Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

20 October 2015

The Martian

I won't say I disliked Ridley Scott's new film, exactly. I didn't. I rather liked it.

I mean, The Martian is so milquetoast, so contrived, so thematically conservative, so filled with A-listers, so diverse, so generic, so outright plucky, that it would be difficult to dislike it with any real fervor. Instead one feels as though one got exactly what one bargained for. Yes, this is how a big Hollywood movie that takes place in space is supposed to work, this is what is supposed to happen, this is where Twentieth Century Fox's big dollars went, listen to the disco music, sit back, and enjoy yourself. And try to stay awake.

But, as I say, I didn't really dislike it. The Martian is enjoyable enough, and at any given moment during the movie there's usually something fairly cool to look at. The performances, too, are just fine: my favorites were Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor (always good) and Sean Bean, each of whom looked like he spent time thinking about who his character was before he got started. Michael Peña was good, too.

The problems with The Martian, to my mind, all stem from its self-satisfied quality. The movie is just so sure of itself, so shallow, so obviously doing its Hollywood thing, telling jokes that it just "knows" audiences are going to eat up – "space pirate" and "science the shit out of this" indeed – that its smugness started to wear on me.

For real though: Is anyone watching this movie ever actually concerned as to whether or not Matt Damon will be able to be rescued and returned to Earth safely? The characters in the movie seem occasionally concerned with this, but I couldn't muster any identification with the emotions I was seeing onscreen; Damon's rescue, his success, his total triumph over the implacable, uncaring powers of the universe, seemed a foregone conclusion before his team ever even left him on the red planet. And who can identify with Jessica Chastain's guilt over having left him there when a) we already know he's alright and b) everyone else in the film has already told us that it isn't her fault at all? I just couldn't get into these people with their phony feelings. Are you guys scientists or characters in a nineteenth-century melodrama? (Maybe this was why I liked Benedict Wong and Donald Glover; they play their characters like big giant nerds who don't actually know how to act around regular people.)

I want to say a couple more things that I thought about while watching this movie. Two years ago, when Captain Phillips came out, I got really stuck on all the money that I was seeing up there on the screen. Within the plot of Phillips it is perfectly logical to spend millions of dollars to rescue a single guy who has been kidnapped by pirates. This happens in The Martian, too, and it is a little more justified in The Martian's case, because its main character is actually an employee of the U.S. government and is on an interplanetary mission for that government, but watching NASA expend this enormous amount of effort to rescue this dude (and it really is a completely extraordinary amount of time and money), started to irk me after a while. This annoyance moved into overdrive for me when Damon dismantles a spacecraft in act three and just tosses the very expensive equipment into the Martian dust like so much detritus. This is, of course, a fictional story, but, then again, this is precisely what governments do. Certainly spending all of this money to save this one guy is sentimental and clearly politically advantageous (the film stresses this last point), but I can't help thinking about the lives that don't matter in this world, particularly in the U.S. So, save the martian, by all means, but why this guy? What is it about this guy's life that is so worth saving when there are so many lives we don't value at all, when we in fact spend time passing laws so that their lives are destroyed?

I have one more criticism, and this one, too, is a criticism of the film's politics. During the denouement of The Martian, Damon gives this speech about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, making things work, solving problems, and depending on your ingenuity. Now, I don't completely object to ingenuity or solving problems – in fact anyone who knows me will tell you that my chief priority in life is to make myself smarter and to work at improving myself – but the idea that this Martian did all of this stuff "by himself" is patently absurd. Although the film seems to want to stress that the NASA scientists were a bunch of interlopers, giving Damon bad advice about his potato-growing techniques and only being able to come up with the idea of punching a hole in the roof of his Rover, the movie still makes it quite obvious that this character could not have figured out how to get to the Sciaparelli Crater without talking to the guys at JPL. In fact, the Martian has literally hundreds of people working to help him, and even within this film's individualist narrative, the U.S. team would also never have been able to do what they did without the help of Chinese funds and ingenuity, as well. Even the stuff that Damon figures out on Mars when he is by himself is only possible because the writer has given our protagonist (like the eponymous hero of Robinson Crusoe) everything he needs to be able to survive all of the reversals the writer plans to throw at him. Individualism in this movie is a total myth, a myth that the movie seems to believe in, but not a position that is even remotely tenable.

Finally, let me return to one thing that I noted earlier: this film looks beautiful. In fact, whoever designed Mars for this movie did a spectacular job. I don't think the red planet has ever looked this gorgeous in a movie. The designs are at times deeply moving and occasionally even breathtaking. They top even the best of the images in the other big desert movie of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road.

But this is indicative of the film's chief priorities. The Martian is all about surfaces and not at all about substance. The Martian's tears are, in the end, only as real as his faux-dislike of disco music.