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28 Oct 2015

Martian interlude – Before I left for the conference in Long Beach, HJ and I went out to see The Martian. We both enjoyed it a lot, but I didn’t really have the time to write a proper review. I can’t say that I’m going to be writing a proper review today, either. I’m sure there are already plenty of decent reviews out there if, for some reason, you haven’t seen the film yet and are still trying to make up your mind (although if that is you... seriously, just go see it already). I just wanted to talk about one thing in particular that has been a bit of a brainworm.

“I’m a bit baffled as to why the filmmakers would leave out (or at least gloss over) such an important piece of information.”

I had not read the book before seeing the film, but I enjoyed the film so much that I decided I had to read it. The day before I left for the US, I bought the book on Kindle, and I read the entire thing on the flight over. Needless to say, I enjoyed it immensely and couldn’t put it down. A lot of things that were glossed over in the film were explained in detail in the book, and on a number of occasions I found myself thinking, “Ah, so that’s what that was all about!”

I don’t think that these instances represent flaws in the film, though. There are certain things that you can do in a book that you just can’t do in a film. It is true that the film could have chosen to focus on the science details at the expense of some of the action, but I think that would have been a mistake. The epistolary style of the book works precisely because it is a book; films are necessarily more visually oriented. In addition, a book can be as long as it needs to be, but there are practical limitations on how long films can be, so some ellipsis and restructuring is inevitable.

A good example of the differences between the two media is the extended rescue scene in the film. In the book, the actual rescue after the airlock is blown goes off without incident, but in the film we have the very dramatic scene of mission commander Melissa Lewis taking over EVA duties to rescue the stranded Mark Watney herself. Yet the film completely cuts the scene where our hero Watney rolls the rover and nearly blows his chance to escape the red planet. This makes sense to me, though. For one, the rover rollover scene would have taken up far more screen time than the extended rescue. But it’s also about the timing of story beats and the placement of dramatic tension. Moving the dramatic moment to just before the end heightens the euphoria that the audience feels when Watney is rescued.

(If I were to offer any criticism of the extended rescue scene, it would be that it seems a little too on the nose. Lewis blames herself for leaving Watney behind, so it’s poetic justice that she should be the one to rescue him. The only problem is that it is a selfish act unbecoming of a mission commander and military officer. Lewis’ job is to command, and if she really wanted to rescue Watney you would think that she would give him the best chance possible by entrusting the task to the mission EVA specialist. And, of course, this is what she does in the book. But now I’m just nitpicking.)

Anyway, none of the differences between book and film, be they great or small, bothered me all that much—except for one thing. I only saw the film once, so it’s possible I missed this on my first viewing, but as I was reading the book I noticed what appeared to be a rather significant piece of information that was left out of the film: Each crew member has two roles on the mission. In addition to being commander, Lewis is also the mission geologist. Sysop Beth Johanssen is also the reactor technician. And Watney is not just a botanist, he is the—wait for it—mission engineer. Now, like I said, it’s possible that this was mentioned during the film, but I think it’s safe to say that not nearly as big a deal is made of it as the fact that Watney is the mission botanist. His botany expertise is referenced throughout the film, but I don’t really remember much talk of him being an engineer. When I read the book and read the part about him being the mission engineer, though, everything clicked into place. I remember thinking, as I watchied Watney do all sorts of amazing things to survive with the materials he had in the film, “Well, yeah, I guess it makes sense that he would know this. I’m sure NASA trains its astronauts very thoroughly, and they are all very smart and highly educated people to begin with.” Still, though, I couldn’t shake the niggling thought in the back of my mind that he seemed to know an awful lot about how to jury rig stuff. When I read that he was an engineer, though, it all made sense. And it wasn’t just mentioned once, but referenced on a number of occasions (along the lines of people back on earth saying, “Man, it’s a good thing he’s an engineer, otherwise he would be screwed!”).

I mentioned this to a friend who happens to be a NASA engineer, and he grumbled, “I know! When he says, I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,’ he should have said, I’m going to have to engineer the shit out of this.’” But I suppose the latter isn’t nearly as sexy or hip as the former—it does seem to be the vogue these days to verb nouns, and “science” is a frequent victim.

Linguistic pedantry aside, I’m a bit baffled as to why the filmmakers would leave out (or at least gloss over) such an important piece of information. It’s not like it would have been that difficult to keep it in—just a little tweaking of the dialogue. I know it may seem like a fairly minor thing to obsess over, but that was the one thing I took away from my reading of the book. I mentioned above that the book went into a lot more detail, which made a lot of things easier to understand, but knowing that Watney was a botanist and an engineer was the final piece of the puzzle that allowed the big picture to make complete sense.

I just had to get that off my chest. Now that I have done that, though, I should say that this is still a fairly minor concern, and overall I enjoyed both the book and the film quite a bit. After reading the book I found myself wanting to go see the film again, although I doubt my schedule is going to allow for that. There’s always the DVD, I guess.

Oh, and as you’ve probably realized by now, this is not the lengthy post I promised earlier and keep talking about. That’s still coming. And after that I already have another post in the pipeline—a request of sorts from my buddy Kevin on the Bible and translation. That should be a lot of fun!

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