Last night MrsDarwin and I took advantage of the fact that the oldest kids are now old enough to babysit the rest and went out to catch an evening showing of The Martian, based on the Andy Weir novel of the same name which I wrote about recently.
The book was a page turning joy to read, an old fashioned Science Fiction problem solver story of the near future which XKCD summed up as follows:
Apollo 13 is also a movie I very much enjoyed, indeed I think I'd rate it as a bit better than The Martian.
The book's fun is that it takes the problem of a Mars mission -- and of an astronaut accidentally left for dead trying to survive until rescue -- seriously, and spends a lot of time coming up with realistic solutions to these problems. The other thing that maintains the book is its humor. The characterization is not deep by any stretch, and for someone with a couple of years of solitude, Mark Watney does curiously little thinking about the eternal verities. However, Watney is an inveterate smartass and he is an entertaining voice to listen to even when he's just working out how to solve an engineering problem the reader might not normally have a lot of expertise in. He's cheerful and self effacing and sarcastic and you keep turning the pages to see what he'll say next. The earth-bound characters trying to make contact with him and bring him back safely are also pretty shallow characters, but they are fun -- particularly the foul-mouthed, abrasive, but ultimately right-thinking and heroic NASA PR chief Annie Montrose.
The movie scales back on the humor, in part because it scaled back quite a bit on the profanity in order to keep the rating at a PG-13, and in part because sarcasm works better in the more leisurely pace of a book than in the 141 minutes of the movie. (They also cut a lot of plot details; Watney has to solve a lot more problems in a lot more detail in the book.)
However, the movie format taketh away, but it also giveth. The writing of the movie isn't deep either, but having real flesh and blood actors playing the characters end up providing significantly more emotional depth in some scenes than you get in the book. While I enjoyed the book a lot, there were times when I found myself thinking "this is a problem solving character, not a rounded person facing these problems" and the performances by Matt Damon and the rest of the cast provide some of that emotional depth, even if it's just in the way that he looks at the Martian landscape at certain points.
I was a little disappointed in the technical aspects of the production design. Weir made huge efforts to be accurate in his portrayal of a near future Mars mission, with consideration given to how everything would be designed. The movie keeps the basically realistic plot, but it clearly cares about the details less. When it's convenient for the plot, the nearly 30 minutes round trip between sending a radio message from Mars and getting the reply vanishes and Watney and NASA type messages back and forth in near real time, but at other times the wait is maintained. Weir put a lot of thought into the Hab in which Watney lives, and which he has to repair at some key points, including the special "hab canvas" material which it is made out of and the resins which could be used to seam it. In the movie, we get what looks like plastic sheeting and duct tape to make repairs. And while one plot point involves taking weight out of a ascent vehicle to make it lighter, a lot of the sets in the movie seem to completely ignore the weight considerations which would have ruled all design aspects of stuff sent to Mars -- something the book spent a fair amount of time on.
Still, these are minor things, and the movie itself is honestly a lot of fun. Two space-suited thumbs up.
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