The Martian (book and movie)

A few weeks ago, I decided to take a look at the book of The Martian. I hadn't had much interest in reading it—I've read stranded-astronaut-survival stories, and they've never much held my interest—but I figured it was worth at least glancing at it before seeing the movie.

I skimmed the first forty or fifty pages. And I know a lot of you loved it, and so I'm sorry to say this, but: I didn't find it very interesting.

It seemed to me to be (after the initial setup) mostly a long series of word problems. If you have x amount of O2 and y amount of H2, how much water can you make, and how do you do that without blowing anything up? And then given z square feet of arable land, how many potatoes can you grow, and how many calories will that result in, and how many Martian days can you live on that?

There was a time, in my teens, when I might have enjoyed settling in with a pencil and paper and trying to check all the math. But that doesn't appeal to me so much these days, and so, sadly, I found those opening chapters of the book a little tedious.

I recognize that different readers have different sources of reader pleasure; and there's clearly something there to like, because I think what I've seen people say about the book has been pretty much uniformly positive. So I'm of course not saying that the book is bad; just that I'm not the right audience for it.

So I went to the movie feeling that I had verified that I didn't need to read the book, and thus that I could enjoy the movie for what it was; I figured that the movie was likely to substitute montages for math, and that I would enjoy that more.

And I was totally right about that. I enjoyed the heck out of this movie.

I would've liked it regardless, but I liked it even more because I saw it with Kam; she enjoyed it a lot too, and I got to enjoy her enjoying it.

Also, if she hadn't been there then I would've been the only one in the theatre who was laughing at most of the funny bits—the audience was oddly subdued. Though some of them did applaud at the end.

Spoilers follow, so if you don't want spoilers, stop reading here.

The movie had minor lapses here and there. There were a couple of things that I'd have liked to have seen explained better; in particular, early in the movie a journalist should've asked “Why can't the Hermes just turn around and pick him up?” and the NASA people could've explained that the orbital mechanics don't work like that. And I wondered about various sciencey bits; for example, in the book he explained about using the oxygenator to get oxygen from CO2, but I had forgotten that, so while watching the movie I wondered why he seemed to have an unlimited supply of oxygen. And I wanted the effects of Martian gravity to be more visible, or else to be explicitly mentioned. There were also some science/tech things that were glossed over or simplified for the sake of keeping the movie entertaining, especially various things having to do with communication and time lag. (See also a list that includes some of the science flaws in the movie, but note that that list includes really big spoilers.)

But all of that felt pretty minor to me, and I can get behind occasionally choosing in favor of heightened drama over accuracy.

And overall, I thought the movie worked very well. I liked the diverse cast; I liked the mix of teamwork and individual effort to solve problems; I liked the script; I liked Matt Damon's comic timing and delivery; I liked much of the presentation of information; I got teary repeatedly at various bits. Some things were a little bit predictable, but this is after all a big-budget Hollywood movie, subject to the constraints of such movies, and I thought it did a great job within those constraints.

There's a disclaimer at the end, saying something to the effect that just 'cause NASA cooperated with the filmmakers doesn't mean NASA endorses this movie. Which I suppose constitutes plausible deniability, but I kinda suspect that NASA loves this movie—I don't know for sure, but I suspect this movie has gotten a lot of people excited about space. Not to mention science in general, and botany in particular.

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