Sometimes I have thoughts about movies I’ve watched. Sometimes, I’ve decided, I’ll put those thoughts here, incoherent as they may be. It’s a good writing exercise. In any case:
What a lovely film The Martian was.
I’m not sure I can remember when I last watched a film that was so deeply humane and intelligent – and, for that matter, positive about humanity’s ability to do big, complicated things well. For some reason most films about technology today are exhaustingly and spiritlessly negative– they’re “dark” and “gritty” and “profound”, they’re “warnings” or “reminders” or something vaguely patronising like that. (Why would anyone pay money to watch a warning?) What’s kind of extraordinary about TM is that its premise is *perfect* for that Nolanesque trick of trading in profoundities that are not just incoherent (because incoherent can be interesting) but just flat-out banal & boring. It’s one person, stranded on a planet, facing the real possibility of his death. There’s like a billion heady opportunities for philosophizing. But TM’s got none of that. The film is not a comedy, but it’s very funny, and all the characters are decent, niceish people you really, really, really root for. The characterisation is near-perfect. The main character must be one of the most likable and decent ever to be put on film.
Another thing: this is probably the first film I’ve ever seen which portrays intelligence persuasively. There’s actually a very big problem filmwise when you want to point out that a character is smart, because often real intelligence is kind of invisible. I mean, the stuff really clever people do tends only to be understandable by other really clever people. Most films just resort to trite gimmicks (epsilons, deltas, phis + integral functions (Always integrals! Why?) swimming about some genius-character’s person as his face contorts in some bizarre fetishistic paroxysm of revelation – or CHALKBOARDS! – or characters saying SO SMART WAUW, etc.), and when you watch a film about a Really Clever Person, you learn next to nothing about what the thing they’ve applied their intelligence to means (see: all big-budget films about White Male Genuises, some of which I’m OK with, but none of which I actually like).
TM has a really nice (and, to my mind, realistic) way of dealing with intelligence. All the main character does is break down one big problem into other smaller problems, and then smaller problems again, and he works on them one at a time. The solutions to the problems are played out on-screen, and we kind of understand what they actually are. They’re practical and elegant and clever. No paroxysms. Has any film ever bothered with this kind of intelligence – mental discipline, planning carefully, working stepwise? Probably. I’ve not heard of it, though. Engineers (OK, and botanists) don’t get anywhere near enough love in today’s culture.
Plus the science is really good. It doesn’t all leap over some chasm called SUSPEND DISBELIEF to eventually become stupid new-age mush, Interstellar-style. It all works, with the exception of the storm at the beginning, which probably never gets bad enough in Martian atmosphere (100X thinner than Earth’s) to tip the thing over. But that’s it. Everything else is just basic chemistry and Newtonian mechanics (Einstein for the slingshot? I’ve actually got no idea if Newton is enough for that. Eh, given the distances and accuracy needed, probably not.) The film doesn’t actually feel like sci-fi, though it’s obviously fiction in which science plays a large part.
Plus intelligence is not something concentrated in one character. There’s a lot of people working together in this, in a lot of different institutions (which institutions are given a pleasingly prominent role) and they’re all very capable and smart. That’s probably a much better representation of what doing stuff in science today is like, and it makes for very good drama.
Very Good Drama. I’m quite serious: when the main character gets rescued, after a lot of people have done something which is very brave, very ridiculous, and very clever, I swear I’ve never wanted to leap up in my seat and whoop as much as I did.
Couple more things.
A. Maybe things in space don’t need long tracking shots (Cuaron) or grandiose soundtracks (2001: ASO & nearly everything after, but I’m looking at you, Interstellar) to be amazing. Maybe things in space look kind of amazing and cool because they just are that way. The bigness of it, and the austere, crystalline weirdness of seeing physics that’s often just smudged out by friction and gravity on Earth play itself out in full: all that might actually be all we need. (Also, Mars looks great.)
B. Since both GotG and TM have done this with great success, it might be time to edit the list of things that make great auditory accompaniments to space (currently reads: Richard + Johann Strauss, Ligeti, Zbigniew Preisner, and uh no-one else) to include: a lot of 70’s disco. (Seriously: who thought that the final drive set to ABBA’s Waterloo would work so well? Cf the Blue Swede in GotG’s opening.)
C. A female character does (many) smart, brave things, a black character figures out the main outline of the relevant plan, and the Chinese are not evil (in fact, they’re quite helpful).
D. In-jokes about LotR (hardcore ones, that require knowledge of the Silmarillion – and Sean Bean) + the Pathfinder probe.