Quick thoughts on The Martian

November 2nd, 2015

Far beyond its absence of green ladies and wormholes linking baddads of the past and gooddads yet to come, this is an overwhelmingly functional movie, but that’s not a criticism so much as it’s a sign that I was awake enough to notice the movie’s basic effects.

The transmission of practical genius is one its keys goals, but while this is most obviously signified in Rich Purnell(/Donald Glover)’s wild eyes and inattention to his own living conditions or the triangulations that blink up on Beth Johanssen(/Kate Mara)’s monitor, its most interesting expression comes in the scenes dealing with Mark Watney(/Matt Damon)’s attempts at life on Mars.

These scene aim for a “based on a true story” vibe through a mixture of heavily reduced scientific exposition and direct to fake-real camera addresses that remind me of computer game cut scenes in their overpoweringly “clean” flaws, the carefully composed cracks in their recording.

It’s down to Damon to sell all of this, and from the endless complaints about disco to the workplace jibes that presume an underlying sense of camaraderie, he manages to make it work one winning grin at a time. The unfailingly chatty, casual nature of Watney’s correspondence makes the aforementioned factoids feel like fragments of Wikipedia articles emailed by a friend  – the message is that “people like us” can happen anywhere, even in space.

This is crucial to the project because the movie needs to convince you that its blank canvas is real. “Mars” here needs to exist as a place we might go, otherwise the magic the movie works there will seem too easy.  Which it is, of course. The Martian’s demonstration of our better qualities, our grand problem solving skills, our ability to just keep going in the face of improbable odds, the grand sorcery of Sciencing the Problem, require a world free of social, personal and economic complexity to be achieve its fullest expression.  The film’s frontier land is full of promise and terror, for sure, but the suggestion is that in space all of this is yours and yours alone to conquer.

You get hints of all of those other difficulties in the scenes set elsewhere, in the drama of NASA’s behind the scenes debates and collaborations and in the decision’s made by Watney’s crew mates, but the pull of Watney’s (Western) adventure in the wild is strong enough to ensure that everything comes correct in the end within the movie so the movie’s job is to make you feel like that part is credible, relatable even, and on this score it succeeds admirably.

A beautiful fantasy then, for all that it fixates on the literal nuts and bolts of living in a place where to breath is to die.

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