16 October, 2015

Mark Watney of Mars

A Review of The Martian (2015)
by James Kislingbury
The past decade or so of Ridley Scott's career has not been the greatest. Since the early 2000's successes of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, his output has been one long run of questionable films that range from the half-baked, the butchered, the confusing, and the downright awful. During this period, his technical skills only seemed to remind us that he once seemed capable of making good films. And then we remembered that his last unqualified good film came out around ten years ago.

The Martian, thankfully, defies this trend. It's the best movie Ridley Scott has turned out in a decade.  It's fun, it's light, and despite lacking the depth of his best works, it's an eminently watchable film. Considering the amount of calories I've wasted defending Kingdom of Heaven and Prometheus, this is exciting for me.

The Martian is about Dr. Mark Watney, hunk and space botanist, who is stranded on the red planet after a freak storm. From there, it's a series of duct-tape drama, self-surgery, and, back on Earth, an oddly gripping story that revolves around resource allocations (that and conversations about how people should just, like, try harder). It's more Robinson Crusoe than it is Enemy Mine, more Apollo 13 than it is, uh, Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

It's tackles the science fiction genre in a way that I don't think I've ever seen. Namely, it's a movie that is about actual science. Films in this niche have always dabbled with this sort of thing. Interstellar jumps most immediately to mind and 2001: A Space Odyssey jumps most unfairly to mind (as though anything should ever be compared to a Kubrick movie, for good or for bad). Those films only use the science a starting point for the drama. With The Martian, the science is the drama. It is the end all, be all of the film. It's a film without a villain, where doing long division is more important than bravery.

For the most part it works. Seeing a guy, step-by-step figure out how not to die is pretty intriguing. You know, that's cool. The problem comes from the fact that there's no real emotion in the film. It's a long line of problems that need to be solved and smart people doing bloodless math in their heads about how it gets solved. I mentioned it in my podcast, but later on, I thought of United 93 and the thrills Paul Greengrass manages to eek out of bureaucratic procedure and couldn't help but realize that I've seen it done better than it was in The Martian.

The Martian is a perfect title, because nobody in the film ever seems to act like a human being. People assemble into rooms, assess a problem, and then all go to their respective corners like no collection of human beings in charge of multi-billion dollar programs would ever do. It's a movie where Jessica Chastain is stoic. I don't know about you, but stoic is not why I show up to a Jessica Chastain picture.

The film seems more interested in maintaining momentum than it does in creating individual moments where characters can be confused or upset or indecisive. Human beings don't fit into alegebra, so the film moves right past them.

As lacking as the film is in emotion or any sort of attachment, it does have its moments here and there. You have Donald Glover taking the set of skills he honed in Community to be the most obvious quirky scientist this side of The Big Bang Theory (which, like JPL, is also in Pasadena). Then there's you have Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels dueling in a series of industrial offices over who can appear the most affably schlubby without tipping over into "I have a puppy in my van" territory. Most importantly, you have a montage set to David Bowie's "Starman," which is important if only because it is only the third most obvious David Bowie song about space and someone deserves credit for that coup. Then, after these moments, the story kind of slides back to its steady, unwavering tale about a dude trying to figure out how he can, oh boy, "science the shit" out of his space car.

Beyond the drama and beyond its technical achievements, The Martian deserves viewing, because it speaks to the importance of space exploration. Between the various disasters that have plagued our space program and the various earthbound horrors we've witnessed over the past decade or so, we've lost our ability to stare at the stars and wonder what could be. We've forgotten what they mean. The Martian steadfastly ignores this sort of cynicism. Like its drama, there's no place for it. Space travel is an incredible achievement. It is something that represents the best of our race. In this film it isn't some asshole's talking point about how we should spend that money feeding people in America instead of sending people to space (as though we have to choose). Going to space is, in a very real way, the best we can do as a species. If this film can put us right on the importance of space exploration, to get us wondering about what could be, then The Martian will have done its job.

Imperfect as it may be, The Martian is one of the smartest blockbusters to come out since, well, Interstellar. It is a film that, despite its failings, manages to strike a balance between hard science fiction and populist entertainment. It's, you know, pretty cool for the most part. As many better films of this sub-genre as there are, there are few that are as well produced as this one and even fewer that are as technically accomplished. The Martian is a respectable, enjoyable film that is also about as overflowing with human feelings as the planet it depicts.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and an Explorion.