The Martian and the Point of Entertainment

The MartianI finally got around to seeing The Martian the other day. And in a sense, it is the perfect American entertainment. What The Odyssey was for the ancient Greeks, this film is for Americans: it tells them who they are supposed to be. The film is so filled with pluck that I really wanted to see Mark Watney (Matt Damon) die at the end.

But no. The Martian tells us all that there is no problem we can create that we can’t fix. (This is a terrible philosophy — and provably false.) So the film becomes kind of a “how to” documentary for surviving on Mars. This is made less tedious than it would be by Watney’s constant flippant chattering. And I’ve always found Damon kind of adorable. But really, there isn’t much here to like.

There is a constant drum beat of supposedly funny lines about Watney being stuck with only Disco music. I’m not really sure if, as a viewer, I was supposed to agree with him or not. It would have been better to pick a style of music that has not been widely mocked. At least in that case, we might learn something about who Watney is. But we don’t. Nor do we learn anything about any of the other characters. Really: the film is made up of positions, not characters.

I’ll give a nod Sean Bean — playing the mission director. He doesn’t have much of a part, but he has almost the entirety of the humanity in the film. He’s an exceptional actor who really doesn’t get as much due as he deserves. But who needs humanity when you can be an American!™? Really, rather than The Martian, the film should have been titled, The American.[1]

The Martian Is Just Another Disaster Film

The Martian got me thinking about the point of entertainment. Because I’ve seen this film so many times before. It’s just a disaster film. It is The Poseidon Adventure. But, you know, without actual human characters. It is The Towering Inferno. But, you know, without actual suspense. I’ll bet the vast majority of my readers (who skew older) haven’t seen either of those films. So why not just watch them? Why watch a guy on Mars grow potatoes using his own excrement as fertilizer?

That’s not a rhetorical question. We live in a world in which no one needs to suffer from hunger or homelessness. So after you get those issues taken care of, what is left but ways to find meaning in life and enjoying entertainment? Nothing really. But entertainment is a business. So films are not produced to entertain, but to make money. So Hollywood is going to put how how ever many films each year, even though almost none of them are categorically different from films we’ve seen before.

Newer Isn’t Necessarily Better

What’s more, these new versions are not necessarily better. For example, The Martian, in addition to being kind of boring, is all CGI. The film just looks mushy. Watney mentions gazing at the horizon every day just because he can. Yet there is not a single frame in the film that made me think, “Wow! That’s beautiful!” This is a big problem with modern blockbusters: they’re all pretty much Who Framed Roger Rabbit (that is, live actors on top of a cartoon).

A much better film that is similar, but categorically different is Moon. (See my review.) It should have been made. The Martian? I really can’t say. You will get the same exact experience from countless other films. So why make just another disaster film? I mean: besides making money.

Afterword

I think the film could have been something much greater if Mark Watney had died at the end. Obviously, the entire script would need to be reworked. But it might have said something about pluck that I hadn’t heard before. Maybe pluck is it’s own reward? Watney will die eventually anyway. What if he had just held out as long as he could and all the world looked on helpless? It wouldn’t have to be a downer. Think of Shane.

The Martian as it stands ends with an annoying lecture by Watney where he says, “You solve one problem — and you solve the next one — and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” Yeah. But we already knew that. If you just happen to be a botanist stranded on Mars who knows far more about operational matters than I find credible, then there might be a sequence of steps that allow you to come home. But often times, there are no steps that lead home. And that’s simply a more interesting thing to think about — especially when you consider how completely implausible the ending of The Martian is.


[1] There is a film called The American, which stars George Clooney. It is a much more likable film. Or rather, it is a much more poetic film. I’ll have to revisit it.

6 thoughts on “The Martian and the Point of Entertainment

  1. Horrible, horrible, horrible.

    Is it any wonder that the only new releases out of Hollywood that I can stand going out to the theater for are either Wes Anderson and Coen Brothers films? That I am forced to watch classics that are decades old or to watch new releases from Asia or Europe.

    I have become so cynical that I now question why any sane artist of any kind might focus on anything but the bottom line. Money is everything now. As it should be. F@@@ the artist and f@@@ art.

    There I have stayed the obvious. And believe it or not I am in a way happier with this realization.

    So I guess the moral of this story is art as a commodity and that is it. Hey if you pay money for trash – that is what you get.

    And I can recommend the films of Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger if anyone is truly into pure art/experimental film.

    • I think a major issue is the budgets. If you make a $300 million film, you have to make it so it appeals to a whole lot of people. That’s the big problem when foreign films get remade in America. They get big budgets, so they are watered down.

      But I didn’t hate the film. I just didn’t think it was that good. I’m nerdy enough to enjoy much of the science in it. Of course, that was all blown to hell by that ridiculous ending.

  2. Mathew approves of your Moon review. He probably liked The Martian more than you did. We actually watched Interstellar last night… If he had told me it just was a remake if 2001, I would have gone to bed a couple of hours earlier!

    • I’d like to write more about Moon. It’s an amazing film and it shows what wonderful work you can do with a creative writer-director and one of the best actors of his generation.

      And I didn’t dislike The Martian so much. It’s just that I don’t think it needed to be made. Compare it to another Scott film, Blade Runner, and it gets even more depressing. Scott’s films have only gotten more technical and less human over time.

  3. All I know is that I prefer watching YewTewb over most TV and movies these days. Not sure why. I suspect if we lived in the same city my movie intake would go up since I would drag you to lots of them.

  4. I liked the book. There was a book. It was a reasonably enjoyable book. It got made into a movie. Writing no longer means shit. I’m not going to watch the movie. I enjoy Mr. Wahlberg as an actor, but fuck this noise. That is all.

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