far away, so the Captain decides to play hero and go out on the end of the tether to try and save Mark.
She plays the “I need to be the hero” card and it made us cringe. Then, once she’s at the end of the tether it’s still not far enough and Mark has to do his Iron Man impression, using the pressure from his suit to propel himself into her arms. Mind you he just told the audience that he has two broken ribs and just woke up from passing out. Yet, he’s somehow able to perform a feat that was dismissed in the book as completely impossible (so it was never tried), and get himself back to the tether line to give us a happy ending.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a nice suspenseful ending, but when they alter the entire narrative to make it about a couple people playing hero, instead of a team of people working together, it really detracts from the power of the story. Mark’s crew came back for him, and they worked together to get him home. Mark had done everything he could to prolong his life, and at the end, he had to rely on those people who had left him there in the first place. In the book this point comes through crystal clear. In the movie, it’s about a couple of people playing super hero. That severely disappointed me.
The post-log was mediocre and frankly could have been left out. The book ends with Watney on the spaceship heading home. We didn’t need to jump forward to watch him giving a lecture to students about how to be prepared to die as astronauts. We also didn’t need to see Martinez suiting up again for another mission, despite the book making it clear that they were all done with being in space.
Despite all of these flaws, that movie was visually beautiful, and the parts of the book that came through well, shined. I just wish that Hollywood would have let more of the true story shine through. Even the nerdy, scientific stuff.