Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Martian

When coming to write about The Martian, Ridley Scott's space/disaster/survival movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars, it's hard to resist the impulse to draw comparisons.  The Martian is perhaps best-described as a cross between Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away.  Its focus on the engineering challenges that survival on Mars poses for hero Mark Watney, and on the equally thorny problem of retrieving him before his meager food supply runs out, is reminiscent of Ron Howard's Apollo 13.  The fact that Watney is played by Matt Damon (and that the commander of his Mars mission is played by Jessica Chastain) immediately brings to mind Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.  The problem with all these comparisons is not so much that they show up The Martian's flaws, as that they throw into sharper relief the very narrow limits of what it's trying to be.

Gravity and Cast Away, for example, are both, fundamentally, films about what it means to be human when you're cut off from the rest of humanity.  The former uses its heroine's isolation as a metaphor for overcoming grief, with the emotional core of the film being the question of whether Sandra Bullock's character will choose to come back to life after the death of her daughter.  Cast Away has no such metaphorical weight, but it too is deeply focused on the effect that isolation has on its character.  There have been a lot of Wilson jokes over the last fifteen years, but when you go back to the movie itself, there's no denying that that device (and many others like it) brings home just how devastating the hero's loneliness is to him, and how much he has to struggle to hold on to hope and life.  Both films have a soulfulness that The Martian never even reaches for.

That probably sounds like a criticism, but it's meant more as a statement of fact.  Based on the self-publishing phenomenon by Andy Weir (which I haven't read), The Martian is exactly what it sets out to be, and quite successful at that.  My favorite bits of the otherwise rather silly and maudlin Interstellar were the moments in which its astronaut characters acted like scientists and engineers, trying to work with their limited fuel, time, and supplies to come up with the best solutions to their problems.  The Martian is an entire movie made up of those scenes, and it is genuinely thrilling to watch its characters--the irrepressible Watney, and the dedicated but harried hordes of NASA engineers--work their way around seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  If nothing else, it's gratifying to have this tangible proof that one doesn't need an overegged, melodramatic personal story to create tension and stakes--smart people trying to work their way through a really tough problem is more than enough drama to keep the audience hooked for 140 minutes.

If there is a criticism to be made against The Martian--and again, I'm not entirely certain that it rises to that level--it is that once those 140 minutes are over, the film doesn't leave much behind it.  It's the sort of movie that you enjoy tremendously while you're watching it, and then forget almost as soon as it's over.  A movie that is incredibly tense and exhilarating, but which doesn't have a single memorable line, scene, visual, or set-piece.  (Some of that might be laid at the feet of Scott, a pedestrian director who has been coasting off the double whammy of Blade Runner and Alien for thirty years, but who hasn't produced anything to match those two movies in all that time.  His work on The Martian is never more than serviceable, even when called upon to depict an alien planet or the emptiness of space.)

Most importantly, The Martian seems genuinely uninterested in its title character.  Damon's general charisma and likability (which were used to such excellently wrongfooting effect in Interstellar) do a lot to humanize a character who might otherwise have seemed arrogant and standoffish, but in a way that's a point against the movie.  It should strike us as a lot stranger than it does that Mark doesn't seem to miss anyone during his two-year solo stay on Mars, that his interactions with NASA and his crew are friendly but never intimate, that even when sending a message to his parents he never rises above platitudes, or seems to feel true sorrow and longing.  It would, of course, have been possible to tell a story about a man who is fundamentally unsociable and unlikable, but who is still human, and still experiences the same urge towards survival, and even human contact, as the rest of us.  But The Martian, far from telling that story, is simply taking it as a given that a problem-solver is all Mark is.  It never asks what effect it has on him to be more alone than any human being in history, to live in constant danger of death, to have to produce all the necessities of human existence with his own hands.  The film wants us to admire Mark's can-do spirit and problem-solving attitude, and these are indeed admirable traits, but it never wonders what it does to a person to be forced to see life as nothing but a series of problems to be solved, nor what the cost to his humanity will be once he returns to Earth.

Apollo 13, the film that The Martian most closely resembles, has been frequently criticized for its decision to overdramatize some of the beats of an already extremely dramatic crisis--claiming that astronaut Ken Mattingly was so upset over being bumped from the mission that he left the command center to drink and sulk, or that the astronauts aboard the damaged vessel went into an emotional tailspin over their predicament.  The Martian, with its surface-level emotional beats, could be taken as a rebuke to that failure of nerve.  But the fact is that Apollo 13 is a deserved classic that has stayed fresh and worth watching for twenty years, and as much as I enjoyed The Martian, I truly doubt that it will have the same kind of longevity.  I don't mean to say by this that Ron Howard-style sentimentality is the only way to go, but I think the inevitable conclusion of all the comparisons begged by The Martian is that if you haven't got a good handle on your story's humanity, you're not going to create something lasting.  It's possible that another director, willing to be less true to his source, could have found the humanity in The Martian's story.  But as it stands the movie is incredibly enjoyable, absolutely worth watching, and incapable of climbing out of the shadow of the better, or even just more interesting, movies that it recalls.

26 comments:

David Silbey said...

I think folks are missing the point of both the book and the movie. Mark Watney's not the hero, he's the MacGuffin. The hero(es) are the rescuers (all right, I suppose Watney helps rescue himself, so not entirely MacGuffin). Think of how much screen time is given to the folks at NASA, at the JPL, and in the Ares spaceship. The main theme is not a man alone on a whole planet (though that sub theme is played up more in the movie than in the book), it's that humans will try to save each other even at extreme cost and extreme effort. Both the book and the movie announce that, fairly early on:

"Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don't care, but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do."

And note that Watney's not particularly alone from very early on, once communications are reestablished. The difference between "Cast Away" and "The Martian" is evident in the tag lines:

Cast Away: "At the edge of the world, his journey begins"
The Martian: "Bring Him Home."

Those aren't the same stories.

Tim Ward said...

David,

It's definitely true that all the emotional core of the story is with the people who aren't Watney, but I don't think that invalidates the criticism/observation that he seems to not be especially inclined towards introspection and that the story is mildly poorer for it.

In the book, you do get the occasional bare hints that he's not coping with the situation quite as well as his exterior demeanour would suggest. My reading was that he was essentially avoiding thinking too hard about his bleak situation by throwing himself into the problems of survival - and I think there's a certain psychological truth to that - and he dealt with his isolation through his obsessive log keeping.

But I think that's probably just me making stuff up to explain away a flaw in a book I really liked.

I am going to see the movie tonight so I'll see how much of that, if any, translates to the big screen.

David Silbey said...

It's definitely true that all the emotional core of the story is with the people who aren't Watney, but I don't think that invalidates the criticism/observation that he seems to not be especially inclined towards introspection and that the story is mildly poorer for it.

That's not really what I was reacting to. I agree with the criticism stated that way: that the sub-theme of isolation is not particularly explored in depth (besides the visuals in the movie).

This is what I was reacting to:
The Martian is perhaps best-described as a cross between Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away.

It's not, though, really. Both of those movies keep their gazes resolutely on a single person -- the one in danger. We know what they know and essentially no more. The story of the movie is their story, and their isolation is thus a major theme:

Gravity and Cast Away, for example, are both, fundamentally, films about what it means to be human when you're cut off from the rest of humanity.

That's not remotely true in "The Martian." (Note that Watney's not even cut off from the rest of humanity for very long, except for physically). The story isn't Watney's story; it's the story of rescuing him. That's why I called him the MacGuffin. He's not even particularly critical to the story; there just has to be someone to rescue. It's also why Jeff Daniels gets a chance to steal the movie -- he's the only one who could genuinely give up the rescue (not fail at it -- but give up on it, which is the ultimate bad ending).

Think of the book/movie as a burning building story -- people putting themselves in danger by rushing into a building on fire to rescue someone.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

David:

I think calling Mark the McGuffin of the story is just wrong. He's the person whose voice we hear. It's his thoughts and feelings we're privy to. The fact that these thoughts and feelings are pretty shallow is a point against the story (or it may not be, if you want to argue that that's not what the story is about), but it doesn't make him any less its hero.

I do take your point that the presence of the NASA characters means that The Martian is not the same kind of story as Gravity and Cast Away (though my understanding was that these characters were added on when the book was published traditionally, and that the original, self-published work only included Mark's perspective), but to me that doesn't justify the absence of any examination of the effect that isolation has on Mark. For one thing, he doesn't make contact with Earth until a hundred days in (and that contact doesn't seem to have any emotional effect on him). But more importantly, if you're all alone on an alien planet that's trying to kill you, I don't think intermittent emails from people millions of kilometers away who are constantly lying and concealing information from you would completely erase your feelings of loneliness and helplessness.

Finally, I hope we're not meant to read The Martian as a story about human solidarity, because if so then it's an even shallower story than I had previous realized. It's all very well and good to say that humans will always help one another because look at how NASA worked day and night to save one astronaut, but one point that is completely left out of the movie is that the money used to save Mark could have saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of people on Earth, most of whom suffer and die without anyone caring or lifting a finger. To use the example of the rescue of a (white, American) stranded astronaut as if it says anything about human kindness and solidarity in general is cluelessness of the highest order.

Brett said...

I enjoyed the movie, but I think they drained a lot of the tension of survival, of the unremitting hostility of Mars towards attempts to survive on it just by scraping by (as Watney does), out in the adaptation. The movie has him cursing in the rover after the airlock blow-out, but the book has him sitting there absolutely furious in the ruined airlock, thinking about how he's so "sick of playing Mars' little game", how he's had it and all he has to do is sit there and wait for a few minutes for his air to run out and it will all be over. The film also de-emphasized any danger in his long-distance rover trip to the Areas 4 return vehicle, something that was a big deal in the books (and which he did in total isolation after frying his communication back to Earth accidentally).

A lot of it, though, is just because of the type of person who would be sent out on one of these expeditions. Watney, in a way, is almost too realistic - he reminds me more of the Jim Lovell from Lost Moon than the Jim Lovell from the Apollo 13 movie based on it.

I didn't get a vibe from either the book or movie that it was fundamentally about human solidarity, although NASA and the crew of the Hermes do everything in their power to try and save him.

Kaetrin said...

I don't think Watney was the MacGuffin at all, although, I think the point is well made that the movie is about rescue, not isolation.
The book is very much better than the film. Whatever impression of Watney as problem-solver/innovator/non-linear thinker is given in the film, it is minuscule compared to what is documented in the book. My husband and I (we've both listened to the audiobook) were both left with the impression that the great feat of survival Watney had achieved was diminished.
Our other gripe was (probably for reasons related to the medium - which is probably responsible for the first complaint too) that the film suggested the journey to the crater was easy. It was not. It was extraordinary. Hardly any of the science was explained. There was nothing about how he jury-rigged the water-reclaimer, or how he made enough oxygen to take with him, or anything really. One of the best things about the book (apart from Watney's dry sense of humour) is the science. All of it was real, but in the movie, he's making a hole in the top of the rover but they never explain why! So much was glossed over, it was a shame.
I enjoyed the movie, but the book really is vastly better. The reader (or, in my case, listener - the narrator is excellent) gets to know Mark over time, to appreciate his focus on solving problems in order to not go crazy and he is so much more "accessible" in this medium. In the book, he is definitely the hero and the major focus but this wasn't apparent in the movie IMO.

Fangz said...

Abigail,

Unfortunately my interpretation from reading the book is that the human solidarity point is exactly how the story was supposed to be read, and so you've stated one of my main annoyances with the tale.

At the end of the day, 3.5 space missions were scrubbed, six more lives risked, and many hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to rescue Watney. Weir addresses people who want to conserve resources or not risk other lives with outright hostility, and treats things like the publicity effort to get the US government to divert funds into the space program as sources of humour. The book even ends with a rather tone deaf 'inspirational' afterword on the matter.

The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?

Well, okay. I know the answer to that. Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we've dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it's true.

If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don't care, but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side.

Pretty cool, eh?

Su said...

That lack of characterization and emotion was the hallmark of the book. None of the characters had personality to any meaningful extent, not even Watney. The book was very interested in the very specific and detailed problem solving. Where the movie gave us conclusions ("He has rations for 294 days, and enough potatoes for another 103") in the book we got to watch Watney do all the math to reach those conclusions. How many calories did he need per day? How many potatoes could he grow in his first crop? Second crop? We got to watch him calculate exactly how much excess oxygen would accumulate in the hab from the potato crop, and listen to him work out a solution to the problem. The movie told us that during his trip to the MAV for the Ares IV mission, he drove for four hours and then rested for 13 while the solar panels recharged. The book showed us all the calculations about how much energy the rover needed, what he could get from X square feet of solar panels, and so on.

The book was so uninterested in characters that, at one point, Watney tells us he and the rest of the crew got along well and joked with each other. But then he says, in so many words, "But I'm not going to tell you about that." It seemed to me that the characters in the book were not characters at all, so much as constructs that existed to carry out the actions that made up the story.

I found the book tedious, one of those times when I'm completely out of step with all kinds of people whose judgment I normally respect, who were loving it.

Even as I read it, I thought it would make an exciting movie. And I've been telling my partner for months that movie was bound to have more fleshed-out characterizations if only because they'd be being played by actors, who would presumably be human, and would therefore presumably have some kind of facial expression, tone of voice, inflection, and so on. Perhaps especially when they talked to each other.

I enjoyed the movie, because I've always loved that one scene in Apollo 13 where the engineers figure out the air filter problem, and because it shorthanded so much of the tedious calculations the book reveled in, and because listening to Matt Damon as Watney was much more pleasant than the voice of Watney in the book. But you're right about it having achieved very little in terms of emotional or human stakes, even though it did a better job with these than the book did. My favorite moments were those when Watney's emotions were allowed to come through—the way he cries just before taking off in the MAV to rendezvous with the Hermes, for instance, which I thought did a wonderful job of evoking all the emotions Watney had been carrying and tamping down in order to do what needed to be done.

I think you're also right about it being ultimately forgettable. I hated Cast Away and yet I have never forgotten the moment when he loses Wilson, but I don't have a moment like that for The Martian. I thought I did—when you said it didn't have memorable moments, I thought, "Sure it did! There was at least one moment I really would like to see again!" I couldn't remember at first what it was, and after thinking about it for awhile, realized it was a bit I found extremely funny—from one of the ads that ran in the theater before the showing.

That said, I enjoyed the movie. The six boys from 8 to 15 who saw it with me thought it was fantastic. I thought Mars was beautifully filmed. I will happily watch it again when it shows up on Netflix or a library BlueRay. But I certainly prefer a movie with more humanity to it.

Tim Ward said...

Well, I think those of you saying the book has no emotional weight are off the mark. While I agree it's no masterpiece of emotional subtlety, to say it's focused on "problem solving and engineering, not emotions" is to miss the profound interplay between Mark's ability to come up with solutions to problems and his mental state that is a key component of the Mars sections of the story.

Time and time again, we go through this cycle where Mark is so close to being overwhelmed the scale of the challenge facing him and the rampant hostility of the Martian environment that he's near the point of resigning himself to death before he see's a possible way out, works through a possible solution and begin to recover some optimism. Then, as he turns a vague idea into a workable plan and begins to implement it successfully he allows himself to believe he might actually get off Mars alive, only for something even more stupendously horrify to go wrong and the cycle begins again. The book does this like four or five times, this cycle of despair and hope. Honestly, if it had done it any more it would have becoming repetitive.

This is a commentary on the crippling and self-defeating nature of despair and the empowering nature of hope. I'm sure we can all relate to this; something goes wrong on our lives, we feel hopeless and that everything is fucked then we figure out something we can do to change it and we feel better even before we begin to do anything.

I don't want to oversell it as some kind of profound statement about the human condition or anything. It's not exactly life changing material and the book is first and foremost a love letter to science, NASA, and space. But I think it is a part of the book, and to say it's just all about the engineering is to give it less credit than it deserves.

Ed Robertson said...

The NASA characters weren't added by Weir's publisher. I have the self-published version and those characters are in it.

Unknown said...

Hi,

Occasional lurker, first time commenter.

I think that Ridley Scott did a very good job showing the effect of isolation from humanity on one particular mindset. I have close friends who act like Mark Watney. Thus, I learned that some people deal with isolation or neglect by withdrawing into themselves and thinking more "machine-like". Remember, we don't know Mark's backstory. Perhaps this is how he reacted when he was bullied in school? Perhaps he had another family tragedy where he learned that the way to survive emotionally was to interact with people "in a business setting"?

I know that in the movie and book, we went into Mark Watney's head. I asked one of my good friends about this after seeing the movie, why Mark's thoughts seemed so robotic. To paraphrase his response: To shield yourself from adversity, it helps to scrub your thoughts as well. Since Mark was probably doing this since he was a child, this was second nature and obvious to him, and he didn't think to let the audience know about it. A direct quote: "Mentioning this is like mentioning that Mars' sky is red everyday. It's obvious, why bother?"

From that perspective forged from personal experience, Mark was not a flat character. The "platitudes" with which he talked to his family were the limit he was willing to withdraw from his shell. His family probably knew that, and knew not to try and proceed farther without making things worse for him.

I realize such mentalities are rare in the world, but they exist. This is how some people are, how they deal with adversity. I applaud Ridley Scott for trying to feature this mentality in a movie, I know it's not easy to understand, let alone realistically portray.

Best,
Ioan

Kate said...

Rightly or wrongly, I wanted something from The Martian that it absolutely did not want to give me. I wanted that moment at the end of Gravity where Bullock's character climbs onto the shore, muddy soil squishing under her. I wanted a quiet, pure moment of accomplishment, a reflecting back on all that has come before. The two closest beats in The Martian are the moment when Watney and Lewis clunk together at the end of the tether, and the take-out coffee cup moment before the lecture. And yet... the emotion wasn't there for me. They were beautifully shot and acted, there was an intellectual rightness to the moments, but there was no catharsis for me. In fact, I didn't fully realize that we'd shot past our moment of connection until Watney was on the ship, reunited with the crew, and I thought, no, this is all a repeat of the earlier moment, we've completely overshot that moment of catharsis.

Just before the MAV takes off, Watney briefly sobs. That, and the punching the keyboard after the airlock mishap, are his only real emotional outbursts in the whole film -- and they both happen "off camera" from the perspective of the log/documentary aspects of the story. And probably, that's very true to life. In a crisis, I too get extremely rational and objective about next steps. But because we're so often with Watney as he presents his best, rational self, I missed some of the vulnerability we got from seeing Bullock's character talking to herself, believing herself unobserved. Watney had so much invested in telling himself -- and posterity -- that he was fine, that he was handling it, that I started to take it as a given, and I think it damped down my emotional connection with him. I also wonder if cutting away to the global crowds as Watney was being saved sucked away some of my investment, if I would have cared more if I hadn't felt like Times Square was already rooting for him, so my compassion wasn't necessary.

But to reiterate my earlier point, all these questions ask things of The Martian that it wasn't designed to give me, and I don't condemn it for that. It really is a masterful piece of filmmaking, and I have tremendous respect for all the people involved. But as a student and an admirer of great storytelling, I can't help compare and contrast with other, more cathartic films.

Kaetrin said...

@Tim I agree with you re the emotional depth of the characters. Although, I listened to the book and a good narrator (and RC Bray was way better than good) will imbue the text with characterisation. He 'performed' the text, if you will. And I'm sure that helped my experience.

I am incredibly maths challenged but I found the science understandable and accessible (for the most part) and it was fascinating to me.

One of the things the movie doesn't say and I can't see that it's been mentioned here yet - Mark isn't only a botanist. As he explains in the book, everyone on the crew had a dual specialty, given the cost of the mission and the time and the duration etc. Mark is also an engineer. (I'm sure there's an engineer joke in there about having little by way of emotions, right? :P) In fact, Mark's *secondary* specialty with the crew was botany. Engineer was the prime role he had.

His dual skills - as botanist and engineer are (as it happens) exactly what he required to stay alive on Mars. And my own experience of engineers as first and foremost problem-solvers fit well within what I learned about him in the book.

@Kate in the book (I feel like a broken record!) Mark doesn't curb his language in the log - this was mostly cleaned up for the movie, I guess so it got a more universal rating. The first words he says are "I'm pretty much fucked. That's my considered opinion. Fucked." And on the audio, the anger and emotion of those words comes through, or, at least, it did to me. And that log starts 6 days after he was left behind, so I always felt that he'd spent the first few days recovering from his injuries and despairing. When he started the log, he started to "fight".

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Brett:

Bear in mind, Jim Lovell is a captain in the US Navy and a former test pilot. He was selected for his ability to remain unnaturally calm under extreme pressure, and then rigorously trained to develop that ability. I can believe that all astronauts are screened for a certain ability to withstand pressure, but I'm not sure it's reasonable for a civilian scientist like Mark to have the same kind of unflappability as Jim Lovell.

Fangz:

To be clear, I don't actually have a problem with NASA spending money, or even risking lives, to save an astronaut they put in space in the first place. There are a lot of criticisms to be made about the money we put into space exploration instead of spending it here on Earth where it can do a lot more good, but the time to have that discussion is before those missions are launched, not when a man's life hangs in the balance.

What I object to - and as you say, it looks as if this was Weir's intended message - is the notion that the effort put into saving Mark says anything about human nature in general. Or, more precisely, I think it says quite a lot, but something very different from what Weir (and the movie?) think it does. It says that people will do a great deal to save someone whom they see as "one of us," and especially if they can spin a pleasing narrative around that rescue. But the same people who worked day and night to save Mark probably walk past homeless people without giving them money (which is not a judgment: I do that too). It's not about good guys and assholes. It's about finding a sufficiently attractive target for your generosity.

Ioan:

I'm pretty sure everyone in this comment thread can understand the character type you're describing. The thing is, though, that character is not in the movie. There's no indication that Mark is tamping down frustration and using problem-solving as a way of dealing with fear and loneliness. That's a reasonable reading of the character, but the film itself does hardly any work to suggest it.

Nor is creating such a character an impossible task, since that is exactly what Cast Away does. Chuck Noland is exactly the type of character Mark Watney was supposed to be: a consummate Competent Man, an obsessive problem-solver, friendly with everyone but intimate with hardly anyone. And just like Mark, he uses those personality traits to survive and escape when he's stranded on the island. But Cast Away is unflinching in its depiction of how, without ever changing in his essence, his isolation has a profound, permanent effect on Chuck. That's not something The Martian ever reaches for.

dtmmr.com said...

It's fun, exciting, and believe it or not, hilarious. But it's always engaging, and that's what worked best for it. Nice review Abigail.

raz greenberg said...

I absolutely agree with your review - I'll only add that, beyond recent similar films, and even beyond "Apolo 13", "The Martian" demonstrates the huge debt the science fiction cinema owes to Douglas Trumball's 1972 film "Silent Running". A commercial flop in its original release, Trumball's film became an influence on notable elements in "Star Wars", the original "Battlestar Galactica", "Gattaca" and at least three Miyazaki films. In the current millennium, it actually became a blueprint for the plots of "Moon", "Wall-E", "Interstellar", and now "The Martian".

S Johnson said...

A man watching the entire run of Happy Days struck me as someone truly desperate for anodyne.

S Johnson said...

A man watching the entire run of Happy Days struck me as someone truly desperate for anodyne.

David Goldfarb said...

[it] doesn't have a single memorable line

Not even "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this"?

baeraad said...

It says that people will do a great deal to save someone whom they see as "one of us," and especially if they can spin a pleasing narrative around that rescue. But the same people who worked day and night to save Mark probably walk past homeless people without giving them money (which is not a judgment: I do that too). It's not about good guys and assholes. It's about finding a sufficiently attractive target for your generosity.

That's cynical. Which doesn't necessarily mean it's not true, by all means... But honestly, I'd like to point out that there are other differences between the stranded austronaut and the homeless man that I think matters more than their respective attractiveness.

There is exactly one stranded astronaut. He has a distinct and quantifiable problem with a clear solution (he needs to be brought home). That makes the stranded-astronaut problem something that can, with sufficient effort, be conclusively fixed.

There are countless homeless people. They are homeless for an endless variety of interconnecting reasons, and even if you were able to house each and every one of them, tomorrow a new crop of people would have found themselves homeless due to any number of personal mishaps. The homeless problem cannot be solved, only alleviated.

I find that people can be quite compassionate when it comes to addressing problems that can be solved, but tend to shrug and give up on problems that must be continously alleviated. Those scenarios that Fangz quoted - lost children, trainwrecks, earthquakes - are all ones that need an investment of aid right here and now, but which it's okay to forget about tomorrow. Ongoing problems, problems that can't be solved easily and perhaps can't be solved at all? Those are too demoralising to care about once you've gotten used to them being there.

So while I agree that the book's message is a little too rosy in what it chooses to leave out, I don't think it's technically incorrect - and certainly not as hypocritical as you claim. People do, in my experience, care about other people, even about other people who are not part of their own in-crowd. They just don't have any staying power in their caring.

Tim Ward said...

I think Weir was trying to say that space travel in particular brings out that kind of behavior in people and makes us think and act as one species. Space is the ultimate Other, and Watney was therefore "one of us" in trouble "out there", hence the reaction depicted in the book. Not for nothing did Weir have the second booster NASA needed come from China. He could have had it provided by the ESA or SpaceX and the story would have worked just as well, but he chose to make it an unsolicited offer from the US's main international rivel, and make it quite clear that they did it because they (the Chinese Space Agency) wanted to help Watney as much as anyone and not because they were shamed into it by pulbic pressure or because of some realpolitkal calculation.

Terence Blake said...

Hello Abigail, I just discovered your blog, and I am in broad agreement with your comments on THE MARTIAN. I wrote a little post on it that you might enjoy: https://xenoswarm.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/review-of-the-film-the-martian-the-community-of-geeks-versus-the-cold-equations/. Regards, Terence.

seymourblogger said...

Comments are comments of the internal resonance of the commenter to this movie. None are right and none are wrong. They are just YOUR reading of it. Isn't it wonderful to be able to read so many resonances to this movie without taking a side in any of them, without falling into the Binary Discourse. This is one of the major grabs from Continental Philosophy. Deleuze has given this to us with his Either/Or...or...or....or...or I think the reviewer did exceptionally well to avoid the usual pitfalls. But Ridley Scott has given us The Counselor, an exceptionally fine movie that is perfectly in tune with Cormac McCarthy's bold new world horror.

Terence Blake said...

I was tempted to say that ANATHEM is the anti-MARTIAN, but this is too binary (especially as ANATHEM itself contains sequences of orbital dynamics, as in THE MARTIAN). So I think that we could talk in terms of sf as "cognitive estrangement" (Darko Suvin) or "degrees of subjunctivity" (Samuel Delany). THE MARTIAN puts the emphasis on the cognition rather than the estrangement, and is hard sf. ANATHEM puts the emphasis on the estrangement, and is better described as science fantasy. Science itself comports a factor of estrangement, but the science mobilised by THE MARTIAN does not go beyond notions of common sense and of junior high school science, with no philosophical dimension. The science of ANATHEM is the estranging science of quantum theory and the multiple worlds interpretation, and it evokes the philosophical lineage of Plato-Leibniz-Kant-Husserl combined with more modern philosophy of science and maths. ANATHEM explicitly takes into account degrees of estrangment in its idea of multiple hylaean theoric worlds and multiple cosmoi.

pangloss said...
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pangloss said...

Many things I could say but as I broadly agree with your conclusion ( highly enjoyable movie, forgotten ten minutes after leaving ) I'll cut them down.
I think it is almost impossible to do a fair review of this movie without reading the book because on the exact point you major in - that the film is weak on showing any existential crisis in Watney brought in by isolation, fear and proximity of death - the film is in fact streets better than the book. Weir in an interview said, yes, it was probably unrealistic that Watney would stay so unflappable but he wasn't interested in writing 300 pages about despair and depression ( I paraphrase but not much.) I suspect Weir is very like Watney and Watney seems indeed to be quite a like a lot of people I know in comp sci/ science/engineering. Solving problems rather than resorting to / giving in to emotions is I suspect another variation in the good ol Aspergers spectrum. I also suspect given the queue to go to Mars that even the civilian scientists would be screened for the most resourceful and least likely to emote, It is possibly also fair to say that the character is depicted ( in both media) as having no close emotional relationships and maybe this is a symptom not a cause of his self possession. Again I have known people like this in science communities. I am actually surprised most your commentators seem to think this is so unusual - sf fandom is full of these people ( of curse that group being a tiny percent of the entire population.)

I would have appreciated at least one scene of Watney having a wank - but I guess it wouldn't go with the rating they were after:-) we do get the Vicodin joke which was a good one and not in the book, as I recall.

Damon really does his damnedest to put in all the humanity neither the book nor the faithful script were very interested in. The nearly breaking down in scenes moment is very well done. he is not my favourite actor hug I really admired his effort here.

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