Oct 12, 2015

The Martian

Lovingly polished to within an inch of its life, this sophomoric outer space busyness by Ridley Scott, based on the novel by Andy Weir, is not only an extended commercial for NASA (not that there's anything wrong with that), but as the Magnificent Arepa memorably put it, it most resembles a reality cooking show -- in space.
The film makes an impassioned case about "sciencing the shit out of" everything, and this is a worthy message in these obscurantist times, in which millions of Americans think the world was created in seven days and women are a figment of Adam's rib. However, cheerleading for science does not a good movie make.
The premise is promising enough: a guy is left for dead in Mars. He is all alone in the red planet and needs to survive for as long as he can with what's left in the spaceship. But because he happens to be an American with an extreme case of gung-hoitis, there is not one pause in this film for poetry, or self-reflection, or awe, or a personal reckoning with the universe. This Mark Watney is a doer, a hero with a capital H, and he has no time to ponder. What he has plenty of time for is cracking wise and complaining about disco music. There is nothing wrong with humor, and we were not expecting Tarkovski, but the character is insufferable. Matt Damon, a damn fine actor, does what he can to make Watney likable and human, but the character, as written by Drew Goddard with teenagers in mind, is an alpha-male jock with a soft spot for plants. I liked that he was smart and solved problems, but I hated his self-congratulation, his smugness, and his competitiveness with no one around. Wouldn't it be more exciting to cast perhaps a more fragile nerd, so that the odds would seem more insurmountable? One look at Damon's abs and his superior blondness, and we know that there is no way that this enterprising bro won't make it.
One goes to the desert here on Earth and is quickly brought down to size by our sudden awareness of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. This guy is all alone in Mars and he acts like a sitcom character. He has no time for vulnerability. There is shit to do. When alone in space and about to die, one is cocky. These are the values Hollywood exports: only the individual is heroic, he works solo and his is all the glory. They don't bother giving him an Achilles heel. He doesn't have hubris. He's the perfect guy for the job. Even with a team of equally insufferable heroic characters on Earth trying to help him, each one trying to be his own little hero, there is no sense of something bigger than the individual. Republicans who extoll the virtues of bootstrapping must love this crap. I wonder if the rest of the world is not fed up already with this relentless hero worship. It can't be the only game on Earth.
I do not understand why this movie is in 3D. The opening sequence in which a tornado hits and Watney is left for dead is visually incomprehensible. The photography by Dariusz Wolski is spectacular, and so is the production design by Arthur Max, but everything is busy with endeavor, and Ridley Scott gets lyrical only with a few lovely scenes of the crew members cavorting in zero gravity. The rest is scientific exposition that no one understands, or endless repetition of the same tired clichés. How many times can you see people clapping and cheering in control rooms, here or in China? How many times is the hero going to bitch about disco music? Do we need a character who announces that something might go wrong and then cut right to everything going wrong? There is no sense of wonder, let alone surprise. The movie, which involves cooperation with the Chinese space program in order to sell billions of tickets in China, pretends to be clever, but it is written for dumb appeal.
As incomprehensible as the opening sequence is the scientific mumbo jumbo the poor actors have to spout while pretending they understand any of it. I resent movies where they throw technical jargon at us. They make the audience think it's smart for paying attention. Who knows what any of it means? Who cares? Are you going to go check your equations to see if it pans out?
Worse, I never really understood why they couldn't send the crew back to retrieve Watney. The obstacles seem invented out of thin air only to create fake moral dilemmas. Which is why I find movies like The Martian morally bankrupt. They squander the opportunity to say something true about being human and instead they sound like the Koch Brothers, if only they liked plants.

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