In Space, Everyone Can Hear The Disco
The Martian just finished its second week atop the box office. This is not a surprise. The film is intelligent and engaging with a name cast and a name director. It’s a winning formula.
The Martian has a lot going for it. Which is nice, because the prevailing narrative is this: science is cool again. (Was science ever not cool? It is odd that in a culture where being a geek or nerd is now considered chic, there’s a pervasive sense of fantasy instead of true science. It’s cool to be a nerd if being a nerd means embracing things that we can’t be or do). This is man versus nature 34 million miles from Earth.
It seems some of our great filmmakers have taken in recent years to trumping for ‘science’. It's a relief, since we face such a nauseating number of ‘science fiction’ films that are more ‘fantasy’ than ‘science’ these days. It’s a relief that Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) and now Ridley Scott seem inclined to get back to the root of the genre’s appeal. Other films in the last decade like Children of Men, Moon, Ex Machina, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Source Code embrace the drama that the scientific frontier can provide.
The Martian pushes this narrative relentlessly. The protagonist, Mark Watney as played by Matt Damon, relies on his wits to stay alive after being stranded on the surface of Mars. The sense is that we humans are resourceful and capable of bending the world around us to our needs (which ignores how this led us to rely on fossil fuels…p.s. how many fossil fuels must have been used in the narrative of this film? Hmm, interesting Hollywood).
Shortly after the disaster, Watney takes stock of his rations. It’s only enough to last him 400 days. He needs to make it to at least 800. The realization how to solve this problem comes to him as all great ideas do: while taking a dump. He recognizes that his feces make exceptional manure. In his rations are air-sealed potatoes — for Thanksgiving! Remembering he discovered very fine sediment dirt, at the start of the film, he has all the ingredients to grow crops. He lays some of the fine Mars dirt in his living space, plants the potatoes on the poop then Colombo’s a contraption to generate condensation and ‘Voila!’ He has himself a greenhouse.
The film is full of ‘Voila!’ moments like this. It’s part of the charm. Watney encounters a problem and he outsmarts it. The screenplay then amps up the charm. Using a video journal as a narrative platform, Damon can be uncompromisingly appealing as he boasts about his discoveries. Basically, the screenplay asks a movie star to play an astronaut version of himself.
This is why the best moment in the film is when Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing NASA Mission Director, Vincent Kapoor, muses about the context of Watney’s message reply to a very risky proposition. Email is, after all, a medium rife for opportunities for miscommunication. Is Watney upset or is he excited? Kapoor surely can’t tell, knowing what he knows about Watney’s none-too-serious personality. That the film can poke fun at this dichotomy is amusing. Except at times, it feels like someone joking to their passenger about the enormous crack in their car windshield as they rocket down the Autobahn.
Watney is an unrelenting gloat. This pervasive character trait undermines any moment in which Watney appears overwhelmed emotionally. This isn’t the eternal optimist being brutally knocked to the curb after insisting life is good. This is the eternal egotist being kicked in the balls after insisting he is good.
The undercurrent of confidence does the film a disservice for another reason, as well. The first third of the film, Watney is presumed dead. He is left only to his own devices to prevent it. Every situation is dire, that feeling is more acute. He’s got no help. No one is coming.
Just as suddenly as Watney is left in dire straits, the dramatic tension crumbles. In fact, a second moment involving Ejiofor verbalizes this release of tension. After studying satellite images and establishing Watney is alive, Ejiofor wonders aloud, ‘What must be going through his head?’ Cut to Watney grooving to 70’s disco music, nonchalant, without a care in the world (no pun intended). He’s the only person on Mars but apparently things could be worse.
The stakes, ultimately, never feel high for the rest of the film. The film insists they are. They compel us to believe it. But audiences aren’t dumb. The journey we were initially on, one where we and Watney felt alone, isolated, and wondering what could be worse are replaced by montages set to Abba music.
The conflict is eliminated in favor of elevating the roles of the supporting cast. Watney solves his communication problems and is able to contact NASA, initially archaically and eventually through standard messages. This introduces entire warehouses of scientists back on Earth — all introduced by their names and their MBA’s (ok not really, just their field of expertise) — working to find solutions to his problems. Watney is no longer alone. He has, as he says in the film, the most brilliant minds on Earth at his disposal. It isn’t as dramatic when things go awry. As an audience, we have no doubt they’ll figure it out.
Here’s how it would have worked better. There’s already a blueprint for it. The film is called All Is Lost. In that picture, a man is left to his own wits to stay one step ahead of disaster while boating on the Indian Ocean. This is told visually via the main character doing rather than saying what he is doing or had just done. The only thing we have to listen to is the sound of the environment around him, thus amplifying the isolation. The only thing we can see is the character solving problems, thus increasing the tension when things go south. In those few moments his emotions overwhelm him, we feel them coursing through us. We want just as badly to curse to the high heavens.
Imagine if the communications issue that Watney faced was never solvable. What if NASA still deciphers that he is alive and the drama on Earth is whether or not to risk a mission to go save him without knowing for sure. What if Watney’s crew must grapple with the same choice they do in the film, this time without the full knowledge Watney is alive. What if they make that same choice and Watney is somehow able to pinpoint that his crew has made the U-turn to come back for him. The risks are increased, the tension ratchets up. A leap of faith has been taken.
The result would be that every problem feels visceral. Everything he does is laced with doubt and second-guessing. Then Watney’s mental state becomes a character of its own. When he talks to inanimate objects, we wonder if he thinks there is someone there.
The Martian is an effective, audience-pleasing film. It achieves its goal of elevating science, showing us what we are capable of with when knowledgeable and educated. It just doesn’t treat us with as having either.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb