the martian (2015)
It's no secret that the fire driving many filmmakers is of the same spark that drives most explorers; observers who want to travel into the unknown have always been drawn to the reaches of our planet, and universe for that matter, that few humans tread, lusting after the untouched or undiscovered and looking to lay claim. It must be why so many space exploration films come from Hollywood and why most are so celebrated, the whole "go west" manifest destiny, the itch to dive deepest into the oceans. Cue Ridley Scott's The Martian, the latest entry into a growing genre of science-realist pictures. At its best, The Martian is transportive, bringing to clear life the other-worldly feeling of looking out onto an untouched landscape, being the first human being to ever walk on this ground, the juicy existential stuff that bleeds from a story about being alone on a planet. At its worst, the film is a cringe-inducing advertisement for the space program, filled with the dime-store philosophies and bumper sticker nonsense like "I'm going to science the shit out of this", sure to induce applause from the choir of tech faithful the film preaches to the loudest. Let's all join hands and remind ourselves of the unbreakable human spirit we all share, and revel in a dream that someday the world might gather together and nations might work hand-in-hand for a good cause, etc. There's clearly a generation at work here that still remember the moon landing, the dream of space exploration, the collective fear of atomic energy and mutually assured destruction; they remember a time when the world was less connected but felt more united, I can only imagine, and The Martian comes across more like a tear slowly falling from their eyes.
It's a shame that Scott's gift for inducing complete out-of-body experiences becomes so hindered by his strict adherence to well-tread emotional ground in his storyline. For all the incredible moments that work, for how different the world looked to my eyes stepping out of that theater, (I felt as though I'd left Earth, not an easy thing to communicate) Scott is, perhaps purposely, never able to rise above the mundane in any other aspect of the film. For many, myself included, Mars is a very real concept; since the age of 10, watching pathfinder land on television, the dream of what it would be like to walk on Mars has been alive in the back of my mind. It can be difficult to live in your own time period, knowing full well that the journey to traverse the Earth itself, a simple plane ticket away in our time, would have been an impossible dream for many centuries ago. Space travel will be the same, interplanetary travel will someday be our reality, though I won't see it. I'd imagine this film will play well to an audience of young males, much in the way Apollo 13 did a few decades ago during another low-point in public interest for NASA as it looked for Pathfinder's funding. The well-placed 'Water on Mars' announcement earlier this week was a clever bit of faux-coincidence (especially with Scott confirming that NASA had alerted him to the finding months ago). The Martian's best tongue-in-cheek moments come in the form of casting a comedian to play the role of NASA's PR rep, laboriously protecting the space agency's public image while being the laughing stock 'corporate' suit who just doesn't understand the passion of a devout scientist. It's the most potently self-contradictory ingredient in this film of never-ending contradictions. Whereby Damon's character relates to us the feeling of being the first known resident of Mars, of touching the untouched, the film itself goes nowhere that isn't virtually stock at this point. It's not until hearing Scott's desperate attempt at a Guardians of the Galaxy-style throwback disco soundtrack that I came to appreciate what Gunn and crew did last summer. It's clear what the disco is supposed to be stirring in the viewer, but nothing is stirred. Why? Because it's downright contrived, that's why. It's in these moments, the mind can't help but wander; the film is trying to appeal to its own echo-chamber of scientists, astronauts and explorers, striving to dodge Gravity's barrage of fact-checking tweets about the realities of Martian gravity, atmosphere, the way people move in space, etc. On the other hand, it wants mass audience appeal with plenty of harrowing thrills and action-packed moments. The soundtrack is but one of many attempts to appeal to the drooling idiot inside us all (even, as the film reminds us, genius scientific minds!) with constant caricatures of zany astrodynamicists (Donald Glover .. why? .. WHY?), ball-busting crew-mates, and strong-willed "good man" characters who buck the spineless suits. Don't even get me started with the space pirate and Lord of the Rings yucks. The message is clear: in new-age darwinism, it's the alpha-female space commanders and the beta-male man-child brainiac who are the survivors; goodbye old-world alpha male suits with your PR and your impotent adherence to diplomacy, hello space cowboys who stand on the side of truth, justice and sciencing the shit out of things.
Hence the weakness of the visceral, I suppose, for as thrilling, harrowing and ultimately, life-affirming as the film is in initial experience, so in equal measure does it fall apart and implode on itself the moment you rip but one tiny hole in it. One tiny hole in its protective aura and all our potatoes are dead. Matt Damon can do more with his own feces and a montage than the collective whatever-billion people of Earth in whatever year this is supposed to take place in. In any case, can't argue with the effectiveness of it all. It's Damon's scenes which are most effective, the designs of it all, the space machinery, the ships, the astronaut suit designs, the Martian surface. As a viewer, I wanted badly to step into the world of the film, I wanted to know all of what Damon might discover, what existential musings might be brought on by the true loneliness, the fact that at all times your life is hanging by a thread? There is a constant trade-off in the film of safety in the moment and long-term survival. Damon's character thinks long-term, which is how he is able to survive (cue sustainability fanfare), he approaches problems not as a human fearful for his own survival, but as a detached scientific mind, taking on the new challenges of a new environment. The film eventually suffocates under the weight of all the good things it wants to say. I hope that for a generation of movie-goers, The Martian becomes their Apollo 13, and makes them see that survival is possible if humanity works together and uses their mind to solve problems, rather succumbing to their animal instincts and behaving illogically. This is the dream of science, right? That all the little thoughts of little people, all of the prejudices and comforts that the human mind is prone to latch onto, might be forsaken for the dream of bringing the species toward new discoveries. I couldn't agree more, and as Scott's The Martian stirs these emotions and feelings within us, it tells us a story and shows us a film that is anything but. As the credits rolled, I had been to Mars and back, Scott delivered an experience that took me across the galaxy, but beyond being reminded of how cool the little boy inside of me wanted to go to Mars, I didn't have a damn thing else. Scott's The Martian takes you halfway, and then turns around. I have to give credit where it's due, it was a rousing experience, too bad it had nothing left to say. Still, this is no passive 2 hours, it's a thrilling film that could have been more.