This is one of the very rare instances where I prefer the film to the book. In no specific order, here is why. Spoilers abound.
The basic plot: Astronaut Mark Watney has been left for dead on Mars after an accident occurs during a sandstorm. He must rely on his wits and ingenuity to survive, while back on Earth a team of scientists work together to find a way to bring him home.
1.) Ridley Scott can be very hit-or-miss, but he is a genius when it comes to science fiction. I say that in full recognition of the lukewarm Prometheus and the oddly disjointed Alien: Covenant. The future presented in The Martian isn’t as high-tech and gloomy as Alien or Blade Runner, instead it deals with technology that is probably not that far off, as well as plenty of tech will be familiar to the average viewer. Scott incorporates the scientific and technical elements seamlessly into the plot. At one point, when Watney is building a hexadecimal communication system, the mathematics takes a running jump to the level that only a computer engineer could understand. Scott wisely decides not to spend too much time explaining how this system works, instead relying on the trusty science fiction fallback of “it works because science”.
Ridley Scott has long ago mastered the art of using practical effects as much as possible, and when he does resort to CGI he deploys it with a skill and grace that other directors should aspire to. After this year’s overly frantic Ready Player One and the abysmal Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it was a pleasure to watch someone use special effects to enhance a well-told story.
And, oddly enough for Ridley Scott, this film almost has an upbeat feel. Most of which is due to the soundtrack. Speaking of which…
2.) It’s one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. Full disclaimer, I’m currently listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire while drinking a glass of wine on a Saturday night. I have a thing for disco. That said, the disco music, which is mentioned in Weir’s novel as the only thing left for Mark Watney to listen to after his team’s departure, is an inspired choice. The combination of the desolate Martian landscape, the lone and lonely figure isolated on a foreign planet, and the cheerful tunes of ABBA is perfect. I was reminded of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, another film which uses peppy, upbeat music as a background for rather depressing events. Because of this The Martian maintains an optimistic tone despite it’s admittedly bleak subject matter.
3.) Ridley Scott attracts some of the most talented people for his films. Star Matt Damon carries the film on his back. His delivery of Mark Watney is funny and sad and scared and cocky all at once. He definitely earned his Best Actor nomination. Filling out the cast are talents such as Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, and Donald Glover in a small but hilarious role.
4.) I haven’t talked much about the book yet. This is because, for me, the book didn’t have as great an impact as the movie. I enjoyed the novel, but it was a more straightforward science fiction story. The movie brought a sense of comedy and levity to the difficult proceedings that is lacking in Andy Weir’s novel.
I also feel that technological and mathematical concepts presented in The Martian are more easily understood in a visual format. The novel often feels bogged down in mathematics, and I occasionally struggled to picture what was actually happening as Mark Watney improvises different ways to stay alive on a lifeless planet.
I can’t think of more than ten instances where I’ve truly preferred a film adaptation over the original novel. Even though I have to admit that this is one of those cases, it is only because Andy Weir gave the filmmakers such a great concept in his novel. While I truly enjoyed Weir’s The Martian, I absolutely love Ridley Scott’s film interpretation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to more disco.