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 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