I love science fiction. And I love space. So you can imagine that I was very pleased to hear that one of the greatest directors of all time, one who practically defined the modern science fiction movie not just once, but twice, would make another science fiction movie that wasn’t Prometheus. I’m also currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, so you can already guess that I’m sort of on a Mars trip.
And you can easily see why. Mars is an enticing goal. It would be spectacular to finally leave this rock and spread out across the solar system and maybe even the rest of the galaxy someday. Because leaving Earth means securing a future when Earth no longer exists. It’s also why it’s so sad to see our space agencies receive so little funding to achieve this lofty goal. I anticipated that The Martian would pick up on this theme under the aspect of colonization. What we got instead however is Cast Away by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fact that we’re in space has little to no bearing on the actual story. Oh sure, there’s plenty of problem solving that requires knowledge of space travel, but the actual story doesn’t really hinge on that at all. You could just as easily tell this story in the 18th century, with a group of explorers examining an island in the ocean and being forced to retreat, only to leave one of their group behind who needs to science his way out of his dilemma. Nothing would change, other than some of the more technical dialogue would be more understandable for your typical mortal person who doesn’t have a science hard-on like me.
So you’d think this movie, with its stated goal of maximum scientific accuracy would be tailor made for someone like me, who loves outer space and dreams of a time when I could maybe go there myself. And yet, I’m left a bit cold by the movie. It’s not quite as bad as Gravity was, where the movie was basically any old disaster film that happened to be set in space, praised for its scientific accuracy and yet perfectly content with having satellites in the same orbit as the Hubble Space Telescope (hint: they’re not orbiting at the same altitude and neither does the ISS for the record), but I still felt that a lot of what we see is contrived as all hell. It basically suffers from a classic science fiction movie problem: You write yourself into any situation and just throw science at it to solve it. But you obviously construct any of these situations to have your character have enough science at his disposal to solve the problem. It just takes away the tension of the piece when I know that this dude is smart enough to science his way out of hell.
One of the most egregious scenes in the movie happens right after the rescue missions gets on track and everything looks really swell, so you know perfectly well that the shit has to hit the fan in a few moments, and Harry Dunne, head of NASA, says something along the line of “Let’s just hope nothing goes wrong”. Guess what happens next in the movie? There are a lot of moments like this, though they’re mostly used for comedic effect. In fact, I was surprised how many humorous moments the movie delivered, and to its credit, it mostly pulls it off, thanks to Matt Damon’s performance.
My biggest problem with the movie however is that it isn’t about anything. I think I’ve said this many times when criticizing science fiction movies and I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it in my critique of Gravity as well, but good science fiction looks at a problem, cranks it up to eleven to show you how fucked up things could be if we don’t deal with it right now and then proceeds to show you a solution for said problem, while at the same time preaching a lot of philosophy (hey, I’m a fan of sci-fi, but I know its tropes and how they work). The Martian doesn’t do that, which is why I’m a little disappointed by it.
But it’s by no means a bad movie. A little bit tedious at times, because we’ve seen these exact story beats so many times by now and it shouldn’t take more than 2 hours to tell this story, but still an admirable effort. If it means that this will spark a greater interest in space exploration in the general population, I’ll take this movie any day of the week. It’s just a shame that it could’ve been so much more. I guess I was hoping for something along the lines of Red Mars, which actually does tackle science fiction in exactly the way I described it above. Still, Scott needs to be congratulated for his excellent use of the camera. He was always a master of cinematography, nobody can take that away from him, and The Martian is perfectly in line with his work up until now.