By Dan Rankin
Unless you attended its Toronto International Film Festival premiere or know somebody who knows somebody, you’ll have to wait until Oct. 2 to see the new Ridley Scott film “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor. It’s receiving great critical acclaim and is sure to generate some Oscar buzz for Damon as the main character Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars after a mission gone awry, and for the filmmakers responsible for the visionary 3D effects. But in the meantime, there’s still more than enough time to tear through the story that the film is based on, Andy Weir’s 2011 novel “The Martian.”
A NASA botanist and mechanical engineer in the near future, Watney was one of six members of the Ares 3 mission to Mars. When a catastrophic dust storm endangers the ship that represents their sole mode of escape from the fourth planet, the Ares 3 commander makes the call to abort, ascend to Hermes, their interplanetary transport, and head back to Earth. On the way to evacuate, Watney is struck by a dislodged communications satellite and sent flying into the dust. With Watney’s life support signals reading zero and with him nowhere in sight, the crew makes the gut-wrenching decision to take off without him.
This is where the story begins, with a very-much still alive Watney having “MacGyver’d” his way back to the crew’s habitation and leaving “mission log” updates on the off-chance someone ever discovers him. He’s completely isolated, as the storm knocked out his satellite connection to Earth or his crew, but he still has the rest of the mission’s equipment, including space suits, Mars rovers, and other gadgets, enough food to last six people several months, and his own scientific know-how. The only problem? The next mission to Mars isn’t for another four years.
Meanwhile back on Earth, days after Watney’s funeral as his crewmates begin the months-long trip back to Earth, a keen-eyed surveillance satellite operator at NASA notices signs of life at the Ares 3 site. This discovery launches an international endeavour by the world’s top scientific minds as they try to create a plan to recover Watney, the last man on Mars.
The extent of author Andy Weir’s knowledge about modern space travel and what life on Mars would be like is vast; yet, even non-scientific readers should have no trouble keeping up with Weir’s description of Watney’s daily struggles as he figures out how to survive on the unforgiving red planet and NASA’s big-wigs attempt to bring him home alive. Through every challenge, Watney remains optimistic and never loses his sense of humour, occasionally adding big laughs to punctuate otherwise grim situations.
Having not seen the movie myself, I can only comment that the high-profile actors chosen to fulfil the key roles (from Damon as Watney, to Daniels as the pragmatic NASA chief Teddy Sanders, to Ejiofor as the mission director, to Kristen Wiig as the no-nonsense NASA press secretary) all feel right. That, and Ridley Scott’s science-fiction directing credentials (Blade Runner, Alien, Prometheus) are top-notch.
Perhaps when it comes out “The Martian” won’t fare as well as “Gravity” did in 2013, but it’s likely to tap into that same vein of interest in space exploration and human perseverance – and, to me, the story in “The Martian” is far more compelling. Even if Scott’s new film can achieve half of the success Gravity saw (over $716 million at the box office and winner of seven Academy Awards), I would say that’s a mission accomplished.