SPOILER ALERT!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!
MY RATING: SKIP IT IN THE THEATRE, SEE IT ON CABLE OR NETFLIX
The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, is the story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars when his fellow crew members think he has been killed in an accident. The film follows Watney's struggle to survive on the barren planet and NASA's attempts to rescue him. As my very clever friend The Magnificent Anderson said to me, "with Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar and The Martian, America has spent a ridiculous amount of money to rescue Matt Damon". I gotta be honest, after seeing The Martian, I don't think that money was very well spent.
I was excited to see Ridley Scott and Matt Damon paired off, as I am a big fan of both men and their work. Scott, much like his star Damon, is an often underrated talent. He has made some of the most iconic films of the last forty years. From Alien to Blade Runner to Gladiator to Thelma and Louise, Ridley Scott at his best is as good as anyone. Matt Damon is also often over shadowed by his more fame seeking contemporaries like Brad Pitt or Matthew McConnaghey, but Damon, with his work in Good Will Hunting, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed and The Informant, has proven to be by far the more superior actor.
"NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MARS….BORING! BORING! BORING!" - Waiting for Guffman
From Mission to Mars to Red Planet to Mars Needs Moms, the planet Mars is generally where movies go to die. With The Martian the result of the trip is not as horrible as the three previously mentioned films, but it certainly keeps the Mars cinematic jinx firmly in place. So what went wrong with The Martian? Let's take a look.
The Martian is a very strange film indeed. It is bursting with dramatic and cinematic potential, and yet, due to it's fundamental flaws, it is never able to break the bonds of its pedestrian atmosphere and soar to the great beyond of filmmaking achievement. The fundamental flaw I am speaking of is the film's incredibly poor narrative structure, which leaves the movie curiously devoid of tension and drama. The structural flaw of the film is pretty basic, instead of giving the viewer only Mark Watney's perspective, Ridley Scott chose to show the audience the God perspective, where they see everything that is happening. So the audience is able to see and know things that the film's protagonist Watney, does not see and know. Because of this choice, all of the drama of Watney's precarious situation on Mars is drained and we are left with a rather flaccid storytelling and dramatic endeavor.
If the viewer were only given Watney's perspective, this would have greatly heightened the drama in a few ways. The first is, the viewer would be entirely connected to the Watney character to a much greater degree than they already are. If we spent the first two thirds of the film trapped with Watney on Mars, like we were trapped on an island with Tom Hanks in Castaway for instance, then we would have had a more intimate and genuine connection to Watney. The second thing that would have happened is that the audience would be put through the emotional and mental anguish that Watney would have gone through when he doesn't know if anyone even knows he's alive, never mind trying to rescue him. We would have, along with Watney, discovered what it's like to be the loneliest man in the universe. The decision to use the God perspective completely undermines these vital dramatic points by showing us that NASA knows he's alive and is trying to figure out how to save him, and Watney doesn't know it. If we were left in the dark along with Watney, then every other development in the story would take on greater significance and dramatic power. For instance, when Watney finally figures out that NASA knows he's alive, that would have been a tremendously thrilling moment, instead it is a rather mundane one since we knew that the whole time while Watney did not. All throughout the story there are significant moments that could have been greatly increased by the use of a minimalist perspective, such as when Watney figures out how to increase his food supply, communicate with NASA, how to escape Mars, and then how to aid in his own rescue. Instead the viewing experience is diminished because we are never truly able to project ourselves onto Watney since we have a grander view of things than he does. The energetic connection between viewer and protagonist is broken, and the film greatly suffers for it.
Damon's performance is also undercut by the perspective issue. While he is certainly able to give Watney a humanity through humor, he fails to portray a viable sense of impending doom and dread. Watney, the eternal optimist, never has his optimism truly challenged, and neither does the audience. Resiliance is a great trait to have, maybe the greatest, but dramatically it can ring hollow if the character is never fully allowed to hit rock bottom. Watney needs to be allowed to fall into despair, a deep existential despair, yet he and the audience are never allowed to because we KNOW that he isn't forgotten and alone on Mars. If we could have shared in Watney's desperation, this would make his achievements, his strength and his resilience all the more impactful for the viewer. Instead we get a performance that is just like the film, neither hot nor cold, but mildly luke warm. Damon's performance is, like the entire film, relentlessly safe and middlebrow, which are two words that previously would have been unthinkable in regards to a Ridley Scott project.
HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM, AND THAT PROBLEM IS YOU
The other problem with showing us the God perspective is that we are forced to suffer through all of the scenes back on earth. These earth bound scenes are, at best, terribly generic, and at worst, cringeworthy. I would prefer to die cold and alone on Mars than watch one more actor melodramatically pause and raise their eyebrows to signify that they've just thought of something astonishingly brilliant while everyone else looks on perplexed. This happens again and again and again. The acting on earth is pretty atrocious, with Mackenzie Davis being the lone, notable exception. Davis actually seems like a down to earth (pardon the pun), genuine human being, not an actor trying to play a real human being.
There are also some pretty egregious casting decisions as well. Jeff Daniels is a fine actor, his work in The Squid and the Whale is testament to that. Yet he is terribly miscast in The Martian as the sometimes cut throat leader of NASA. We seem to be in the midst of a Jeff Daniels renaissance at the moment, which is good for him, but I cannot for the life of me figure out why he keeps being miscast. He was remarkably miscast in The Newsroom as well. Daniels is good at a lot of things, but he lacks the gravitas to play the head of NASA or a bombastic tv show host. One of the reasons he lacks gravitas is that his jaw is not very prominent or square, and he is not much of a physical presence. Secondly, his voice is slightly nasal and higher toned and his diction can veer into mush mouth, both of which undermine any power or gravitas that come with the characters he is cast to play. The result is we are left with performances from him that feel forced and ring hollow when he isn't in a role that suits his considerable strengths. An actor who would be perfectly suited to play the role of the head of NASA in The Martian would be Ed Harris.
A MILE WIDE AND AN INCH DEEP
The Martian is one of those movies that badly wants to be both taken seriously and liked by everyone, yet in my opinion it achieves neither. The film tries desperately for a scientific realism throughout, but that becomes less viable as the film goes on, finally spiraling into a sort of scientific farce during Watney's rescue. The highlight of which is when Watney goes full on "Iron Man" by puncturing his spacesuit and propelling himself into the waiting arms of his commanding officer Melissa Lewis, played by an under used Jessica Chastain. This sequence is supposed to be the dramatic crescendo of the story but it plays as contrived, underwhelming and frankly laughable.
The Martian is not a great film, in fact, I would argue that at it's very best it is surprisingly average. Comparisons to another recent astronaut film, Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, will do it no favors. Gravity was not a great film either, but it was visually pretty stunning. The Martian is neither visually nor dramatically compelling, and I found it frustrating because of the remarkable talents of Ridley Scott and Matt Damon being involved.
Which brings me to my final point. Ridley Scott is a master craftsman and artist. He knows what the hell he is doing. A look at his most recent films, the bafflingly inept Prometheus and the abhorrent Exodus: Gods and Kings, shows he may have lost his fastball, but maybe, just maybe, with The Martian he was up to something else. The errors in the most basic fundamentals of filmmaking and the tepid storytelling by such a creatively brilliant man as Scott, have left me wondering if he wasn't up to something else, something much deeper. I have been thinking about The Martian and mulling it over for a week now, wondering what the hell was really going on? What was Ridley Scott REALLY up to. Was there something much deeper and more meaningful hidden within the film that could redeem it? I've come up with a few ideas.
SYMBOLISM, THE COMING ECONOMIC COLLAPSE AND REAGAN'S MORNING IN AMERICA
One idea I had is that The Martian is really about the coming economic tsunami. What economic tsunami you may ask? Ever since I left a job on Wall Street in the early 2000's, I was telling everyone who would listen that we were headed for an economic earthquake. The evidence was hiding in plain sight for anybody with eyes to see if they dared look. I wasn't writing back then so you will have to take my word for it. Most people thought I was a kook and ignored me. Then 2007/2008 happened, and I ended up being right, and those people ended up being wrong…and losing a lot of money. Well…it seems very apparent to me that another economic seismic event on the same scale or larger than 2007-2008 is coming. The economy, like The Martian, is fundamentally flawed, dare I say, fatally flawed. The reasons for this are much too complex to get into here, but rest assured, I am not the only person seeing this tsunami coming, not by a long shot. Lots of people who are a hell of a lot smarter than I am are seeing it coming too. Spend some time over at Zerohedge, Chris Martenson, Max Keiser, Peter Schiff or The Independent Report among others and you'll get some great analysis on what is coming our way. Of course the establishment media will continue to cheerlead for the economy like the band playing while the Titanic sinks, they always do. In my humble opinion, the time frame for this global economic tsunami is the only thing in question. I believe it will happen in the next 18 to 24 months.
Now that I've told you the tsunami is coming, what the hell does any of that have to do with The Martian? Here's my theory…from the very beginning of the film Matt Damon represents the regular working man. In one of the very first scenes, he is meticulously checking soil along a very small grid, inch by inch. As he tries to talk to his co-workers and superior officer, he is told to be quiet and then his communication is shut off. No one wants to hear what the lowly worker has to say. Then, AS A HUGE STORM UNEXPECTEDLY ROLLS IN (the economic storm that is coming), and everyone runs to the ship, Damon is impaled and thought to be killed by a communication dish.
When Damon awakes and finds himself alone on a dead and barren planet, he must use his smarts in order to survive. He starts by surgically removing the communications wire stuck in him, symbolically severing the ties with establishment media. Then he uses his intellect, AND THE REMNANTS OF THE MISSIONS THAT CAME BEFORE HIM, to survive.
Damon uses everyday items to transform his surroundings and to protect himself. He uses a simple tarp and duct tape to reinforce his shelter, and later his escape rocket. He digs up some left over radioactive material in order to stay warm, a symbolic move that we must get away from carbon based fuels, of which Mars has none, and use alternative fuel, such as nuclear and solar.
Damon uses his skill as a botanist, an old school, nearly forgotten science, in order to double and triple his food supply. This is symbolic of our need to return to more locally sourced and organic farming techniques in order to overcome the coming shortages. He even uses his own and his crew member's shit in order to grow food. After the economic tsunami, there is going to be a big shit sandwich, and we are all going to have to take a bite. The idea of turning chicken shit into chicken salad will take on a whole new meaning. We will have to be lean and resourceful to survive.
Damon also figures out how to reconfigure an old way of communicating, a Mars rover, and uses it to start communicating with NASA anew. He also uses an old, scientific alphabet when he communicates, this being a metaphor for civilization looking backward to the basics in order to look forward for solutions and that the old way of talking about things must be discarded and replaced with a new one, even if it comes from an old one.
When the US is unable to successfully send a ship to save Damon, the Chinese step in with their advanced technology in order to help out. This is symbolic of how global the coming collapse will be and how the world will be multi-polar instead of uni-polar from here on out.
Even the rescue mission is symbolic of what it will take to overcome the difficulties that lie ahead. The NASA ship that is coming to save Damon must LOWER ITS TRAJECTORY AND SLOW IT'S SPEED, in order to get closer to Damon as he can only propel himself so high. The graph used to show that trajectory could be an economic graph, meaning that endless rates of high growth are unsustainable and we will have to lower expectations and slow down growth if we want to have any chance to for the earth and humanity to survive. Also the rescue ship must blow up and jettison a great deal of its excess rooms in order to facilitate the slowing of it's speed and it's trajectory, both symbolic of the need for excess and decadence to be eschewed in order to right the ship of our planet.
Finally, as Damon is falling short of the rescue ship, he punctures his space suit in order to propel himself to his saviors, just like people will have to puncture their own bubbles of expectations in order to find the courage and the final fuel to move them forward into the future. Chastain catches Damon and the two tumble and spiral together, getting wrapped in her tether, symbolizing the need for everyone, both rich and poor, to commit to stick together in order for humanity and civilization to survive.
Yes…I know this may be insane. But watching The Martian through this lens makes it much, much more interesting than watching it as a straight up Mars movie. There are a lot of symbols throughout the film which lend themselves to this reading of the movie. For instance, there are constant references to the 1970's…Damon watches Happy Days and poses as Fonzie, he listens to Chastain's playlists which is nothing but 1970's disco. These could all be symbolic of another more political theme, namely that Damon is the eternal American optimist, Ronald Reagan, who is trying to escape and survive the economic and cultural malaise of the 1970's and bring us into the stratosphere of the 80's boom (which was more a mirage than a boom, but that's a discussion for another day). I fully admit that this might be a bridge too far…but there is some evidence that supports this theory as well.
In conclusion, if I am giving the benefit of the doubt to Ridley Scott, which I believe he has earned, then The Martian may be a metaphor for the the coming economic collapse and for how humanity and civilization must behave in order to survive it. Or it may be a metaphor for America which is stuck in a 1970's type of stagnation, both economically, politically and culturally, and that a Reagan-esque figure is needed to teach us to 'never give up' and to go back to our individualistic and resourceful roots in order to break free and survive. (by the way, just to be clear, I am not saying that is true, I am saying that the film may be saying that it's true)
Regardless of what you think of me, my economic predictions, or my theories, I recommend you keep them in mind when you watch the film. Trust me when I tell you it will make for a much more interesting viewing experience. As for watching the film…there is no need to rush out and pay full price to see it in a theatre, you would be wiser to save your hard-earned money (and prepare for the coming economic tsunami!!). Plus you can always wait until The Martian is on cable or Netflix and watch it from the comfort of your own home while civilization crumbles all about you outside.
UPDATE : I got a great email from reader Arthur H., who hails from the Land of 10,000 Lakes and 2 Coen Brothers, he writes in regard to The Martian…"I was greatly relieved to read your thoughtful, critical review because almost everyone I know who saw it, and so many movie reviewers, think it is a truly great film. After reading your comments, I feel much less nuts." Welcome to my life!! Just remember Arthur, in the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King.
Arthur then gave a brief but very insightful review of his own, which with his permission I share with you here in full.
"The Martian is a "quintessential American" movie. Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is a classic mythological American white man who, in this incarnation, claims the entire planet of Mars because he grows potatoes in his own excrement. Thankfully, he did not have to murder millions of Martians in the process of claiming Mars as his property. The Martian is also an excruciatingly boring, completely and ridiculously implausible, intelligence insulting Hollywood B movie for the uncritical masses. Watney making a plastic tarp sealed with duct tape to cover a hole in the spacecraft that can withstand the tremendous speed in his lift off from Mars? The final scene where astronauts catch Watney flying by with rope and bring him safely aboard their space vehicle? One needs to suspend your disbelief to appreciate theatre. For The Martian, you would have to totally demolish it. Well, at least, even though we, your God view, knew from the first moment Watney would be saved, there still is a lot of dramatic tension building throughout the film. NOT, none, nada, zero. Like someone said, "By the end no one cared except on the screen, and they were all acting."
Well said, thank you Arthur!!