This came out to a spate of good reviews, and everyone said it was good, and it’s in 3D and has lots of cool visuals, so sure, I’ll see it. And it was, you know, “good,” and has a big cast, and is well-done, and all, but in the end it’s a big crowd-pleaser, everything in place but nothing all that exciting, lots of nobility but no raw emotion, and ultimately it strikes me as the kind of thing that might win Best Picture, and when it does, make you want to puke.
We open on Mars and no sooner do we meet our team of hip, young, extremely attractive astronauts when—there’s a huge storm headed this way! They go to abort procedure! They’re all walking back to the ship when something breaks off and beans Mark Whatney—that’s Damon—in the head, and it seems like he’s dead! They have to go! Jessica Chastain wants to go back for him! But they can’t! So they leave the planet. And you're like... Really? A storm? Like, they haven't had other storms? They didn't plan for storms?
Next day, Watney wakes up, and sees that he’s been left. He gets back to the lab and has to immediately perform some self-surgery, since he’s been impaled by a pole, and needs to dig something out of his abdomen in fairly grueling detail. Then he cranks up his video diary / exposition device and lays out all the challenges of staying alive on Mars for the four years it’ll take for the next crew to get there. I personally might permit myself a little complete emotional breakdown and make time for a few days’ catatonic stupor, but not this can-do fellow! He’s a botanist, and he needs to get down to the work of growing potatoes on Mars! Can you believe it—on MARS!?!
This works out fine. Soon enough, the people on Earth figure out that he’s alive [his death has been announced, and they’ve had a public funeral]. So for a while, we have dual stories of Watney on Mars, and the people on Earth [Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor] plotting different ways to get him back. They decide not to tell his crew, who are en route back to Earth. Watney waits until 109 days to try to actively contact, and initiate a dialogue with Earth. Something I would have thought he might have wanted to start sooner, but that’s me. Anyway, blah, blah, there are ups, there are downs, good days and bad, advancements—and setbacks!—but that American can-do spirit wins the day!
There seems to be little point in going into the details. Watney masters the situation, telling us how he’s using science, but without going into much detail. He never gets depressed. He never has a moment—not even one millisecond!—of loneliness or despair. After he returns [is that even a spoiler?] the final words of the film are about when life gives you shit, you have to just DO! Get up and get to work! So it seems that one of the main statements of the movie is anti-introspection, about how thinking gets you nowhere, doing is what wins the day. This would be one thing if there weren’t so many currents in society that trend away from deep thinking and toward quick decisions, away from anything that takes time and thought toward short, often nonverbal statements [Twitter, Instagram, texting]. So… it’s a bit disconcerting in the context of how our society as a whole is moving away from introspection and hurtling toward superficiality and speed.
Which is not to say it’s unemotional. Perhaps because of the lack of anyone onscreen freaking out—and I am TRYING hard to believe that this was intentional by the director, not just my personal reaction—I was pretty much on the verge of tears for the whole thing. I am, admittedly, a huge sucker for people being noble and suffering in silence, but in the film, everyone is just trying to hold it together and do their best, and there’s a certain underplayed emotionalism to that. Still, as it goes into the latter half [after his crew returns to get him back, and his final rescue], EVERYONE’S a super-happy, chipper camper who never has a cross moment or snips at anyone or, God forbid, gets a TINY bit depressed, or doesn’t WANT to lose another two years of their lives in space, and maybe even gives up for just a second—you know, like a human being might do—after a while the entire film becomes just a bit superficial and trite. Like, why should you invest emotions in it if no one else is?
Compare this approach with the ending of the surprisingly excellent Captain Phillips, in which Tom Hanks holds it together for the whole of the film, then lets it all out in one huge breakdown after he’s out of danger. That version seems much more emotionally true and human [and satisfying, as a viewer] than this, and, well, maybe the hero of this just isn’t really human. Or he’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s the kind of guy you’d want working on your car, but not to be friends with. He has no inner life... he has nothing inside.
The Mars portion does end with a nice, visceral expression of action, which I often think one needs as an emotional catharsis at the end of a film, and with a beautiful image—two figures spinning in space, surrounded by orange tape—that provides a nonverbal, emotional release that I think too few films have the sense to include.
By the end, however, this is clearly positioned as a feel-good movie, in which anything but happy thoughts have no place. A recurring joke is that the only music Watney has is disco [ha! ha! Film have good humor! Disco—HA! HA! Disco inherently funny!] but in reality this means that what little music you hear is very upbeat, which becomes really obvious when the film ends with a credits montage set to “Love Train” [“People all over the world, join hands!”] and the song “I Will Survive” plays over the final credits. It’s a party, y’all! Deep thoughts, or any thoughts, are not invited!
My only other comment is that this films has the largest amount of absolutely wasted name actors of any in recent memory. Kristen Wiig is here—with nothing to do. Sean Bean—nothing to do. Kate Mara—nothing to do. Why do they need these name actors if they’re just going to be window dressing? I know—for the box office, and because the actors probably want to work with Ridley Scott. Still, it strikes me as a bit of bloat, like when you read that rich people are throwing out food while others are starving. If only we could just shave off the money used to hire those unused name actors and divert the money toward a more interesting filmmaker with fewer commercial prospects.
Anyway, an extremely well-made, superficial commercial film, designed to separate you from your money and offer you a fun two hours without having to think, and send you on your way feeling good. Like I said, the kind of thing that’ll win Best Picture, and make you puke when it does.
Ugh. Do what you want, I don’t care.