THE MARTIAN

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.

The Martian

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!

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6 Responses to THE MARTIAN

  1. The word “crewed” is sometimes used as a non-gendered term, although it does occasionally require disambiguation with the homonym “crude”.

    • marymdalton says:

      Thanks! I was also thinking about how quickly we’d get used to “humanned” if it came into use. I remember when I was in elementary school, and my teacher was talking about how some people wanted to change the language from its traditional forms with things like “fire fighter” and “letter carrier” and “police officer” instead of fireman, mailman, and policeman. I think she was trying to prepare us for a new world and help us see possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. After all, we have to be able to imagine something first to be able to make it so. Thank you, Miss Havens, wherever you are!

      • “Crewed” also ties into the nautical history/nomenclature of space travel- after all, an “astronaut” (another non-gendered word) is, in literal translation, a “star sailor”. And “unmanned” is sometimes replaced by “autonomous”.

  2. marymdalton says:

    Yes. Excellent point.

  3. ***SPOILER ALERT***

    Hi Mary, as usual the book is much more descriptive. In the book they mention what happens to Watney’s computer :

    LOG ENTRY: SOL 98 (2)

    Each crewman had their own laptop. So I have six at my disposal. Rather, I had size. I now have five. I thought a laptop would be fine outside. It’s just electronics, right? It’ll keep warm enough to operate in the short term, and it doesn’t need air for anything.

    It died instantly. The screen went black before I was out of the airlock. Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid.” I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.”

    Of course the film glosses over a lot of details, and I don’t blame R. Scott for doing so, the book is EXTREMELY detailed. There were times that I thought I was reading a chemistry textbook!

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