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Head-to-head: “The Martian” lacks complexity but entertains nonetheless

20th+Century+Fox

20th Century Fox

Director Ridley Scott, known for sci-fi cornerstone “Alien,” returns to space in “The Martian.” The film is based on the 2011 self-published sci-fi novel by Andy Weir and stars Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels. Two of The Daily Wildcat’s film writers, Alex Guyton and Alex Furrier, go head-to-head to discuss the film.

GUYTON: Well, first things first. Did you like the movie?

FURRIER: Strangely, no. I think the majority of people will enjoy this film and would recommend it if someone asked whether it was worth seeing. That being said, I just couldn’t get into it when I watched it. Possibly because I read the book, and watching a film adaptation from a book almost always turns into a live-time comparison between the book and the film. It could also have something to do with the lady that sat next to me and kept making sound effects when anything interesting happened on screen. What about you? Did you enjoy it?

GUYTON: Fortunately, or unfortunately, no one in the audience added anything extra. I, too, had my problems with the film. The first thing that comes to mind was the ceaseless onslaught of exposition. Mark Watney, the astronaut stranded on Mars who’s played by Matt Damon, is constantly talking to the observational cameras in his station and his rover. He’s basically talking directly to the audience, walking them step-by-step throughout the movie.

Sometimes, like when there was the more advanced science at play, it was helpful, but other times, it just felt like extremely lazy storytelling. It reminded me of those YouTube videos that you click on to watch something, but then it ends up being someone explaining to you what happens in the video. Did this stick out to you at all?

FURRIER: I totally get what you mean. I think the movie lost some of its charm because it was backed into a corner and resorted to Matt Damon explaining away how to fix every obstacle in his way. The book functioned almost as a series of scientific word problems, like those math ones where you have all of the variables but need to figure out how to solve for the unknown. The movie didn’t have the proper amount of time to focus on the process of solving, and rather just showed the solution. Damon’s never-ending monologue to the camera also got old fast, whereas in the book, Watney’s journals are an exercise to keep him sane while also allowing him to think through the problems out loud.

GUYTON: You read the book, but I didn’t. How did the film compare?

FURRIER: The film was a faithful adaptation. There will always be fanboys cursing at the screen because the film didn’t follow the book beat for beat. But overall, I think Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard did the book justice. The film didn’t really deviate from the book in plot or thematics, most likely because the book was so simple: here is a guy, and he doesn’t want to die.

GUYTON: Were there any differences?

FURRIER: The only discernable difference would be the shift in perspective that occurs when NASA finds out Mark Watney is alive. The book is written in the form of journal entries, and for the first third, it is only Mark’s perspective.

A big shift in narrative occurs when NASA discovers Mark survived, and the reader then sees the situation from NASA’s perspective. The film follows the action from both perspectives almost from the get go.

GUYTON: On the subject of Watney, did you like him as a character in the film? I was surprised at how facetious Watney was. He was constantly making jokes at his own expense, at his own awful situation. I liked the humor when Watney would become livid with NASA, and he would send f-bombs to them from millions of miles away. A good amount of the time, though, it seemed to undercut the dramatic tension that the film was building. It was hard to feel that Watney was in danger of not coming home when the film adopted a relatively light tone.

FURRIER: Watney was pretty accurately portrayed in terms of personality. I believe he’s what’s known as a ‘sarcastic assshole,’ but one whose humor often bails him out of his snarky remarks. It’s incredibly difficult to combine comedy with life-or-death drama, and I think it did undercut the tension. Most dramedies are usually about lighthearted subjects rather than a man fighting for his survival. I do have to hand it to the film, though; if they did one thing well, it was circumventing the PG-13 rules on cursing. I tallied two audible f-bombs and two that were creatively implied. Creativity counts when it comes to cursing.

GUYTON: Apart from doing all the right things to get a rating that would maximize box office, what else did you like about the movie, if anything?

FURRIER: The movie was gorgeous aesthetically. They definitely pumped money into the special effects department. I would have to say my favorite parts of the film didn’t fit with the rest of it; they stood out to me because they were small, human moments.

At one point Watney counts his food supply while he can audibly hear his shelter being buffeted by the heavy Martian winds. Damon has to convey just by body language the feeling that at any moment he could die if his shelter gives way.

Also the short scene where Watney shaves his nasty beard as he prepares for the return home. It’s a moment of a man realizing he may have human interaction for the first time in years.
What about you? Anything that stuck out or that the film did well?

GUYTON: I’m in agreement about the small scene where Watney hears the Martian wind pummeling his beat-up station. Though it’s slight, Damon really makes the audience feel the smallness, the helplessness of Watney. I also enjoyed the ensemble cast. Though there were some interesting casting choices that drew attention to themselves—like Kristin Wiig and Donald Glover—the people back on Earth trying to bring Watney home, played off of each other very well. So, final verdict?

FURRIER: It was an enjoyable, light watch. Go if you’re in the mood for a blockbuster that will take you on a ride for two hours. It had its problems, but on the whole will be well liked by most. What about you?

GUYTON: It’s nice to see a film, especially one that will reach a wide audience, take science and space seriously. Though it hinders the film, as we previously discussed, the science is grounded in reality. However, of the recent sci-fi blockbusters, I rank this firmly below “Gravity” and “Interstellar.”


Follow Alex Guyton and Alex Furrier on Twitter.


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