Screenwriter At The Movies: The Martian (2015)
Was the Martian Too Perfect?
I’ve seen The Martian twice now. The first time I really liked it. Gave it a 8.5/10. The second time, I liked it, but not as much. Gave it a 7.5/10. And now, looking into the future I’m wondering… will this be one of those films I watch again and again? The movie goer and screenwriter inside of me says… no.
This is coming from a guy who has watched other films, like Aliens, probably 15 times over the years and will watch it once a year till the end of time.
Both films have smart heroes doing smart things trying to survive and outwit something that is trying to kill them. They’re ultimately survival stories, primal in their universal appeal to an audience. But The Martian is not grabbing me the way Aliens did. Why is that?
The Martian: Competence Porn
What made The Martian a lot of fun the first time – besides the great VFX and cinematography – was watching a really smart guy figure out really smart ways to outsmart death. It was like watching an interplanetary episode of CSI, except in this show the investigator dies if he doesn’t solve the puzzle. It was definitely a cinematic version of ‘competence porn’.
But I liked it less the second time because the hero’s struggle lacked an emotional component beyond just that need for survival. Once I knew how he solved all of his problems, I lost a bit of interest. He didn’t seem to have a flaw that would prevent him from reaching his goal and thus increase the drama and the emotional stakes He was almost too good at everything.
With Aliens, despite knowing every second of the film, I keep coming back to it because it makes me feel something extra. Why? Because I admire Ripley’s courage and heart. She has to overcome her instinct for self-preservation and go out on a limb to help others. Mark Watley, the hero of The Martian, is courageous in the face of death but he mainly just cares about his own survival. He’s alone, so that’s fair enough. But we’re never given a real chance to connect with who this guy is on the inside.
The humans back on Earth care about him, but does that mean I’m supposed to see humanity as the hero? Because they care about something other than themselves? The old US Marines’ credo of “no man gets left behind”? Yeah, ok, that made me care about him too. It did make me feel like, “I AM that guy! Come save me!” But ‘humanity’ is such a large (and ironically) impersonal concept to cast as your hero. I need something smaller, more identifiable and emotional to help me connect with a protagonist.
In Tom Hanks’ movie Castaway – another survival story – at least the hero has his anthropomorphized volleyball ‘Wilson’ to care about (though I never felt the need to watch that movie again). Same goes for Cruise in MI5: Rogue Nation: he didn’t have an inner flaw but he had people close to him – the girl and Simon Pegg – to care about, so we cared about him.
Don't Go Back To Mars
The fact that Matt Damon’s character in The Martian didn’t have a flaw didn’t bother me the first time. The film put me in his shoes. I cared because I WAS him, struggling to survive out there all alone. I just liked it less the second time BECAUSE he didn’t have a flaw and I knew all of his smarty pants tricks. I wouldn’t bother watching a CSI episode twice for the same reason.
In the end though, is it relevant to talk about the effect a movie has on you the second time? Shouldn’t initial reactions be enough? If you enjoyed it, you enjoyed it, right? Well, I have Aliens on Blu-Ray. I will probably get MI5, too. I doubt I will get The Martian.
Hey, I still enjoyed it. But I kinda wish I’d only seen it once. And yet I’m happy the filmmakers got me to buy two tickets. They deserve every penny.