The first official trailer for the new movie, The Martian, set for release this Fall, has hit the internet and you can watch the trailer here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The movie is based on the book of the same title, by author Andy Weir. If you haven’t read the book, do it. It’s received a lot of love from readers and deservedly so; it’s a good story with a well-developed central character. Mark Watney is compelling, likeable, witty and clever even while facing seemingly insurmountable odds. The story immediately hooks the reader. In fact, it’s one of the best openings I’ve come across in some time. This is where I’ll throw out a little warning – the book uses all of the colourful language expected from a grown man stuck on a planet a quarter of a billion kilometers from Earth. Indeed, he drops two F-bombs in the first three lines of the book. As I said, a memorable opening. The language doesn’t bother me (being a grown man-not trapped on another planet, mind you-but one who does occasionally swing wide with the hammer), but I’m always keenly aware that some prefer their literature sanitized.
I’m not going to write a review of the book; there are plenty of good places to read summaries and commentaries. Goodreads and Amazon both have more reader reviews than you would ever need to help you decide. But I do want to say a few more things about it before I move on. Again, firstly, it’s a really good read. It was one of those rare books that kept the bedside light on late into the night. (OK, I read it on my Kindle, so technically the nightstand lamp was off. Sheesh, don’t be so literal.)
The author is a self-proclaimed science nerd and that’s reflected in the detailed way he approaches Mark Watney’s story. I’m not that science guy. There are plenty of Sci-Fi stories that are near and dear to me, but mostly for the Fi, not the Sci. It’s about the story, the characters. But in The Martian, the scientific accuracy is important because it gives the story credibility. And for those whose eyes have glazed over at the mention of Science Fiction, fear not. The technology and science are indeed part of the story, but they don’t overwhelm it. Though it’s fun to see Watney leverage his knowledge of Archimedes (see what I did there?) to overcome a life-threatening problem (and make no mistake, they’re all life-threatening problems. Did I mention he’s stuck on Mars?). The Martian is indisputably about the character, not the science or tech. And yes, I know, technically that’s math, not science per se, but MA-FI isn’t a genre (yet – I’m looking at you AMAZON). I’m going to bang the drum again – READ THE BOOK. You’ll enjoy it.
So then, what of the movie? I have no idea how the movie will compare to the book, though the trailer looks pretty consistent. For those who read and enjoy a book before seeing it on the screen (big or small) there is often a letdown. We have our own version of what the characters look like, filling in our own details where the author has left them out. Frequently actors and actress just don’t match up to our person visual. And to some extent that’s probably all that’s happening for me here. But humour me for a few moments, won’t you?
First, let me say I’m glad this is being made into a movie. I think it’s an excellent story and I think it will be well-received. And hey, Matt Damon, right? I mean, it’s fantastic that a high profile actor is playing the lead character. And Ridley Scott. Plus a whole host of other great actors and actresses. Based on the trailer, I think Matt Damon will nail much of the character of Mark Watney. He can do the straight-faced sarcasm and the friendly joker. He can do serious and determined, subtle, or gallows humour. And really, he looks like what we want an astronaut to look like, right? That’s exactly where it starts to unravel a for me.
In the book, Watney is a biologist and mechanical engineer. Oh yeah, and an astronaut. He never seems to doubt his abilities when it comes to the situation he is in. He’s prepared. Or at least, he’s clever enough and has such a thorough understanding of his surroundings that he doesn’t ever really panic. Of course, he’s on Mars, so he does know that every day holds the possibility of his death. But he’s calm. He has confidence in himself as a biologist. As an engineer. As a space traveller. I’m good with Matt Damon’s ability to project all of that.
But in the character’s own words (from the book of course), “a botanist/mechanical engineer doesn’t exactly have ladies lined up at the door.” And that’s the key for me. He reads like a guy who is confident in his area of expertise, which, well yeah, I know, he’s a damn astronaut. Rock star, right? But I met one of those guys earlier this year. He didn’t look like Matt Damon. He didn’t carry himself like Matt Damon. He was certainly confident and proud of his accomplishments, but he was a guy who spent his career as a payload specialist hunched over a computer running complex calculations. While we’re at it, go ahead and do a quick little image search for “Mars 500”. It was an Earthbound preparatory mission for eventual travel to the red planet. See those mugs? Not so Damonesque. And while I’m sure there are plenty of astronauts who could double as the chiselled, leading man, I would wager that most skew towards fairly average in the non-astronaut related categories like straight white teeth and great hair. I know Hollywood has trained us to think of astronauts as prototypically handsome and athletic (Tom Hanks aside), but I just don’t read this character that way.
None of this is to say that astronauts can’t be handsome Hollywood types. Nor is it to say that scientists can’t be self-confident. But for me, Matt Damon seems too self-confident and charismatic. He has a swagger; it’s not overt or pompous, but come on, he’s Matt Damon! You know, Jason-freaking-Bourne?! I’m pretty sure he probably does have “ladies lined up at the door.” Of course he’s happily married and so there aren’t actually any ladies or a door. Well, there must be a door, I guess. He has to be able to come and go. And well, obviously, there are ladies everywhere. Just, maybe not actually at his door. Ahem.
There is another issue, and I will concede that my argument may be spinning off in a Martian windstorm at this point, so hold on tight. It may simply be a lack of facial hair that’s compounding the problem for me. I don’t know that I ever consciously pictured Watney with a ‘stache, but the more I think about it, the more it fits. Think about it. Chris Hadfield. See what I’m saying? The moustache. Walter White. Mad science skills. Confidence in his area of expertise, which was high school chemistry. And, well, crystal meth. But I don’t think anyone would put old Walt in the same category as Matt Damon. And again, until he went all Heisenberg with the full on goatee and the pork pie hat, same thing. The ‘stache. It’s that look that says, “Hey, I’m a man who can push hair out of my face but I’m probably going to wear white tube socks with my dress shoes. Or black socks with shorts and sandals. Just sayin’.” Chris Hadfield is an actual, real-life, astronaut. And, Walter White, is, well, a TV scientist. Er, high school teacher/drug lord. But you get my point, right? They fit. So maybe if Damon ends up wandering around on Mars in the v-neck sweater, spectacles and that sad moustache from The Informant! he’ll win me over.
So that’s my whole argument right there. Swagger, charisma, self-confidence. An absence of lip fur. Admittedly, it’s not much to build a case on. But I say the onus is on Matt Damon to convince me. I look forward to hearing from him. Or, you know, his lawyers.
Even with all I’ve said here, I know I’ll (mostly) like Matt Damon in the role. Go read the book. And then watch the movie. And if you feel so inclined, drop me a note to tell me I’m an idiot and Matt Damon’s a thespian genius that will make the character from the book seem two dimensional and woven together from nothing more than words, tree pulp and/or a series of zeroes and ones. You can do that in the comment section.