A Needle in a Haystack

Attempting to examine the whole of The Martian in a 300-word blog post simply wouldn’t do the film justice, nor would it provide any interesting level of analysis. So I want to zoom in on one aspect of the story and how producer Ridley Scott brought it to life.

If Mark Watney had not been able to establish contact with NASA, he would never have been able to return to Earth. This holds true in every medium through which his story is told. From very early on, his survival hinges on finding a way to communicate with Earth: locating the Pathfinder rover.

Finding a decades-old piece of machinery buried in the sand somewhere in the bleak expanse of the Martian landscape is probably a lot harder than finding a needle in a haystack. It’s also Watney’s only shot at communicating with Earth, as far as we know. Scott is able to capitalize on this significance with an intense parallel sequence of shots that drive home to the audience the gravity of its discovery. Once Vincent Kapoor realizes what Watney is planning, he immediately flies to Pasadena, where Scott significantly chose to locate an exact replica of Pathfinder. He follows with a shot of Watney emerging from the rover, paralleling his journey with Kapoor’s. The following few minutes consist of rapidly alternating shots, each no more than 12 seconds long, of Kapoor’s and Watney’s analogous discoveries of their respective Pathfinders. We see each man pause in awe and disbelief as the rovers are uncovered (Kapoor’s from plastic sheeting, Watney’s from Martian sand) and each utter the word “Pathfinder” as they gaze upon it for the first time. Behind the visuals and dialogue/monologue themselves, both men’s discoveries are united by the slow crescendo of the score, which comes to a peak just as we catch our first glimpse of the rover. These kinds of cinematic choices are what enables Scott to evoke in his audience a sense of magnitude that can only be described in the novel.

Of course, translating between media always involves tradeoffs. Watney’s discovery of Pathfinder in Weir’s novel is immediately followed by his battle to load it onto his own rover. The relentlessness of the problem-solution-problem-solution format of the novel is poorly suited for cinema. After the climax of the parallel discovery, Scott must release tension – which he does with the shot of Watney smoothly hoisting Pathfinder onto his rover.

I believe that this sequence serves as a good starting point for a read into Scott’s The Martian. At the same time, it provides a good point of comparison with Weir’s novel. Both embrace unique conventions suited to their respective media, which enable the same enormous discovery to be experienced through different perspectives.

>> See Andy Weir’s The Martian, page 100, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, 00:42:17.

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One thought on “A Needle in a Haystack

  1. Indeed, 300ish words is not nearly enough for the full novel. I appreciate you focusing on that one scene, and especially the paralleling between Watney and Kapoor. I would have liked to have seen more analysis of that decision, however. What are the implications for these choices? How do they affect the viewer? What do they tell us about either the characters or the situation of the film? Your observation leads to these questions, the answer of which would complete the reading of the film (though, as you say, not the whole film).

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