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It’s just botany, not rocket science

by Thom Yee

The Martian images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

The Martian images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

“When Ben and I first came on the scene there were rumours that we were gay because it was two guys who wrote a script together. It’s just like any piece of gossip… and it put us in a weird position of having to answer, you know what I mean? Which was then really deeply offensive.

“I don’t want to, like [imply] it’s some sort of disease – then it’s like I’m throwing my friends under the bus. But at the time, I remember thinking and saying, Rupert Everett was openly gay and this guy – more handsome than anybody, a classically trained actor – it’s tough to make the argument that he didn’t take a hit for being out.

“I think it must be really hard for actors to be out publicly. But in terms of actors, I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you, period. And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”

Those are the words of Matt Damon from an interview in The Guardian that have gotten the actor and star of The Martian in some deep Internet trouble over the last few weeks. I think it’s easy enough to parse, consider, and interpret those words for what they really are (even if I don’t think Rupert Everett was going to be that big of a star), just like I think it’s easy enough to understand that the furor those words have created says a lot more about our culture of outrage and click bait than they do about the actor who said them. I don’t set out to engage in important socio-political discussions when I write a movie review, and I don’t think I’ve ever been a high-horse type of writer, but I feel compelled to say that everything I’ve read in places like The Mary Sue and The Daily Beast about Damon’s words has made me furious. To see the desperation some people, groups, and factions have to seize the day, pull the sword from the stone, and champion the chance to be outraged because someone said something that could be negatively interpreted, it honestly makes me sick.

I’m not a Matt Damon apologist and I’m not saying that what he said couldn’t have been better expressed, but I think it’s pretty clear that what he’s saying is that actors benefit in their roles when we know less about them and that, even recently, actors have suffered in their careers after revealing their sexuality. He didn’t say he thinks it’s right for gay actors to lose roles due to their sexuality nor did he say that gay actors should have to hide their sexuality, he just said that’s the way it can be and sometimes our knowledge of an actor can bring preconceived notions that harm our view of their work. I’m not saying that’s right either or that these aren’t issues worth discussing, I just feel like there’s a real vulturism around this sort of Internet writing and these types of overblown, ill-considered reactions do a disservice to everyone involved. And if I wanted to play the same kind of game with one of the only trump cards someone like me might have when it comes to issues of discrimination, then I could easily bring up the same type of discrimination against Asian actors who lose (or don’t even seem to qualify for) Hollywood roles due to their ethnicity every time I think it could possibly be applied. That’s not an occurrence that’s right or fair either, we just don’t hear about it because it’s not a popular point of discussion, and that point alone speaks to a type of discrimination that most people simply accept. But again, nobody wants to talk about it, so I won’t either.

That’s all I have to say about that. Now let’s talk about The Martian.

What’s it about?

In the near future, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), astronaut and botanist on the Ares III mission to Mars, is separated from his team when an intense storm threatens the group. With their instruments indicating Watney has died, mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to leave Watney behind in order to save herself and the rest of the Ares III crew. However, weeks later, NASA Mission Control discovers evidence that Watney is still alive.

Despite everything I discussed in opening this review, it’s undeniable that Matt Damon is charming and one of the more if not most charming actors in Hollywood, and if you’re trying to build a list of actors who can support a movie on their own throughout most of its running time, Damon would be near the top of many of those lists. The Martian is a survival movie in the same vein as Cast Away or 127 Hours, with its central character left almost entirely on his own to keep himself alive, sane, and hopeful. Beyond at least basic competence as an actor, Matt Damon can easily lead a film, is still thought to be one of the more bankable movie stars, and frankly it’s just easy to spend time with him. Plus, doesn’t “Mark Watney” sound like such a perfect astronaut name? It’s ridiculous.

Mom? Dad? Where are you guys? Is this a joke?

Mom? Dad? Where are you guys? Is this a joke?

The idea of being stranded on Mars is a particularly salient premise given not only our current studies of the planet but our current fascination with space in the movies. This is the third consecutive year that we’ve had a relatively realistic space-oriented movie following 2013’s Gravity and last year’s Interstellar, and it’s telling of our cultural climate that these movies are being embraced. As I pointed out in my Gravity review, when I was growing up in the ‘90s, I don’t think anyone I knew wanted to be an astronaut (and calling someone an “astronaut” was an insult). It just wasn’t an aspirational thing, and maybe that’s because, relative to right here in the middle of the 2010’s, things were pretty good in the ‘90s. North American economies were stable and strong, technologies were mostly supporting and not totally disrupting all of our established industries, dividing walls were falling, and most of us felt safe most of the time. It was a time that a lot of us didn’t really want to leave if only for its seeming stability, and a time when a televised space launch couldn’t even compare with a Connie Chung Christmas.

Today, long-time employees are losing their jobs, traditional industries are dying, talks of building walls between countries are reaching ridiculous levels of political discussion, terror often dominates public discourse, and space travel is something that’s gradually becoming a reality for the average (though probably wealthy) person as it becomes more and more privatized. Though it might seem unlikely that any of us will ever live on Mars, plans to colonize the planet do exist and are moving forward, and if that colonization happens within our lifetime, it’s not hard to understand why people might want to get off of this planet. Let’s just hope that when we start to leave this planet, it goes better for us than it did for Matt Damon’s character the last time we saw him in space:

 

Is it any good?

Right now a lot of critics are calling The Martian a crowd pleaser, one of the best movies of the year, and a return to form for director Ridley Scott, who hasn’t had the strongest track record lately. I would tend to agree.

Starting with the good: pretty much everything. I don’t think there are any significant failings in the movie that aren’t easy to overlook or really specific to individual tastes in storytelling. That the premise is compelling is mere table stakes for a movie of this stature, and the best part of the movie is that Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is someone we’d want to spend time with even when he isn’t in trouble. Most of the movie’s significant events are framed through a video log Watney keeps, initially for posterity when he’s unsure of his prospects for survival, but eventually as a journal of everything he’s done to last long enough to get back home. These videos are compelling and illustrative, but more importantly for the audience, they’re funny and feel like the sort of things we would watch for entertainment even if the man’s life wasn’t at stake. We watch Damon record videos first simply to note his own survival, then to his meticulous accounting of the resources he has available, to the engineering tasks he engages in to build a long-term, years-long survival strategy in a space meant only to last months, and through his various victories and defeats, and all along the way none of it ever approaches boredom or tedium as he variously (and correctly) proclaims himself things like the greatest botanist on the planet, the first man to colonize Mars, and a space pirate.

the-martian-potatoes

Ah, potatoes!  Now all I need to do is figure out a way to grow steak plants.

Watney is immediately aware of the trouble he’s in, but he approaches everything with a level-headedness that in another actor’s hands could almost feel like denial, but here it’s just a rational approach to solving a problem, and that’s one of the featured themes of the movie. For me, growing up in Alberta meant a lot of time considering a career as an engineer, but it always felt more like just a job for someone who was good at math rather than someone who was good at problem solving. As portrayed in The Martian, it’s easy to quickly gain a level of respect for engineering, not just for the high levels of accomplishment portrayed in the film, but for its life-affirming (and sustaining) value, and even if you don’t walk away from the movie with engineering, scientific, or mathematical career aspirations, you should still feel at least a little bit of inspiration and maybe even a little bit of a sense that you are capable of solving your own problems.

The time we spend on Earth trying to sort out the politics of the situation and on the Ares III as the crew wrestles with their own attempts at rescue are just as compelling and offer a much needed respite from the sometimes bleakness of the red planet. In particular, Jeff Daniels gives a strong performance as the head of NASA, one that considers all sides of the situation without veering too far into the more pessimistic or antagonistic aspects of the role, and Donald Glover, in his limited time onscreen as the astrodynamicist who forms the best plan to rescue Watney, lends a much-needed comic relief to his scenes that are quirky without being annoying. I think my favourite part of the entire movie takes place on the Ares III when its crew immediately and unanimously decided to go back for Watney after they learn of his survival. Even though it’s a scene essentially about the value of life and camaraderie, it’s never played as overly emotional or maudlin, instead speaking more to how clearly these character understand what they’re doing and how important what they’re doing is despite the risks involved.

"This is a longshot, but maybe if I do this... it'll solve everything!" ~ Troy Barnes from the Community episode, "Basic Rocket Science"

“This is a longshot, but maybe if I do this… it’ll solve everything!” ~ Troy Barnes from the Community episode, “Basic Rocket Science”

So should I see it?

The Martian is one of those movies you should almost unquestionably see and one of those movies that will likely to become a cultural touchpoint that people will speak freely of in conversation because we’ve all seen and appreciate it at least to some extent. It’s a strong, crowd-pleasing movie that’s almost impossible not to like, and even some of my smaller quibbles with it, including sometimes losing a sense of the time involved, an overabundance of light-heartedness, and a lack of realistic emotionality, are eventually addressed in a satisfying way. The only thing that really feels off in the movie is how little Mark Watney’s Earthly attachments are played up as we never learn of his friends or family beyond his crewmates and a single mention of his parents, but even that lack of sentimentality can be seen as a strength in a movie that deftly avoids some of the more clichéd elements of this type of story. It’s never weepy or corny, it’s almost always compelling even when it could have been annoying, and perhaps most importantly it’s inspiring without ever losing its grasp on realism.

It might even be the movie that finally makes you believe that a character played by Sean Bean doesn’t have to die.

Thom’s The Martian final score

4.5


On the Edge

  • Lord of the Rings references and Boromir’s the only one of the Fellowship who made it into the scene?
  • Maritime Law!
  • Sebastian Stan + Kate Mara = Bucky + the Invisible Woman!
  • Thank God for the Chinese and their rockets! Still don’t want to see them star in American movies though. Not unless they’re playing Asian.

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