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Non-Review Review: The Martian

The beauty of The Martian lies in its relative simplicity. Although it runs a solid two-hours-and-twenty-minutes, the film seems a lot faster than many of its contemporaries because it keeps its eyes on a very simply central dynamic. Within the opening five minutes, the movie’s status quo is established with breathless efficiency; astronaut Mark Whatney is left for dead on the surface of Mars, and must struggle to survive as the entire planet figures out how to get him back alive.

The premise is very straightforward, and seldom gets more complicated than that. Mark tries to figure out how to stay alive as the greatest minds back home work on daring plans to establish communication and possible retrieve the lost astronaut. Along the way, both Mark and NASA suffer setbacks and reversals; complications abound and dilemmas present themselves. However, The Martian is always anchored in that very basic struggle against overwhelming odds and an indifferent universe.

Is there life on Mars?

Is there life on Mars?

The Martian is something of a genre cocktail. The movie’s tone and plot is perhaps best evoked by reference to Byron Haskin’s 1964 cult classic “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.” Mark’s plight is not too dissimilar to that of the Robert Lewis Stevenson protagonist, nor to that of Chuck Noland in Cast Away or the anonymous protagonist of All is Lost. However, the movie’s stellar setting serves as a gateway to a broader commentary on human codependency and association. Nobody gets there on their own; nobody gets back alone.

The Martian is a surprisingly heartwarming and life-affirming adventure, anchored in a charming central performance from Matt Damon and a very deep ensemble. Despite the massive sense of scale involved, Ridley Scott’s direction and Drew Goddard’s script work hard to keep it all personal. The Martian is a triumph.

Matt Damon was very excited about the film's release...

Matt Damon was very excited about the film’s release…

The Martian is perhaps another example of contemporary pop culture’s fascination with the sixties. After decades of public disinterest and disengagement, it seems that the space programme has become a focal point of nostalgic affection. Perhaps its is simply that enough time has passed since man set foot on the moon that mankind has grown to miss that ambition, perhaps it is part of a larger engagement with the utopian idealism that seems further away with each passing year.

It is easy to be cynical about the space programme, of course. After all, popular culture didn’t seem to enamoured with NASA during the eighties and nineties. When mission launches were televised, it seemed like nobody wanted to watch them. When more funding was provided to the organisation, it only made the institution an easy target for accusations of reckless spending and fiscal responsibility. Given how contemporary pop culture has fixated upon the space programme as an ideal, it would be trite to suggest that nobody wanted it until they couldn’t have it.

Seeing red. Nothing but red.

Seeing red. Nothing but red.

However, even allowing for all of that cynicism, there is a romance and majesty to space flight. While there are debates to be had about its material benefits and its impressive costs, the idea of mankind reaching beyond the sky itself is potent image. It symbolically captures the sheer reservoir of human potential, mankind’s capacity to push itself and to transcend its limitations in a very real and very practical manner. No wonder the space programme appeals to those optimists and idealists.

Christopher Nolan covered similar ground in Interstellar, a film which shares no small amount of DNA with The Martian. Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain play significant roles in both films, with Matt Damon effectively playing the “good twin” of the character he played in Interstellar. There are points in The Martian where composer Harry Gregson-Williams seems to be affectionately quoting some of the softer mood-setting moments in Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to Interstellar.

Like a Glover!

Like a Glover!

Interstellar engaged with the idea of manned space-flight as a demonstration of mankind’s ability to reach beyond very literal boundaries; it was the first step on the road to an idealised future where mankind can transcend space and time. The Martian is a little less concrete in its metaphors. To The Martian, the space programme is not so much about reaching beyond the human experience, but about transcending the limitations of man-made organisational structures.

Human sacrifice and ingenuity are parts of the narrative of the space programme, but they are also tempered by the suggestion that focusing on the heavens provided a common ground that allowed people to look beyond divisions and conflicts. As such, it makes sense that the space programme should be associated with the utopian ideals of sixties. The Martian is a wonderfully optimistic meditation on mankind’s willingness to push itself in pursuit of a higher ideal. In this case, bringing Mark Whatney home.

Just going outside and may be some time...

Just going outside and may be some time…

When astronaut David Scott and artist Paul Van Hoeydonck conspired to place the “Fallen Astronaut” memorial on Hadley Rille on the moon in August 1971, the plaque made a point to mention all astronauts who died in service of man’s journey to the stars. Scott advised Van Hoeydonck that the sculpture should not be male of female or of identifiable ethnicity, but should serve as a universal embodiment of all that was given to get mankind to the moon. The memorial was created as an apolitical act, without approval from NASA.

The Martian touches on this subtext repeatedly. When the head of NASA tries to figure out what to do, he finds himself weighing the future of the programme against the risks necessary to bring that lost astronaut home. “This is about more than one man,” Teddy Sanders insists, as he tries to protect the institution. “No,” responds flight supervisor Mitch Henderson, simply. “It’s not.” That is the core essence of The Martian‘s worldview, distilled down to a single exchange.

Rocking out...

Rocking out…

Drew Goddard’s script and Ridley Scott’s direction repeatedly and cleverly reinforce this idea that organisational structures should exist to protect and safe-guard the individual rather than themselves. This is most obvious in the structure of the film. Mark spends most of the movie more than two hundred million miles from the rest of the cast, but they all work in their own way to bring him home. Mark might be the only person on the entire planet, but The Martian suggests that he is never truly alone.

Scott very cleverly emphasises the importance of the supporting cast by stacking it with a diverse collection of recognisable performers. The movie finds room for Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Donald Glover. It genuinely appears as though no role is too small to be filled with a recognisable performer – a very effective way of illustrating that these characters are all important in their own way.

"I don't know why, but I've a craving for a Mars bar right about now..."

“I don’t know why, but I’ve a craving for a Mars bar right about now…”

More than that, Scott’s direction very cleverly emphasises the conflict between the organisational framework of an institution like this and the people who inhabit it. In particular, Scott uses 3D for some very clever compositions. On a couple of occasions throughout the film, a two-dimensional representation of an object (a televised conference, a photograph, a map) gives way to the reality underpinning it – those establishing shots literally take on an extra dimension as Scott populates them with characters.

The central narrative of having Mark record his experience through official video logs is more than just a vehicle for exposition or character development. Those video logs serve as another example of an institutional framework giving way to the individual inhabiting it; Mark’s video logs offer more than just an objective account of his experiences and decisions, they offer a glimpse into the character who is making them. Repeatedly, Mark’s personal ingenuity is reinforced as compared to decisions reached through committees and organisational hierarchies.

The wild rover...

The wild rover…

The Martian repeatedly suggests that simplicity is key. Mark is able to work out a basic method of communication with NASA by eschewing the overly-complicated English alphabet in favour of something more practical. The first attempt to offer Mark assistance is sabotaged by the sheer complexity involved. When astrophysicist Rich Purnell has his big breakthrough about how best to save Mark, it begins with five simple words forming a sentence fragment, “It’d almost be easier to…” It turns out that it is definitely easier to…

In a way, this preference for simplicity applies as much to the narrative structure of the film as it does to the core themes. The Martian avoids overly-complicating its plot. There are only a handful of major plot developments over the course of the movie’s two-hour-and-twenty-minute runtime, which allows the plot (and the characters) room to breath. The central dynamics are all simple, but are well-explored and developed. Indeed, the movie is paced very well; the audience is allowed to get a sense of time passing for Mark so as to underscore the scale of his crisis.

Martian on...

Martian on…

(If the movie has a flaw, it is that some parts seem a little too neat and tidy. Despite its emphasis on the importance of the individual to larger structural systems, some of the characters can occasionally feel like they are simply filling narrative roles. In particular, there is an interpersonal relationship between two members of the Mars mission that seems to exist simply so the movie can have an interpersonal relationship between two members of the Mars mission because that is thematically important to a film about the relationship between people and institutions.)

For all that The Martian takes a very classic storytelling framework, it feels surprisingly modern. Mark’s experience could easily be translated to the Pacific Ocean, a point to which he alludes at one point in the film; however, the story itself is most definitely modern. Mark Whatley’s video blogs and his engagement with the public evokes the wonderful work done by Chris Hadfield to engage with public. Mark’s dialogue is consciously tailored for the internet age. Confronted with the possibility of his own death, he reflects, “I’m going to have to science the sh!t out of this.”

If you can keep your head...

If you can keep your head…

This is to say nothing of how author Andy Weir developed the story; The Martian is very literally the product of the internet age, originally published as a serialised blog narrative. For all the relative simplicity of the narrative, there is something very fresh and very interesting about the way that the story developed. Directed by Ridley Scott, it is too much to describe The Martian as experimental, but the story feels more modern and in tune with 2015 than a lot of big-screen science fiction.

The Martian is great piece of work from all involved; it’s a stellar achievement.

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8 Responses

  1. Thanks for another stellar review, I always enjoy reading them.

  2. I was going to read this, then decided against it. I want to go into this film completely fresh, with no other opinions and possible spoilers. I absolutely loved the book, best of the year, maybe even the decade, so I can’t wait to see what Hollywood has done with it. I’ll come back to your review once I’ve seen it, hehehe.

  3. Hmm. I was very enthusiastic about seeing “the Martian”, but unfortunately the film didn’t live up to my expectations. Oddly, I expected it to be as good and intense and well-written as “interstellar”, but I guess I was expecting an altogether different film. I had heard that in this film, science and fiction had finally been married together, but science and logic were sacrificed for drama. Jessica Chastain’s character’s love of 1970’s disco music was odd and really not believable- which seemed to justify the film’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” type music cues- which, for this film- not a light-hearted, humorous topic- but a heavy, serious one- I just feel the music cues were contrived, and indicates the producers were trying to make the film not so serious. Donald Glover’s character was idiotic and out of place. The antics in the scene with Jeff Daniels, where he tries to show them the way they can save Matt Damon’s character, were laughable at best, unrealistic at worst. He tells them that the only way to save Matt Damon’s character was to turn the ship that had just left Mars, to turn around. At that moment, I swear, half of the audience, including my 13 year old daughter, said, “Duh”!, as most everyone assumed from the beginning that they should just turn the ship around.
    Moreover, at the beginning of the film, when the dust storm hits, they act like it’s the first time, and because the storm is serious, they pack up and leave the surface, get into orbit, and leave, bound for earth- which MADE NO SENSE. They had obviously set up a lab on the planet’s surface to do extensive research, but one big storm comes, and they high-tail it not only into orbit, but suddenly have to go home. So the abandon the lab? Huh.
    Also- Matt Damon’s character grew potatoes in Martian soil mixed with his own fecal matter. Well, if that were earth soil, with the bacteria and organic matter that FORMED the soil in the first, provides the nutrients that you wont get when you mix Martian dirt with human fecal matter. That almost made me laugh out loud, and I am by no means a scientist.
    So if you can stomach all the non-science and poor thought regarding the storyline, you will love this film. Those of you who have any intelligence and finished high school will wait for the disc.

    • Little harsh and aggressive, perhaps?

      I mean, the artistic merit of a film can surely be divorced from its scientific credibility. And while I am also by no means a scientist, I do put a lot of stock in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s positive attitude towards the relative merits of the theory behind the film.

  4. Neat review!

    I enjoyed the film, though I felt deeply uncomfortable with the blatant pandering to the Chinese market. At best it felt like a sledgehammer approach to product placement to sell the movie in the second biggest market in the world, and at worst politically distasteful.

    The problem is not that the Chinese space agency comes to the rescue, it is that they are awkwardly wedged in as a two dimensional deus ex machina. It felt very jarring and cynical and I lost a lot of good will towards the movie as a result.

    (See this article for more: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/10/10/stephen-colberts-pander-express-is-a-brilliant-takedown-of-how-hollywood-sucks-up-to-china/)

    • Thanks for the link. (Although it’s still less blatant than Transformers 4, where the Chinese government is oh-so-efficient when confronted with giant robots.)

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