I just returned from the movie, The Martian, with Matt Damon. I dreaded seeing it because I was disappointed with the book. But I considered it research, part of my self-education into the world of sci-fi. The movie is about as good as the book.
On the plus side, the pictures are fantastic, better than Gravity. I’m glad I saw it on the big screen (in 2D. 3D doesn’t do much for me except cause a headache). I really got a feeling for the Red Planet and a visceral sense of what an exploratory colony might be like. That’s the magic that movies conjure best.
The acting was surprisingly good, especially by Matt Damon, who has matured well, and by Michael Peña, who is consistently interesting.
On the dark side was the music, dreadful, annoying, way-too-loud disco. Yes, in the book there was a running joke about that being the only music left behind at the Mars base, but mercifully, a book is silent. Maybe I’m the wrong demo, but this was some seriously bad music, and worse, it was inconsistent with the mood of the story. It was joke music, and this story was a drama. It was a bad choice for both those reasons. Silence would have been the more realistic sound track, or barring that, something grand. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Clarification: I love disco and I’m sorry its moment has passed, but I’m not indiscriminate.) If Scott was trying to poke Kubrick in the eye, he did, but he poked himself in the other eye. The sound engineering was otherwise decent, with lots of nice whining electrical motors and crackling radios.
I am sorry to report the screenplay was even worse than Weir’s original novel. It lacked even the meager wit of the book (except for the obvious fuck-you jokes, and even there, the f-bomb was censored out, so they couldn’t even get that right). Likewise, in the book, the Kristin Wiig character was a colorful, foul-mouthed PR person, but by the time the delicate-daisy censors got done, she had no lines left, yet nobody had the sense, or the authority to simply cut the character so she became deadwood.
Another serious flaw was that while the main thrust of the book was to glorify critical thinking, calm rationality, and methodical problem-solving, that would be uninteresting to most people, so the writers left most of it out and instead tacked on a ridiculous, preachy ending that was not just anticlimactic and ineffective, but truly cringe-worthy.
Editing was not successful. A simple “man vs. nature” story does not take 2.5 hours to tell.
The lack of interesting characters was a holdover from the book. As in the novel, these wise-cracking, jargon-spouting characters were, like M&Ms, covered in thin, crisp, candy shells. Nobody learned, reflected, or changed. Of course it’s a kinetic adventure, so it’s hard to complain about weak characters, but I can rise to the challenge.
Those glorious images will stay with me for a long time.