My favorite Ridley Scott movie is still Thelma & Louise.
I have not read Andy Weir’s novel (originally self-published), upon which the film The Martian is based, but this is not Scott’s first foray into space.
Remember Alien and Prometheus? The Martian is similarly well-crafted (if less viscerally engaging than Alien).
The story is simple: a botanist is left behind on a mission to Mars when a storm hits and the other astronauts believe he is dead. NASA officials don’t know the scientist is alive at first, but once they do, there is a mad scramble to try to rescue him.
Notice how I avoided the phrase “manned space mission”?
That language always annoys me. Why can’t things described as “manned” instead be termed “staffed” or some other suitable, gender-neutral descriptor? Words are important because they signify how we imagine and structure the world.
This particular mission is, in fact staffed with a diverse crew (which I appreciate), including Jessica Chastain as the commander of the ship, Melissa Lewis; Michael Peña as Rick Martinez; Kate Mara as Beth Johanssen; and, Aksel Hennie as Alex Vogel. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, the crew member left behind.
Diversity at NASA, a collaborating university, and (ultimately) an allied country, are also welcome.
I don’t automatically see a preview trailer for a space picture and think, “Gee, I can’t wait to see this movie,” but I try to keep an open mind.
The Martian is aesthetically engaging, but it is a bit long overall coupled with pacing issues that make the resolution feel rushed.
That’s not my biggest problem with the movie, however. And, I’m not talking about the science because I can’t speak authoritatively about that.
I’m struck instead by how much screen time Damon has as Mark Watney and how little I know about him.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
I saw the film with my friend Allison, a writer who notices narrative details, and she said afterward that she appreciated how Watney did not have a spouse or partner waiting and grieving back on Earth because that is the expected thing. Brief mention is made of his parents, but there do not seem to be other family members left behind.
That’s a nice touch – I agree – but I can’t think of anything else I know about him that is particular. He’s smart and disciplined, sure, but I know more about Commander Lewis because her favored disco music torments Watney than I do about the focal point of the story.
The contrast is striking – annoying disco music on Mars – but why didn’t he have his own music on his computer? What about the other members of the crew? Why do I feel that I know Lewis better than Watney even though she has far less screen time? Part of it is the music, the brief video transmission from her partner, and her interactions with members of her crew, but it goes deeper than that.
Fundamentally, I need to know more about Watney to care more deeply about him.
In the final analysis, my response to the film is that I intellectualized the experience of viewing it. There were no moments of transcendence for me. This is a striking contrast, say, to Gavity, which reeled me in, wringed me out, and gave me a joyful release when the protagonist survives.
Watching The Martian felt more like an intellectual exercise for me with less willing suspension of disbelief and less concern about who might live or die than from what I consider the best or most effective science fiction films.
One personal bonus for me, however, is the final scene in the classroom; now I have one more teacher to include in the new edition of The Hollywood Curriculum!