The Martian

By Megan Findlay

Mailed on October 06, 2015

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Dear Oliver Tarney
Sound Designer

Dear Oliver,

You’ve ruined duct tape for me, but in the best possible way.

Let’s back up.

When you read the screenplay for the The Martian, did your skin prickle with goose bumps? It’s a movie that, through a series of noisy calamities, builds to near-unbearable levels of stress. A movie replete with hissing airlocks, whirring gizmos, and the beeps and boops of computers operating on a planet prone to loud and ferocious weather. A sound designer’s dream, I imagine.

A dream that you realize with mighty talent.

From the moment astronaut Mark Watney is violently separated from his NASA crewmates during a storm on Mars, you announce yourself. You’re there when the crew, believing Watney dead, blasts away from Mars in a terrifying roar of rockets. You’re there when we return to Watney, wounded, half-buried, suddenly regaining consciousness amid the cacophony of his spacesuit’s many alarms. When he climbs to his feet and staggers towards the crew’s abandoned habitat (or “Hab”), you’re there again in the crush of his boots on the sand, the creak of his stiff spacesuit as he undresses, the squelch of blood and muscle as he fishes a hunk of space-shrapnel from his own guts with a pair of surgical forceps.

Though extraordinarily visceral, these moments of high-octane catastrophe do not represent your most affecting work in the film. Instead, it’s the way you score Watney’s lonely, day-to-day experience—the steady drumbeat of everyday noises in and around the Hab—that gives the film its emotional momentum.

That momentum builds from moment Watney delivers the first of many frank “lay of the land” talks under the guise of a daily video log. Pale, hoarse, barely holding his terror at bay with a steady offensive of sarcasm, Watney breaks down the numbers: thirty days until the Hab reaches its expiration date, three hundred days until he starves to death, and, most significantly, at least four years until a rescue mission can reach him (if he manages to contact earth). It’s a movie based on ruthless math. And it’s a movie in which adrenalin-pumping disaster sequences are separated by plenty of interstitial time—time that Watney must fill with a plebeian cycle of solving problems, coping with boredom (via an obscene amount of disco music), and laboring through daily chores.

That’s when you do your best work, Oliver. Not in the emergencies, but in the routines. I empathize with Watney most deeply when he lifts a shovelful of dry soil, hauls a wagon with a squeaking wheel, taps a sign into the ground, runs his fingers across a wall dewed with condensation. When he eats, I hear every gluey mastication, am witness to every gulp. When he writes, I hear the scratch of his marker on paper. When he sleeps, I hear his breaths as though he is laying next to me (be still, my heart!).

All of these sounds are part of my boring old life down on boring old earth, and that’s exactly what makes them so poignant. You manage to infuse these ordinary sounds with a sense of unease, of anxious claustrophobia. Watney’s chewing signals the rapid depletion of his food source. When he writes, it is to record the bleak facts of his situation (more ruthless math). Even the chemical makeup of air moving in and out of his lungs intensifies his peril in the Hab’s fragile atmosphere. By hijacking these banalities and using them as signposts in Watney’s terrifying ordeal, you’ve hijacked me as well. You’ve made me more than a passive observer. Not quite a participant in his struggle, but close. Uncomfortably, unforgettably close.

So, the duct tape.

Each time Watney tears a length of it from a roll, that sharp ripping noise, augmented by the hyper-realistic audio immersion of a movie theatre, triggers within me a series of flashbulb memories, like a song I haven’t heard in years. Wrapping a Christmas package, repairing a punctured tent, labeling a Rubbermaid bin: I’ll never do these things again without recalling, in some distracted part of my mind, the contours of Watney’s nightmarish struggle.

You’ve ruined duct tape for me, but in the best possible way. You’ve made it so much more than a benign object—like eating and writing and breathing, your soundscape has raised this element of ordinary life to extraordinary importance.

That gives me goose bumps, too.



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