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Saving Interstellar Private Watney

by | Oct 14, 2015 | NASA, Space

Spoiler Warning:

This review most likely contains spoilers about both the Andy Weir novel “The Martian” and the 2015 movie of the same name.

You’ve been warned — if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie… maybe you should go look at another one of my blog posts! 🙂

The Novel

The_Martian_2014In 2014, I heard some good comments about a novel from first-time author Andy Weir. “The Martian”, which had been originally published a couple of years earlier, had been re-released by a new publisher, and was enjoying a fresh and increasingly popular reception.

I started reading the novel and (almost literally) could not put it down until I finished it!

(Hey – remember that spoiler warning above? Last chance!)

The story centers on NASA astronaut Mark Watney who is stranded alone on Mars after being presumed dead when his crewmates were forced to abort their surface mission. Without any way to communicate with his departed crew or with NASA back on Earth, Watney must overcome many challenges to keep himself alive, relying on his own knowledge and some pretty ingenious engineering feats. Eventually, he implements a unique and historically significant solution to the communication problem and restores regular comms with NASA.

This is where the story transitions from a pure “science fiction” novel (albeit an excellent one) into a story woven with really excellent interpersonal relationships. The complex struggles with individual decisions regarding other people’s lives and a national space program’s future are presented in such a way that each character’s underlying humanity is really brought to life for the reader (and the movie viewer).

Ares III mission patchOne of my favorite aspects of the story development is the representation of NASA’s Mission Control and other technical and scientific personnel throughout the world as they came together to solve the complex problems placed in front of them. This was one of the most honest and accurate portrayals of those behind-the-scenes interactions since the excellent 1995 “Apollo 13” movie.

After I read the novel, I found Andy’s email address and let him know how much I enjoyed it. We exchanged a few emails – he’s very gracious and was happy to hear that he had done justice to the NASA support personnel back on Earth. Given my time at NASA, I was actually quite surprised to find out that he had written the novel without any NASA advice or input. Everything he did was based on research, historical photos and videos, and various other media representations.

Well done, Andy. Well done. 🙂

The Movie

The Martian - posterOne of the biggest challenges for any successful novel targeted for the big screen is the translation of not only the plot and the characters, but also (in this case perhaps more importantly) the visuals that were not only described brilliantly, but also have now been captured by various NASA probes and landers.

Settling into the theater, with Kathy and our neighbors, I had an anticipation for “The Martian” that I hadn’t felt in quite some time.

This was either going to be something on the order of “2001” and “Apollo 13” and stand the test of time, or would be relegated to the fun-but-at-times-imminently-laughable “Armageddon”. I didn’t think there was much middle ground at stake.

I am so happy that it is most definitely the former, and not the latter.

Things start off with, literally, a bang and dropping the audience into the story – barely allowing anyone to catch their breath after the lights went down.

The visuals of the Martian landscape were stunning – perhaps even better than I had thought they might be.

Ridley Scott, director of previous awesome epics (both sci-fi and not!), did an exception job with “The Martian”. The sense of Mark Watney’s isolation on a planetary scale and the almost claustrophobic settings of the Hab and Rover environments had the viewer bouncing back and forth between the grand sweeping vistas of the Acidalia Planitia region of Mars and close-ups of Watney as he makes video log recordings of various activities.

Matt Damon as Mark WatneyIt’s understandable that the movie would not be able to dive into the detailed scientific problem-solving that Andy so technically crafted into an enjoyable read in the novel. But, balancing that with the amazing visuals and an excellent human element both individually with Watney and organizationally with the teams helping him both on Earth and with his crew led to a well-paced movie worthy of the novel.

So what set this movie apart?

It was exactly that human element and interactions between the characters that made “The Martian” such an excellent movie adaptation.

2013’s “Gravity” had some of the most spectacular visuals I’ve seen outside of the real thing! If you’ve read my review of “Gravity”, you’d know that there were some critical technical things that were so very very wrong that actually spoiled the movie for me. But, even beyond those technical flaws, the personal interactions were so “Hollywood” and just “not right” from a manned spaceflight perspective that it pushed it into the aforementioned “Armageddon” category of movies.

“The Martian” provided a rich diversity of secondary characters, each completely believable and acting within a fictional world that well-represented the actual workings of NASA, both the manned and unmanned sides. Matt Damon, an accomplished actor in his own right, brought just the right amount of scientific competence with a perfect balance of sarcastic humor to the main character.

One criticism

Of course… it’s not really a fair review without pointing out something I didn’t care for, right? 😉

This is a pet peeve of mine, again based on experience, but the Flight Controllers in Mission Control would NOT jump up and down every time something positive happened. I’ve written about this, too, as it seems that several non-JSC control centers have been featured doing exactly what movie-representations of the MCC have shown lately (again, outside of the excellent “Apollo 13” portrayal).

In the movie, this came back to bite them in the backside, as the Flight Controllers were prematurely celebrating a successful launch WHILE THE VEHICLE WAS STILL IN POWERED FLIGHT! Of course, Mr. Murphy rose to the occasion and the launch was a failure.

While this was a movie-specific reaction, it could have been just as dramatic (and definitely MUCH more realistic) had they shown the controllers, professional and deep in concentrated monitoring of the flight parameters, react to the launch failure without looking like undisciplined schoolchildren.

OKAY!

I got that off my chest… and it was really a small, small, small part of the movie – but I hope you can forgive that it stood out to me. 🙂

The trailer is presented below … can’t wait to see it again (and again). You should be proud, Andy – your novel translated exceptionally well to the big screen!

What’s up with that blog title?

So… about that blog post title… what does “Saving Interstellar Private Watney” mean?

Matt Damon is the (very talented) actor who has played three roles in recent years, each requiring “being saved” by others.

In “Saving Private Ryan”, Damon played the eponymous character who was searched out, protected, and ultimately rescued and returned home.

In “Interstellar”, Damon played a secondary character who was searched for and a rescue attempted.

In “The Martian”, Damon played a character who was searched out, and ultimately rescued and returned home.

It’s not any sort of knock on the coincidences of the characters, the excellent stories/movies, or Mr. Damon’s acting ability (also excellent)… it’s just a goofy way for me to get you to read this blog post. 🙂

Until next time… ad astra per aspera.

3 Comments

  1. Mookie

    Well written review Roger. I listened to the audio book prior to watching the movie and really enjoyed it. My biggest gripe with the movie adoption is how is easy and uneventful the journey to

    Reply
    • Mookie

      …was compared to the journey described in the book. I understand that editing has to be made but I really felt that this was a major part on the book that, to me, was missing on the movie. Still well made movie and fantastic book.

      Reply
      • Roger Balettie

        Thanks Mookie … and concur on that, too. The “really cool and in-depth science/tech challenges” and how Watney solved them made the book such a pleasure for the techno-geek in me. I, too, understand that a balance had to be reached on that vs how the movie was made, but I could’ve handled an extra 15-20 minutes of that part. 🙂

        Reply

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