Weekly Watch: The Martian

It’s a fact of my modern life that I don’t see most of the movies I want to see when they hit theaters. Various factors conspire to keep me separated from these flicks for months, until they happen to slip through my sphere of influence. The minute The Martian came out, I wanted to see it. Ridley Scott adapts a DIY-publishing success sci-fi story for the big screen? Yes, please!

Alas, it came and went from theaters. It kind of slipped below my radar. I nearly paid way too much money to watch it while I was on the road last week, but fought the urge. Finally, a stroke of luck – it was on HBO last weekend. Hooray for my low tech ways!

Here’s the real problem with that kind of delay. It’s hard in the modern world to avoid opinions about a movie (or a book or album) when the first come out. It’s damned near impossible to do so for months afterward, particular when it’s nominated for some big awards and wins some others. I’m not talking about being ruined by spoilers. I’m just talking about how you can have certain expectations about something when you finally get around to see it.

So what of The Martian? Well, it didn’t live up to the hype.

Which is not to say it’s bad. In fact, it’s very well made, pleasing to look at, and has some good performances. It’s got a “rah rah, bring the boy back home” story that winds up into a feel good ending. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it’s what leads up to it that doesn’t work so well.

Mark Watney, the main character, is a nice enough guy and the situation he’s put in really sucks. Not just stranded, but left for dead. He has considerable obstacles to overcome in order to survive and he . . . fairly easily overcomes them. At one point he says, about a problem, that he’s going to “science the shit” out of it. That attitude – every problem has a solution, take one at a time – is driven home back on Earth when Watney begins training the next generation of astronauts.

It’s a great motto and probably an excellent way to deal with real world problems. It doesn’t, however, bear any real dramatic weight. The bottom line – Watney’s too damned competent. Everything he tries works (until plot requires that it get destroyed) and, while we see him make some snarky comments about his situation, it never really seems to get to him. Even if all his schemes kept working, he’s still millions of miles from home and alone. We know what solitary confinement does to people – it ain’t pretty.

In this way, The Martian suffers considerably from comparison to the much smaller (and much less seen) Moon. Even before it gets to the issue of clones and whatnot, it paints a really effective picture of what being along on another planet(oid) would really be like. The struggle, as the kids say, is real.

But Watney’s isn’t. It’s not that I want to see the man suffer, but some struggle would have been nice. There’s no way a big-budget summer movie, rated PG13 and starring Matt Damon, is going to go all the way dark and have him die on the planet or commit suicide or something. But some hint that the vast expanse of time without human contact had some impact on his psyche would have been interesting. As it is, only his weight loss seems like an issue (and it’s light years away from what Christian Bale puts up with).

Writing this, I’m reminded of a post on the IMDB discussion board where someone asks “is this based on a true story?”. It’s not as dumb a question as it sounds, looking at it now. Real life can be many things, but it’s not often filled with the dramatic tension we expect in fiction. A true story of clever survival, rooted in the fact that it actually happened, has a pull to it that a fictional tale of similar stature just doesn’t. I read somewhere that the difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. It has to have some drama to it, too.

Which is not to say The Martian sucked. It was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, but it didn’t live up to my perhaps exaggerated expectations. It was fluff, but it was engaging fluff. There’s something to be said for that.

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