I love it when former students take the time to reply thoughtfully to my posts. I think Jack makes some excellent points and — with his permission — I am including his comments here on my blog in the form of a guest post.
Fair warning, some spoilers may follow but I’ll contain them as best I can. Watney’s lack of family (as well as the clear decision not to focus on emotional entanglements between ANY of the characters) was a welcome change from the norm for us as well. I think something like, say, a forced romantic undercurrent would have distracted from what the movie was really trying to do and I would likely have spent the whole running time thinking “Ridley, your manipulations are showing”. As for our lack of character knowledge for Watney, I think that was a very intentional creative choice and here is why: Watney is not a stand-in for each audience member in the usual sense. He is a representative of our country as a whole first and as a personal stand-in second and the filmmakers didn’t want anything in there that might prevent an audience member from projecting themselves into Watney’s shoes. Thus he has no overt political or religious leanings. As soon as we walked out, I commented on how nice it was to see a movie that celebrated intelligence, science, and working peacefully and openly with other countries. This thing is like a liberal utopia of what the future could be (consider that Mars where “nothing grows” makes a pretty nice symbolic stand-in for a future earth that has been ravaged by climate change). From there you can jump straight to the closing statements of the film as a thesis for what the filmmakers were trying to say. Overwhelmed by climate change? Ignore the big picture and just work on the problem right in front of you. String enough problem-solving together and you can save humanit…er….a single astronaut. Even if you don’t buy into my larger symbolism, I do think that those final words really are a justification for Watney’s lack of character depth. In the context of this story, they’re saying that it simply doesn’t matter. The choices he has to make personally and the decisions make by NASA are exactly the same no matter what we know or don’t know about Watney. That may be frustrating on some level but ultimately it really is thematically consistent. Watney can’t allow himself to be distracted by anything other than triage so neither can the audience. All that said, I loved it. I don’t know about transcendent but it was by far the smartest, most complete mainstream film I’ve seen in quite a while. While I agree that the end felt slightly off somehow (I think there are some correctable editing issues–most of them deal with the pacing of the communication between Watney and the rest of the team as well as how long it takes to implement plans once a decision is made), I can’t tell you how relieved I was that science and problem-solving wasn’t thrown out the window in favor of some giant FX spectacle. In fact, another great relief for me was that despite a film full of them, not a single effect rang fake for me. The CGI was seamless, appropriate and in service to the story. Definitely the best thing Ridley Scott has made in some time and in many ways it is the kind of film that I often lament that they don’t really make any more. It reminded me of some of the better late 20th century action-adventure films like Hunt for Red October (which the film lifts a beat from in one of the only parts of the movie that I actively disliked–it involves a map and a magic marker). Ok, must sleep. More tomorrow after somebody shreds my analysis.