Self publishing a novel is always a tricky thing. Normally looking at a novel for review I usually select a pre publish gallows copy so there are no pre-ordained expectations. “The Martian” [Andy Weir/Broadway/385pgs] is an interesting example in this regard. I heard about it in a slingshot fashion. The movie has already been shot but I barely looked at the trailers. I had a perception of Matt Damon playing stranded astronaut Watney and Jessica Chastain playing Commander Lewis but beyond that and the fact that Ridley Scott was directing, it was pretty unsaturated in my mind. The thing is what kind of book would pull people in like this. Plus add the fact that both of the lead actors had just been in “Interstellar”, a fairly complex outing, and yet they jumped back into another parallel space arena. The two stories couldn’t be more different but, in a way, they are the same as well. The main character is searching for his identity integrating into an unknown arena. The difference becomes one between the two pictures of philosophy versus practicality. Each one denotes the idea of survival. But the way this book is built will be interesting to see in translation. A similar study would be to look at the film “127 Hours” which tells of a man surviving on a hiking trip. It was modestly budgeted and used some reflective video elements to buffer the time. The interesting device here is that for the first quarter of the book and much of it throughout, the story is told in diary journal entry. For a good part of the novel, Watney is with nobody and his communication with NASA is limited to none. Most of the time, voice over can be attributed to lazy filmmaking but here it is key to the narrative. The trick will be pacing and balance. “127 Hours” was a different exercise. “The Martian” is likely a 150 million dollar movie with a good amount of special effects (though not as much as some), a couple movie stars and the director of “Blade Runner”. Tricky. (As Watney would say) You bet.
But I digress. And that is the great thing Watley does in this novel. He makes fun of himself. His quips in his journals, to himself, to NASA and his crewmates. These quips are great and full of witty and non politically correct humor at times. This is what makes this novel the crossover sensation that it has become. Humor. That is what this novel has that many science fiction novels don’t get. Humor. At many points, I found myself laughing myself because some of his thoughts are just so dead on…and yet they are placed in while describing a distinct technical process. It makes for a quick read and releases the pressure valve. Watmey jokes about disco and countless other elements. These points are great because they are character related and ground the character so that even if he is on a planet by himself, you can identify with him. There doesn’t need to be some large scale action sequence. This is a much simpler story than say “Red Planet” and “Mission To Mars” and infinitely and likely more effective. It is more similar in tone at times with the novel of “Contact” which oddly enough, with its original story, mirrored “Interstellar” in a way. And like that movie (“Contact”) which I read in similar sequence to this novel, the resulting movie, no matter how good or bad it is, will effect the engaging experience the book was. From simple beginnings as Weir started with this book, comes an epic story which works in its ability to explain the most complex of current equations: traveling and surviving an another planet within our reach, in a grounded, intriguing, funny and practical way.
Re-envisioning the texture of a major action franchise is always a difficulty especially if its basis comes from the juxtaposing ideas of a book. While the initial vapidity of the “Bourne” films played with competent but overindulgent strings to Matt Damon’s earlier “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, many of those films seemed like a cop out because they derailed from the books themselves whose narrative flow allowed for a sense of loss that really didn’t play because Bourne was such a blank slate who happened to have these abilities.
What allows the new “Bourne Legacy” to shine in many points is because it allows for that framework as a backdrop and fashions a new story to show a bigger picture. Interestingly enough, what causes that to happen is the aspect of the screenwriter Tony Gilroy (of “Michael Clayton” fame but also screenwriter of all the previous “Bourne” films). The paradox of that in relation to the first paragraph is sound but, by allowing him to direct his own screenplay, much of the exposition written in the right way is left in. This film feels more like a novel in its progression than the previous incarnations. Granted there are some key action scenes (most notably the end) but for the most part (like “Michael Clayton” which he also directed), it is a thinking man’s dialogue-driven piece. However, what makes this work, which might be problematic for other actors, is that Jeremy Renner is a character actor at heart who has been given the opportunity after “The Hurt Locker” to play a leading character and his presence allows him to almost disappear at times in the background while still maintaining adequate poise and effect. Like Daniel Craig, who had a similar ascension, he is not a classically handsome actor, which makes him all the more interesting but also allows you not to project anything on him (think if you will of William H. Macy who can embody different people without taking on the qualities as his own). While some of the conjecture of why Renner’s character Aaron does what he does, balances on the inane at times (which made some laugh in the audience), its logic is sound for the most part. Those few moments can be overlooked because of the forward momentum of the picture.
Edward Norton provides an energetic foil as a guy that is neither good nor bad, simply containing a situation and the dialogue balances perfectly for someone of his intellect. The viral conditioning of Renner’s character also allows for something at stake for him as well. The delivery mechanism is a little shaky but again, not enough to derail it. Rachel Weisz (ironically now the wife of Daniel Craig in real life) returns to franchise elements after famously leaving Universal’s “Mummy”. This character is quite visceral and intelligent but ultimately towards the end becomes a “damsel” (especially in the ending sequence) which cannot be helped. Her research cruxes exactly what Renner’s character must solve. At times, the dialogue she has is at the very high end in terms of process which likely will go over most moviegoers heads, like the texture of stereo instructions. However, it does propel the story.
The bigger narrative comes as a plot point in the shutdown of the program the original character “Bourne” was part of. The use visually (and allowance) of Damon’s character makes for a connection without needing physically to have the actor there. All small things, like the inclusion of small scenes with Joan Allen and Albert Finney as hold overs from the previous films, keeps you in the world. In many ways, “Bourne Legacy” is a lower res version of the previous films yet on an intellectual level, at times, operates higher because of the texture of its cast and, very honestly, the man behind the wheel: Gilroy. While the ending very egregiously points to more (almost interrupting mid-story), its intent and focus works allowing for a film that is not the same or a reboot but a resurrection into the same world with new possibilities.