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.
The progression of modern science fiction builds its basis on the oft misunderstood “Blade Runner” while the horror genre finds respect through the first “Alien”. Both films were undertakings of an early 30s Ridley Scott attempting to progress a notion of mortality or simply of loss within an unforgiving world which casts aside whatever it pleases.
That is why “Prometheus”, his long awaited return to the genre, is exactly reflective of that personification. While functioning simply as a thriller using ideas of immortality might be attributable and somewhat indulgent, the intonation of what he is saying is personified in his aversion to saying what really might be below the surface.
The functionality of the movie is based in Noomi Rapace’s character (whom she herself calls a “believer”) who convinces a certain company to fund a trip to a distant planet that might be the origin point for the human race. The interesting angle here in terms of topography, landing and literal proportion of the objects involved is that one could see this as the Alien planet. The key is in the details of which they are many and many are misdirects. Damon Lindelof, the writer (also responsible for “Lost” and the “Star Trek” reboot) knows the lore undeniably which concedes his point of misdirection but also essentially let him keep certain elements open.
The proponent of many things also revolves around David, played with almost comedic (say Chaplin) progression by Michael Fassbender. Whether through his fastidious coloring of hair to resemble Peter O’Toole as Sir Lawrence in a well-regarded film or small seemingly strategic ploys of the movie that only the audience sees, the intention is to use what we know of the “Alien” universe to extrapolate motivation. However, also in play is what a new generation will see without the background of those movies. The layers are applicable which is what gives this movie a bit more than one would expect.
That said, there are many theories that can abound and that is what is good about a film like this as well as the viral campaign that preceded its release. What it is also good at doing, unlike many films today, is feel the need to explain everything (which is more an extension of studio-watch guarding than anything else).
Charlize Theron’s character Vickers is of particular interest, specifically in the way she is built and inter-played throughout the film strategically with David and an older elder figure. The clues in the dialogue as well as what is not shown speak to something undeniably connected in who and what her character is. It is one of the nicely created puzzles of the piece. The ship itself as it lands and the maze they enter into are simply a construct for a different story being told.
Because saying any more would ruin much of the re-watch value on the picture, “Prometheus” does accomplish what it set out to do: create a thought provoking diatribe on modern science fiction by the man who redefined it nearly two generations ago. While time will decide this picture’s impact within the pantheon, it shows that time does allow a bit of perspective and, at times, influence on what is said, how it is built and how it is filtered.