I watched Ridley Scott’s The Martian a couple weeks ago and left the theater underwhelmed. It is not a terrible movie by any means but the strong positive reception gave me cause to think I should expect something special. It was not just about a high Rotten Tomatoes score either, I love the idea of The Martian on paper. A diverse group of people coming together for the simple, purely good act of saving Mark Watney (Matt Damon). This is a story that is practically tailor made to my sensibilities, which made it all the more strange that I was unable to engage with the film in any meaningful way. I have been thinking about this inability to engage with The Martian since I have seen it.
Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is a film that is thematically very similar to The Martian. Both films depict virtuous people coming together to solve a problem. Think of the whole second act of the movie, in which Captain American (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) put aside their differences to fix the helicarrier. For that matter, Tony Stark’s speech to Loki (Tom Hiddleston) before the big fight boils down to Stark saying “we were only weak because of our differences but now we don’t have them so you’re in trouble”. When we get the iconic shot of the assembled team finally ready to work together in act III, the movie is scratching exactly the same itch that The Martian tries to. The film invites us to be enthusiastic about what we can become when we put aside our differences and work together to achieve something. Essentially, both films are a fist pumping ode to exactly the same aspect of humanity.
At first I had an issue with the dialogue in The Martian. The characters are constantly busting each other’s chops and setting up elaborate jokes (I cringed at Mark Watney: Space Pirate). It is not just that the jokes are not particularly funny or that they take too long to set up. Instead, I was frustrated with how they got in the way of the actual human interaction the film could be giving us instead. What are the members of Watney’s crew going to talk to him about when they can finally speak with him once they have learned he is still alive? Nothing important, certainly. Instead they will just rib him about how there’s so much more room in the space ship without him. I get that these kind of beats are written in to establish camaraderie amongst the team but there is a limit. I am willing to bet that 80 percent or more of The Martian’s dialogue can be broken up into jokes and exposition. I found that this severely undercut the dramatic elements of the film and kept me at arm’s length as I watched.
I found that I had no such problems with The Avengers. The quip laden dialogue might not be for everybody but I find it effective because it is constantly pulling double duty. The jokes are funny but they also do work to articulate each character’s unique perspective. “I understood that reference” reminds us that Captain America is a man out of time, for example. The reason that the jokes in The Avengers pop while the jokes in The Martian fizzle is because there are no unique perspectives to articulate. This is partly due to it being an adaptation of a first time novel in which the author has trouble giving unique voices to his characters. Still though, this realization of the lack of unique perspectives in The Martian was the key that helped me figure out why the film did not work for me.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was a symptom of the problem more than it was a cause. These character’s constantly joking around makes sense because none of them are ever conflicted about whether or not they should do the right thing. This is the core of the film’s problems. It is not just that Watney is a saint (which would make sense because it helps us believe that all of his friends would be willing to go back for him). It is that every astronaut and most of the NASA employees are also saints. The moral dilemma in the film is not about rescuing Watney, which is a forgone conclusion. It is about whether NASA should tell Watney’s crew that he is alive or withhold that information to keep crew morale up. Shifting the ethical debate to this ultimately inconsequential issue is a huge mistake, since the decision they go with has no consequences in the world of the film at all. The people who chose wrong are not punished nor did choosing wrong produce a setback in any way. In effect, even the wrong people get to be as close to right as humanly possible.
I mentioned in the beginning that the film tells a story about a diverse crew of people coming together for the greater good. What I have ultimately found is the problem with The Martian is that it fails to capture the essence of why this situation is appealing. We like seeing people come together for the greater good because a group of humans can become something greater than themselves. We can leave our petty baggage at the door and say “let’s solve a problem”. The best of us pull the worst of us along so we all get a little further ahead. In The Martian, everyone is already the best of us. Our reaction is not of awe but of indifference. “Of course these people would come together for the greater good, they are already a dozen or so of the earth’s greatest human beings”.
The problem with The Martian is that it is like watching The Avengers except every character is Captain America. Where Whedon’s film depicted characters overcoming their individual viewpoints, biases and flaws Scott’s film has everyone agree from the word go and then have slight disagreements as to how exactly they should work together (which are ultimately inconsequential). I understand how this could potentially be a virtue of the film for some people but it is ultimately why the film fails in my eyes. Perhaps repeat viewings will change my mind but in the mean time if I need this particular thematic itch scratched, I’ll be firing up my Blu Ray of The Avengers instead.