The Martian

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

What was it with the Oscars last year? First Mad Max and now this. Was there a massive shortfall in quality in 2015?

Like Mad Max, The Martian is an entertaining film, but it’s pure fluff. It deserves to make money but it doesn’t deserve to win awards. It’s likeable, it’s well made but it’s completely shallow.

It also suffers terribly in comparison to the recently nominated Gravity. Gravity was also a tale of survival in space, but it had more weight to it. It was more visceral, it had more imagination and a lot more emotion. This, in comparison, is a trifle, even if the fate of the central character is potentially a lot worse than that of Sandra Bullock.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is one of a group of astronauts exploring Mars. The expedition’s base is hit by a massive dust storm and the commander gives the order to evacuate. During the evacuation Watney is hit by debris and presumed dead.

Only, he’s not.

Watney is now stranded alone on Mars. With his crew beginning the long voyage back to Earth and with another crew not arriving on Mars for another four years, he has to find a way to survive for almost half a decade with a limited amount of supplies. As he says. he’s going to have to ‘science the shit out of it’.

There’s a lot of joy to be had in Watney’s simple, mundane day-to-day routines. The rationing of food, trips outside to gaze at the Martian landscape and the recording of his video diary. But once the movie begins to open up and expands beyond the narrow focus of Watney’s isolation, it becomes less interesting. The struggles of NASA to get their man/men back home safely was much more effectively depicted in Apollo 13.

I don’t think the casting helps that much. Kristen Wiig is completely out of place and Sean Bean stands out like a sore thumb. Why is a man with strong Northern English accent the mission controller at NASA? Plus, every time I see him now I’m waiting for his inevitable death scene.

Jeff Daniels, too, as the NASA administrator fails to convince. But maybe that’s my fault. For me he’ll always be Harry from Dumb and Dumber.

There’s also a serious issue with the tone of this film. One of the running gags is that Mark gets stuck on Mars with nothing but crappy disco tunes to listen to. It’s meant to add levity to the movie but for me it completely robs it of dramatic weight. Fucking ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘Love Boat’ and ‘Rock the Boat’ all make an appearance. Still, it could be worse. It could be Kanye West he gets stuck with.

But I feel that this movie should have been stripped back completely. I’d want to remove the rescue mission entirely. I’d want to see everything from Watney’s perspective. His isolation should be palpable and absolute. We should only be relieved of his loneliness when he is. We should see the rescue mission when he sees the rescue mission. For a film where there’s so much at stake, there’s very little sense of jeopardy.

Even when Watney blows up his base and destroys his crop of potatoes, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. And it should. It should be utterly crushing. It should be like that scene in Touching the Void when he falls into the crevasse and is positive that he’s going to die. It’s emotional armageddon. But here it’s a blip. It’s an inconvenience. Because you know that the NASA guys are going to speed up their rescue mission and they’re going to save him at the last moment.

And the actual rescue is preposterous. The movie does a decent job of building up the tension for Watney’s take off from Mars. He has to strip the take off vehicle of all its weight, which includes removing the windows and replacing it with a tarp, but then the final rescue just involves too much action movie nonsense.

Watney’s vehicle and the rescue vehicle are moving at completely different velocities, so a bomb is rigged and exploded, the Captain goes out on a teether to ‘catch’ Watney and he has to stab his spacesuit to provide propulsion so that he can bridge the gap between him and her. It’s really silly and not at all believable.

Kind of like the film itself. It might have a NASA advisor making sure that everything is kind of possibly, just about feasible, but we all know it’s bullshit. Entertaining bullshit. But bullshit. And certainly too facile to be remembered in the long run. There’s more weight and more gravitas in ten seconds of Alien than there is in this.

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