The Martian

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★
Release year: 2015
Genre: Adventure, Sci-Fi Director: Scott

I know this will be contrarian and misunderstood, but I’m just going to say it: The Martian is tedious, by-the-book, science geek porn.

Like the other recent “Save Matt Damon” sci-fi film involving Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, there is a lot of talking-head exposition and elaborate scientific jargon. When any action or tension finally occurs, it’s brief and mostly uninteresting; there’s little doubt about the survival of Mark Watney (Damon). But while Interstellar dared to explore ambitious, transcendent ideas such as love, human nature, and our existence in the universe, The Martian is a hackneyed film with a singular message: Science Is Awesome.

This film shares as heavy-handed a message as any faith-based evangelistic film, only it promotes the Gospel of Secular Humanism, a worldview which highly values human achievement, individualism, and material reality. Mark Watney is The Individual who essentially saves himself through hard work, problem solving, and the power of science. Sure, there are collaborative efforts by NASA to rescue Mark, but those are all stressful failures compared to Mark’s moments of ingenuity and lone achievements. Where Mark continually solves problems on his own, the NASA teams keep screwing things up. When NASA starts to offer Mark some outside advice and input, he often ignores them and comes up with his own, correct solution. The film celebrates the loner unabashedly, right up until the final moments where Mark gives a rousing speech about how to cheat death through your own ingenuity and focus. Mark has no psychological breakdowns, no overt desire to be in deeper community with others, no realizations of his own brokenness or questions about his existence in the universe. If he dies on Mars, so be it; he did his best, and his work will outlive him. Mark responds to his impossible circumstances with smugness, snark, and (most of all) science.

“But Joel, you’re reading this film all wrong. It is about community, about the myriads of people willing to save one human life. What about NASA? Aren’t they all about teamwork and collaboration and working together to rescue Mark?” Perhaps on the surface, but not when truly examined. The two moments where NASA’s plans actually work and ultimately lead to Mark’s rescue are centered on two individuals—emphasis on individuals—working alone, absent of the unnecessary distraction of community. Donald Glover’s bizarre and amusing math geek comes up with the solution to reaching Mark by ignoring any NASA team efforts, holed up in his cluttered office. Sean Bean’s character goes against protocol, ignores his superior’s authority, and acts alone to inform Jessica Chastain’s astronauts about Mark’s situation. Two more exceptional individuals working unaided to save The Individual.

Now, I’m not anti-science. Nor do I want to solely judge and evaluate a film by its presented worldview. I want to listen, to experience the film with open mind and open hands, and I approached The Martian with this mindset. Yet in any review, I want to share my viewing experience, presenting it to readers and fellow film-watchers for their own evaluation. I left the theater feeling disappointed and frustrated, not because my worldview wasn’t affirmed, but because The Martian’s final moments were so heavy-handed. I’m just frustrated with a film—any film, really—diluting the need for human community or humility. A parallel, superior film to The Martian is Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, where another man is trapped alone, overwhelmed by a red landscape and impossible odds. Where 127 Hours is marked by Aron Ralston’s self-evaluation and personal growth through the life-and-death experience, Mark’s character arc is a plateau at the peak of self-realization. There’s no need for growth when you’ve got all the scientific smarts and you’re always right. Aron cuts off his own arm and cries out, “I need help!” Mark has no such moments, apart from some brief tears upon hearing the voice of Jessica Chastain’s NASA captain.

The Martian has some laudable moments. The alien landscape is beautiful, and a few of Mark’s sarcastic quips made me smirk, as well as a Lord of the Rings joke with Sean Bean present in the room. Yet the film’s optimism is founded on all the wrong things. In a final scene (spoiler alert), Mark is sitting silently on a park bench, chewing his lunch. Millions of miles later, he’s still alone. The Martian paints this stoic self-isolation as good, even ideal. The guy might as well stay on Mars. Where else but an entire empty planet could handle such exceptional individualism?

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