The Mar­tian Matt Damon plays a sci­en­tist stranded on the red planet

Get­ting the science right was cru­cial for the screen adap­ta­tion of The Mar­tian, writes Don Steinberg

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

The Mar­tian, a science-fic­tion movie, isn’t about mind-bending quan­tum cos­mol­ogy or the in­ter­ga­lac­tic ori­gins of hu­man life. Nor does it ref­er­ence this week’s rev­e­la­tion that NASA has strong proof it has dis­cov­ered wa­ter on the red planet. There are no bu­reau­crats or chief ex­ec­u­tives with hid­den agen­das who could sabotage a space mis­sion. There’s no back­story about parental is­sues be­tween a wist­ful as­tro­naut and a child peer­ing into the night sky.

In­stead, The Mar­tian is the story of an en­ter­pris­ing sci­en­tist who is stranded on a planet and must use his wits and lim­ited re­sources to sur­vive and be res­cued. The movie, di­rected by Ri­d­ley Scott, is based on a book that Andy Weir, then a com­puter pro­gram­mer, pub­lished chap­ter-by-chap­ter on the web.

“No one would ever ac­cuse The Mar­tian of be­ing literature,” says Weir of his book. “I’ll be the first to ad­mit it. There is very lit­tle char­ac­ter depth at all. There’s no char­ac­ter growth. It’s a story about events, not peo­ple.”

In the film, as­tro­naut Mark Wat­ney (Matt Damon) is part of a crew sent to Mars. (Other mem­bers are Jes­sica Chas­tain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara.) A storm hits and Wat­ney is struck by de­bris that ap­pears to kill him. The crew re­luc­tantly aborts and blasts off. Then Wat­ney wakes up amid the rusty red dust of Mars and won­ders where ev­ery­body went. The NASA brass in Hous­ton (boss Jeff Daniels and sci­en­tist Chi­we­tel Ejio­for) ar­range a fu­neral — there’s no griev­ing fam­ily — be­fore re­ceiv­ing word from Wat­ney that he isn’t dead af­ter all.

The driv­ing force of the film is Wat­ney’s Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics- style ap­proach to sur­viv­ing on Mars for al­most two years. He mea­sures, cal­cu­lates, builds, ex­per­i­ments and blows thing up. He adapts com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vices and mulches Mars dirt with his own waste to cre­ate soil for grow­ing food. He’s like the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel’s Myth-Busters guys in space, jok­ing darkly, with lit­tle time for brood­ing about his plight.

Six years ago, Weir was a pro­gram­mer work­ing on mo­bile apps who had gained a mod­est fol­low­ing for the comics and sci-fi sto­ries he pub­lished as a hobby on his web­site. A space nerd, he plot­ted mis­sions in his head and wrote soft­ware to cal­cu­late or­bital tra­jec­to­ries. He fig­ured a Mars mis­sion gone awry would make a thrilling tale, which he started post­ing online in 2009. The science, he says, be­came the drama.

“I’d do a chap­ter maybe once ev­ery two months,” he says. “I knew more about space than a lay­man be­cause it’s my hobby. I’ve watched many doc­u­men­taries about it. But I didn’t know any­one in aerospace, so I was on my own. I googled a lot.”

Fans en­cour­aged him to com­pile the tale into a down­load­able e-book, then a US99c Kin­dle book in 2012. Soon it was selling tens of thou­sands of copies and ap­pear­ing in Ama­zon’s “you might also like” rec­om­men­da­tions. A literary agent called about pub­lish­ing it in hard­cover, and Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­ers and stu­dios cir­cled.

“Be­cause it was a self-pub­lished e-book at the time, it wasn’t wildly ex­pen­sive to get the rights,” says Si­mon Kin­berg, a pro­ducer ( Cin­derella and Fan­tas­tic Four) and writer ( Sher­lock Holmes) whose com­pany took the pro­ject to Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox. (Fox par­ent 21st Cen­tury Fox and The Aus­tralian’s owner News Corp were part of the same com­pany un­til mid-2013.)

Ed­i­tors at Ran­dom House helped Weir tweak the end­ing of his novel, which be­came a best­seller. Drew God­dard, who co-wrote and di­rected the hor­ror spoof The Cabin in the Woods, was brought in to adapt a screen­play and di­rect The Mar­tian.

Di­rec­tor Ri­d­ley Scott with

Matt Damon on lo­ca­tion in Jor­dan for The Mar­tian

Matt Damon in a scene from The Mar­tian

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