The Martian

Winners don’t think!
★★★
☆
Released: 
2015
Director: 
Ridley Scott
Starring: 
Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara
The Setup: 
Guy is marooned on Mars, has to survive and get back.
Discussion: 

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.

Should you watch it: 

Ugh. Do what you want, I don’t care.

Comments

After seeing the trailer for this I immediately felt that I didn't want to see it, but felt that I maybe should because of all the raves, and because I'm still grateful to Ridley Scott for "Alien". But after your review I feel better about passing it by. Also, I very much appreciate your sharing with us your emotional responses to movies.

Yeah, Ridley Scott is... in a different place than he once was. And I'm not really sure where he is now, or what he wants out of making movies anymore [see: Exodus Gods and Kings]. He definitely needs to be taken off the "see anything by..." list.

Thanks for your note about my emotional responses... I miss that in other movie reviews, and I think it counts for a lot whether the critic was moved or annoyed or whatever... It's valid to know. Thanks for the note!

I saw someone else describe The Martian that way and, y'know, it kind of fits. There was absolutely nothing objectionable about it and I found the experience enjoyable and competently delivered, but it really didn't stay with me.

A lot of the things you complain about (like the "NASA, fuck yeah!" attitude everyone has) were from the original book. Which doesn't make them not be annoying, but the book was the author's first novel and it kind of shows.

One thing the movie does bring is really bad pacing. Like, there is no attempt to establish the Mars base or the characters AT ALL. And, while the techies (like me) can understand what was going on, they run over the science stuff so damn fast that I wonder why they even bothered. I mean, the bit where he turns rocket fuel into water was probably "mumble mumble mumble explosion now there's water" for most of the audience.

I will say that when this comes out on disc my coworkers and I are going to watch it, and it will probably take us about nine hours because we'll keep pausing it to appreciate some tiny background detail or to swap old rocket-scientist "no shit, there I was" stories...

LOVE "Pumpkin Spice Sci-Fi," that hits the nail on the head.

Yes, the lack of actual science is another point lending to its "feel good" aspect. He says he's going to farm on Mars, then BOOM, he's done it. Boom, he's created water. I myself am one of those people with no idea how he did it. They were also in such a panic to make him likable that they hold back on making him seem smart.

Have no idea about the novel, but basically he invented a problem for the sole purpose of having the protagonist solve it. We don't NEED to know the crew, since their only purpose is to abandon him, then rescue him.

What's even more scarier about the average person's lack of science knowledge is... I would bet you $10 that there's a sizable population out there that thinks this is a true story.

I may make a fool of myself for not researching this further before posting but I was under the impression that the Martian atmosphere is far too thin to have the kind of storm depicted. You can have weathering and erosion over decades (or millennia) but this kind of "Oh shit, we're gonna die" wind storm just doesn't happen. But anyhoo... even a watchable Ridley Scott film is a win these days.

We've now observed dunes shifting in some, but not all areas of the planet. Apparently, with the thin atmosphere, that requires wind speeds at a minimum of 80 mph. With our very much thicker astmosphere, it only takes wind speeds of 10 mph to make the dunes dance.

Mars experiences dust storms that cover the entire planet.

And don't forget, dust makes friction, and friction makes electricity.

Completely agree with you on the annoying "wholesome American boy scout" attitude of Matt Damon's character. It's ridiculous to see him happily monologuing away and cracking jokes to himself, as if he was just camping in the country.

I just wanted to add I felt the movie gets boring really quick, because the moment Jessica Chastain feels guilty for letting him there, you know they're eventually. inevitably, going to find out he's alive and go back to rescue him (no disagreement about it, no second thoughts, no regrets: they're noble, wholesome boy scouts as well!). Everything before that felt like padding, including the gratuitous Chinese subplot clearly destined to pander to the now important Chinese market.

You're right, it is a little boring. But that's part of keeping it "feel-good."

Wouldn't it be interesting if they had to rescue him before he went CRAZY?
Or if he faced some bizarre hallucinations? Went through an ordeal in his own mind?
But I guess that would be MY Mars movie...

A spot-on review. Matt Damon was so super-competent and upbeat, I couldn't get terribly concerned or scared for him, and a little later decided he was not much more than a disco-hating frat dude-bro (with a degree in botany) and began to actively dislike him. It was a bummer seeing the gifted Chiwetel Ejiofor following up his haunting work in 12 Years a Slave with this shallow, bloated, downright dull movie. Playing "Love Train" at the end wrapped it all up in a big bow of stupid. Boo, I say. BOO!

Yeah, his stupid frat boy hating of disco was a cause for dislike... how much better the film would have been with just ONE scene of him dancing around the station, because... WHY NOT? I wanted to see him cut loose and get a little nutty, but not in this movie. The inclusion of "Love Train" was just the final nail in the coffin, and confirmation that the film's ambitions are little more than to be a mood booster... and it has obviously worked for box office.