Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Martian vs. Interstellar vs. Gravity vs. Prometheus

The Martian, based on Andy Weir's book, is about a paper thin character and his struggle to survive after being abandoned on Mars. He does so by eating potatoes grown in his own shit and using copious amounts of duct tape.

Basically, it's MacGyver in Spaaaaace.

I'm being facetious, of course.

Weir heavily researched his book, and everything in it is plausible. That Andy Weir researched all this in the first place is, and worked it into a novel, is impressive. That scientists figured out everything for Weir to research is even more amazing.

Human beings can do such miraculous feats, like going to other planetary bodies (we've already reached the moon). It just makes me think I must be part of a different species. The characters in the film are fictionalized versions of all the very smart people down at NASA.

The film spends a great deal of time on Matt Damon 'sciencing the shit out of' his predicament. Which, initially, is pretty cool. He grows the aforementioned potatoes, for example. He co-opts an older probe. He uses radiation for heat. And so on.

The only thing they don't spend much time on is the human element, and without interest in him as a person, interest in his situation wanes as the film drags on and piles on disaster on top of another.

He has no love interest, for example. No close friends. His parents are mentioned, once, but he seems in no hurry to speak to them. They are not invited to NASA to view his return, or to write to him, or, well, anything.

They cover his relationships with his coworkers a little, but it never goes more than puddle deep.

It could so easily have been different.

The human element here is mostly, if not entirely, afterthought.

Gravity takes something of the same approach. We start with the disaster, so there's little time to flesh out Sandra Bullock's character. But that's less of a problem here: she has George Clooney to play off of, and the film is really an IMAX roller coaster ride in space. No need for rumination. Because lookout, space debris! Gravity isn't a deep film, and doesn't pretend to be. That's not the genre.

The Martian, on the other hand, had potential to be far more affecting emotionally than it was.

Castaway got to me. The Martian never did.

Interstellar had dodgy science. Three habitable planets around a black hole? Where was the light coming from? One hour on the surface is a year aboard the ship? Say what? What would that mean for satellite TV reception?

My monkey-brained understanding is that, even with a 'perfect' star like ours, Venus is too close, and Mars too far away, to support life. We're in just the right spot. It can vary a bit, but not much. The idea of finding three planets with stable orbits around a black hole seems… unlikely. But hey, I'm no scientist.

It scarcely matters: if you put the science of Interstellar aside (and I only bring it up because I was told so often how accurate and real it was), the film is much more enjoyable. They establish an emotional connection, and background, between the protagonist and his daughter. Love is at the centre of the film. Powerful, primal emotion the viewer can connect with. It has a heart, however overwrought.  

The Martian's heart barely beats. It's more like an episode of Nova or something.

Gravity felt like a realistic portrayal of a disaster in space, as far as Hollywood goes. The rapport between Bullock and Clooney sold it for me emotionally. Especially Clooney's seeming sacrifice, and unexpected return. They managed to make me care enough that the action sequences, and Bullock's fate, mattered.

By contrast, the lack of emotional depth in The Martian made the film a long, slow slog. There's a great bit with the Council of Elrond, and some clever and funny lines, but it needed more than cleverness. There's no looking into the empty void. No real anguish at being abandoned. He doesn't plumb the depths, he's too practical, so when he rises at the end it doesn't carry much emotional heft.

You just don't give a shit.

Some critics are saying The Martian is Ridley Scott 'returning to form' after the disaster that was Prometheus. I saw that film: it was gorgeous, creepy, and well cast, but didn't make a lick of sense. But you know what? I'd sooner watch Prometheus again than The Martian. I was never bored watching the former, while the latter made me shift in my seat and look at my watch.

Yes, I still have a watch.

Prometheus has characters who are interesting basket cases. The engineers are cool and mysterious. The android is ambiguous in intent. There's a lot going on to look at and absorb. It's a mess, honestly, but it's an interesting mess.

The Martian, on the other hand, is a slighter offering, despite the science. Despite the realism, or perhaps because of it, the picture was boring.

That's a cardinal sin for a piece of entertainment.

It should be mentioned that the climax is pulse pounding and I got caught up in it, but getting there was far more painful than it had to be.

Ultimately, The Martian just raised my opinion of Interstellar, Prometheus, and Gravity (although I already had a high opinion of Gravity).

Is it time to let go of plausibility and embrace the universe altering power of love?

Just remember to bring duct tape.


  1. Well, I finally saw it. I can't say you're wrong in your assessment. The lack of characterization is a whopping flaw in the book as well. The whole effort is strictly intended as a "Do It Yourself Science" wet dream. And that aspect of the book I enjoyed quite a bit.

    And the movie failed in that regard. I figured it would. The book is nonstop in Whatley's head as he thinks and talks to himself, working every problem, pondering his science and madly cobbling together shit in an emergency. To mimic this, the movie would have had to employ a voiceover narration, with Matt Damon speaking to the audience constantly. For some reason, modern move-makers are loathe to use this technique. Every now and then journal entries don't fill the gap. So, I found the move to be as flat as week-old Pepsi.

    So, I have to be one of the folks who will say they got their money's worth, but overall it was a forgettable film.

  2. I rather like voice over narration. Sometimes it isn't appropriate, I get some feel it's 'cheating', but they used it very effectively in the new TV show Mr. Robot. It's just another tool; for a film like The Martian, I agree, it might have helped build a deeper emotional connection. The video blogs were good, but there's something intimate about the voice over.

  3. They did the voiceover narration very well in "Mr. Robot", but I *think* they only did it as a bit of plot legerdemain. A slick trick on the viewer. One naturally naturally assumes when we're getting the character's thoughts, we're getting the straight dope. What comes out of a character's mouth can be laced with ruses and chicanery. Hearing their thoughts, well, it has to be accurate...and then, well, for folks who have seen "Mr. Robot", you know how that works out.

  4. Very interesting point. The plot twists in Robot have been epic crazy, even preposterous, but I'm invested enough in Elliot that I've been happy to hum along and be tricked. Part of that is thanks to the connection established by the voiceover narration. I'm not sure about thoughts always having to be objectively accurate. Fight Club also had voiceover, and Ed Norton's character proved unreliable. These characters are true to their own perceptions, not objective reality. It is a tough sell at times, I admit, and I can accept craziness covering it only if I enjoy the character. There's definitely slick trickery going on with Mr. Robot, and I wonder if they'll be able to keep going without it all crashing down on them. Will every season have such wild reveals? How many can you have before it becomes old? And once you've pulled back the curtain, fired your Narrative Nuke, what else do you have? M. Night Shyamalan became dependent on the trick ending, with rapidly diminishing returns. You can't double, triple, quadruple dip and expect people to continue to be surprised. That's a fate Mr. Robot may face down the line as it fights for ratings. Fortunately, the characters are compelling, and that's key. For now I'm interested to see where they take it, for better or worse.