The following contains spoilers for The Martian. You have been warned.
James: So, The Martian conquered the box office last weekend (with numbers that nearly matched Gravity‘s record breaking take two years ago) and reviews have been glowing for the most part. What are your initial thoughts on Matt Damon’s “trapped on Mars” survival story?
Rachel: Taking other recent space-set films into consideration, including Gravity and particularly Interstellar, I went into the film expecting to be a bit underwhelmed – this is mostly based on the Ridley Scott quote I saw this week where he called the film the “anti-Interstellar.” I loved Interstellar and thought that Gravity was one of the most visually stunning space films I have ever seen. So going into The Martian with all this build up and comparison, I fulfilled my own prophecy and was a bit underwhelmed. On the surface, the film is technically good. There is great acting, a story with compelling twists and turns, but nothing really stuck for me such as the jokes or the drama or the fact that I never was that scared for the life of Damon’s character. The previous two films had a lot higher stakes, but I suppose there could have been a point to that. What did you think?
James: I think the comedy in The Martian is a good place to start (I read somewhere that the film is positioning itself as a Musical/Comedy for the Golden Globes, odd but I suppose appropriate) because the jokes are aplenty, fairly broad and something I found a bit jarring from the start. I actually quite the liked the movie as a whole for its grand sense of humor and appreciated the levity more and more as the film went along. It is sort of the anti-Interstellar and as an Interstellar agnostic, I was all for it. I loved, for instance, that Damon’s character (botanist Mark Watney) wasn’t a tortured soul, but pragmatic and jovial, if a bit full of himself. Comparing movies can be difficult sometimes though, to be ultra pretentious, I’d liken something like Gravity to a beautiful symphony and The Martian to a catchy pop song.
Rachel: I like that analogy a lot actually. I may have gotten a bit caught up in the fact that there was already awards buzz going around for Damon and felt by the end of the movie that it was definitely fun and entertaining, but (to put it harshly) forgettable in terms of awards-bait or the potential for Damon’s performance. I was impressed with his ability to hold his own here, however, and essentially carry the movie. That being said, the supporting cast fell by the wayside a bit for me and when it comes down to it seemed like selling points for the film rather than as compelling group of characters as Mark. I didn’t read the novel, so I am not sure how they fit into the story, but I found myself questioning why a lot of them were there.
James: On your first point, awards buzz can have an awful way of heightening expectations and destroys (I think) a great many movies year after year. I was captivated by Damon’s performance for the most part- I think it’s a great movie star turn, something that’s starkly different to recent examples of actors holding films by themselves (Sandra Bullock in Gravity, James Franco in 127 Hours, Tom Hanks in Cast Away), but I think Scott, screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) and Andy Weir’s book are trying to focus on the idea of a community of characters working together to accomplish one goal. I absolutely agree that the ensemble is overstuffed- for instance, did such marginal characters really require the talents of people like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig- but I like the idea of that sense of community. It felt very old school, Frank Capra-ish for me, which again moving away from the tortured characters of something like Interstellar or many other recent examples, kind of worked for me.
Rachel: I definitely see what you’re saying here, and I wished I shared your perspective actually. I, too, thought that the film felt pretty old school, but in a hindering way. The running disco music joke started to feel like a “dad joke” to me, and in general I felt like I had seen this movie before. What I really did enjoy were the scenes when they got down to the nitty-gritty of the science. The whole sequence of him creating his own water source was especially fun and all of the botany/farming scenes were great. To see this basic and (nearly) technologically outdated skill being put to such practical and life-saving use really drew me into the story. Also, I can’t NOT mention the feces scene!
James: The science was a huge aspect of the novel and I think they did a fairly decent job of relaying it in the film. One thing, however, that struck me was majority of the scientific derring-do was stitched together mostly with Damon’s narration- The Martian had a way of over and over again of telling rather than showing. Now, it would be difficult to “show” some of these insanely complicated expositional science sequences in a way that would make sense for a mass audience so it’s kind of a half criticism. I’m curious though, since you are a little more lukewarm on the film than I was as whole if perhaps it may have to do with the lack of “awe” in the film. It’s well made- Scott’s movies are always meticulously art directed and immaculately polished- but there’s a significant lack of majesty, I suppose for lack of better word, in the film visually. Gravity had those long beautiful tracking shots and Interstellar had those spectacular practical effects. The Martian, to my estimation is probably more fun than either movie, but I never quite had a jaw-dropping reaction to it visually.
Rachel: Well, I think you’ve probably hit it on the nose somewhat. While Scott’s visuals seemed accurate and well-executed, they didn’t stick. I consider myself a bit of a romantic, which is probably the reason I was so captured by Gravity and Interstellar, and the awe inspiring sensation is kind of what I come to expect when going into space travel films. This idea wasn’t only about the visuals though, I think it is the basis for my reservations about the movie in general. Also, the comedy (which I’ll admit was a kind of refreshing take) kind of took away from the dire circumstances he was facing and the power that the story could have affected in those moments.
James: We come back to the comedy. Again, my favorite aspect of The Martian was that Watney functioned as an Everyman and not a gloomy figure. I appreciate so much that Damon’s not “bleeding for his art” so to speak. But the emotional part of the equation is lacking a little bit and I see that. There was never a moment in the film where I thought he wouldn’t make it back, which despite my enjoyment, is a problem. It’s tacky to suggest what would make a film “better” but if all those damned supporting players didn’t hog up so much of the running time and had the film focused more adeptly on Damon’s performance and Watney’s arc, perhaps the emotional stakes would have been a little higher. There’s a few moments here and there when Watney expresses fear and anguish, but then we cut back to NASA and and a slew of famous actors scramble about- I kind of lost it a bit when Donald Glover (playing an astronomer) showed up, seeming on a weeks-long meth binge or whatever.
Rachel: Glover threw me off as well and I thought that character was pretty uninspired, or at least the execution of it in the film. Moving away from that, though, I just want to say that despite all of my complaints for its lack of emotional or visual depth, I do have to admit that everyone loves a great survival story, including me. This story did a great job in keeping us on our toes on that particular front, and every development was in the very least, interesting. Also, I did think of one instance that made me fear for his life and that was when he became stick thin after the flash forward 7 months into the future- that might be a personal “heebie-jeebie” moment for me though. In terms of making it “better”, I think that your idea of taking focus away from the huge supporting cast, or at least a chunk of them, is a good one. Also, if only the ending scene had more of a punch, I might have walked away a little more satisfied. Watney teaching the next set of recruits and tying up the story by reminding them and the audience that death is around every corner in space felt a bit like a high school closing paragraph.
James: Well, the ending is very Capra-ish. A bit corny and completely in line with a the “happily ever after” vibe the movie was going for. I hate the word “corny” but I was kind of taken with how the film concluded, especially since even though I wasn’t particularly emotionally involved with the majority of the characters (or none really outside of Damon and slightly for Jessica Chastain’s Captain Lewis), I liked the idea of this “community” of characters moving forward in a good direction. It’s again, the anti-Interstellar and definitely the antithesis of “romantic filmmaking,” but solid and well calibrated cheese. The ending of the film also sort of made me think The Martian was a bit of NASA recruitment video (and I don’t mean that in a negative light)- the conspiracy theorist in me suspects that Fox and marketing team behind the film staged the recent reports of the discovery of water on Mars as a promotional ploy.
Rachel: I actually heard someone on the radio say this as well about the water on Mars, which, if it was a marketing ploy, might have done its job getting people to the theater, but also kind of cheapens some of the story to be, like you said, a recruitment video. Although you didn’t think that was a bad thing, the corny-ness of that and of similar scenes left me with my eyes rolling. To wrap up, I didn’t love the movie, didn’t hate the movie, but I will forget about it fairly soon I think. That being said, I want to give a shout out to Damon and Michael Pena who together provided me with some sort of emotional attachment as well as the most endearing moments of comedy in the film.