not in our stars, but in ourselves
Before we begin discussing The Martian, here are some caveats: I am a grump, a jerk, and a cynic. While I can, and do, find myself swept up in enthusiasm for the most glittery Hollywood musicals – which have as much relation to realism as I have to Beyoncé – I tend to be harder on other genres. As such, I’m sure that many of my criticisms will sound like they’re baseless, unfounded, lunatic ravings of an old coot. So they are. You’ve been warned.
During a big storm on Mars, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) of NASA’s Ares III crew is hit on the head by a satellite and knocked away from the crew’s vehicle. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the agonizing decision to prioritize the rest of the crew’s survival, and leave Mars. Watney is presumed dead, and she realizes she can’t jeopardize five people for the slim chance that one might be alive. They begin the long journey back to Earth. However, Watney didn’t die: he was knocked out, but his suit held together, and he returns to the crew’s HAB station. He has no way to communicate with NASA or with his crew, so he sets about “scienc[ing] the shit out of” his problems. He figures out how to grow potatoes; he figures out how to make the Mars Rover travel farther than the 35~ kilometers it’s meant to travel; he figures out how to use the Pathfinder probe to communicate with NASA. It’s hard to get caught up in existential crises when every day depends on figuring out how to survive it – and so Watney is able to keep himself reasonably cheerful. Once NASA learns that he’s still up there, alone on Mars, they work hard to figure out a way to send enough supplies to keep him alive until the Ares IV – scheduled to arrive on Mars sometime in the next few years. However, with some astrodynamics problem-solving on Earth and some well-intentioned mutiny in space, we get a happy ending.
Lest you scream at me for spoiling the movie, let me reassure you: The Martian is structured just as surely as a Classic Hollywood movie, where goodness is rewarded (and common to all main characters). There’s absolutely no way Watney won’t be saved, and Ridley Scott doesn’t really waste any time pretending he might be. Kyle Buchanan wrote for Vulture that he admired how The Martian didn’t include any “pricks” in its cast. Everyone is fundamentally “nice” and helpful. Everyone wants to do what they can to bring Watney home, and Watney is doggedly good-natured during his year-and-a-half alone on an inhospitable rock. Watney is as clever as he is amiable, so we’re reassured there, too, that he’ll end up all right: with his successful sciencing-the-shit-out-of-Mars, and entire government agencies working in concert to bring him to Earth, we know for certain that he’s gonna be just fine.
I can’t say any of this is done badly. I can’t say it lags, or fails to be entertaining. Despite its two-hour, twenty-minute run time, there’s not a lot of fat on this film. The lengthy explanations of science are quite interesting and engaging (presented as they are by our native son, good old Matty D.), and those take up almost as much time as the plot itself. Perhaps more. And the plot, too, is essentially sound: it springs from a hypothetical – what if someone were abandoned on Mars? – and examines how he could feasibly survive and come home. It’s science-fiction, but it’s not very far off from being possible.
And yet, I didn’t really like it.
“What’s your problem?” I hear you yowling at me. “For chrissakes, you liked Interstellar!” Yeah, I did, because it was an opera. And because things went wrong. Space movies should have things going wrong, in such a way that the stakes are sky-high (so to speak). In The Martian, it’s clear that each obstacle is simply a hurdle for the all-good-guy cast to clear: the cinematic equivalent of the ancient Russian treasures carefully buried at the bottom of Ukrainian bodies of water so that Putin can dive in and retrieve them. There’s never any question that he’ll be saved. There’s never any question that another catastrophic storm will kill him for good. And there’s never any question that the entire staff of NASA, its contractors, and its co-horts in China (the CNSA plays a big role in saving the day), will all do their utmost to ensure that all six members of Ares III come back to Earth, safe and happy and well-fed. Buchanan’s point was that he found it refreshing to watch a movie without any antagonists, because the situation was antagonizing enough, but I disagree. I’ll come to the former point in a moment; as for the latter, the situation is never genuinely dangerous. We know he’ll be okay. The movie makes that clear from the start. It’s never sentimental, but it is determined to send you out of the theatre with a smile on your face. As impressive as space travel is, as much as I admire anyone willing to traverse the so-called final frontier, as awe-inspiring as NASA’s latest photos have been, I don’t want a feel-good space movie. I want to see the real stakes. Think about Laika, if you can without crying; I never can. Think about dying the loneliest death possible. That’s what space travel threatens, every time. I never got a sense of that threat, of that loneliness in The Martian – filled as it is with interplanetary camaraderie.
Here’s where I go off my rocker a bit. When we were discussing the film last night, my boyfriend (who loved it, by the way, and I know many other people I like and respect who share his opinion) told me that the following was a strange thing to get caught up on. I’ll leave that to you to decide. I found it entirely unbelievable that the governments of China and the United States would cooperate so magnanimously to bring home the Ares III crew. However noble the individual scientists within NASA and CSNA – and I don’t doubt that each agency is staffed with hard-working idealists who just want to learn more about the universe – they are both government agencies. China and the U.S. are technically allies, but I find it very hard to believe that either would give away a crucial component of planned future space exploration (since this is what China graciously donates to NASA in order to ensure that Watney, Lewis et al. are able to survive long enough in space) for free. Here are a few recent news stories and op-ed pieces – indicating the degree to which U.S.-China relations are, shall we say, complicated: from the New York Times, from the Wall Street Journal, from Reuters, from Quartz, and from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (miss you, ABC). You get the idea: China is a superpower, and the U.S. is a superpower. Our power is, I would argue, waning at a precipitous rate; theirs is rising, for the most part. If this scenario played out in reality – as it may, someday – I can’t imagine that either side would go against what its short-sighted, greedy, jingoistic politicians (on both sides, mind you) demanded. Furthermore, there is an actual Chinese exclusion policy of NASA. It specifically states that we won’t help them. It’s a dick move, but it’s reality. A movie like The Martian doesn’t need “prick” characters to feel true, but it does need to honor the political and economic realities of space travel if it’s going to insist on our believing all that science (which is mostly legit, by the way). Goodwill is always, always, always strangled by bureaucracy. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.