October 28, 2015

Laughing in the Face of Solitude: The Martian

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I’ve never seen a space movie that made me want to go to space. In space movies, astronauts never head into the unknown, have a pleasant and informative trip, and return on schedule to their families. Instead, nearly every conceivable disaster strikes, leaving the astronauts with the unsettling prospect of their lifeless bodies floating, weightless and irretrievable, somewhere beyond the sky.



As a result, space movies are generally grave and somber affairs, from Apollo 13 to Gravity to last year’s Interstellar. Opportunities for humor are scarce when the characters are surrounded by a seemingly limitless abyss which threatens at all times to swallow them. However, Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian, starring Matt Damon, takes a much lighter, funnier approach.

The Martian takes place sometime in the 2030s, and NASA has managed to send astronauts to Mars, where they have constructed a temporary “artificial habitat,” or camp. Mark Watney (Damon) is left for dead during a sudden storm that forces the other astronauts to leave the planet. Watney survives the storm, and realizes he must survive for a long period alone on Mars until NASA sends another mission.

Coming in, I expected a very different movie than the one I saw. Based on the title and a movie poster that features Damon’s face staring bleakly into the camera, it seemed The Martian would explore the nature of human identity when all other human contact is lost. I thought the film would be about the process of an absolutely isolated person becoming a true “martian:” An alien to his own world, and perhaps even coming to feel unnervingly at home as the sole resident of an entire planet.

Not so much. Philosophical questions of solitude, human identity and the place of humans in the universe are neatly sidestepped by a fast-paced plot that prizes quickly-delivered scientific jargon and laughs over reflection and anguish. The Martian is more interested in explanations and exclamations than in questions.

I was entertained, but left the theater dissatisfied. I don’t want to indicate that I think comedy is a lower form than drama, or that a movie about a “serious” topic like isolation can’t be funny. But The Martian felt, in the end, trite. Sure, there are a few moments when Watney loses his cool, but his dialogue, largely spoken to video cameras inside the camp which cannot be viewed by anyone else, was mostly along the lines of “I’m gonna science the shit out of this” and “Fuck you, Mars!” If this jocularity was portrayed as his coping mechanism, as the only way to keep himself from losing his mind, it might have been more believable. Instead, it just seemed like Mark Watney was having a blast by himself on Mars.

The art that I tend to find the most powerful mixes its gloom with humor, and doesn’t allow despair without offering at least a wry laugh. I like art that knows that life is both infinitely funny and infinitely sad. Shakespeare knew this: His corpus of works spans from harmonious comedies to nihilistic tragedies, and his greatest writing contain both.

Obviously, I am holding The Martian to an unfair standard here. Ridley Scott surely didn’t set out to rival Shakespeare. He made an entertaining, exciting and ultimately reassuring blockbuster; One that cheers on American exploration and posits that with pluck, resourcefulness and unyielding optimism, even the bleakest of situations can be overcome.

Furthermore, the film is based on a novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which I have not read, and I have no idea whether the source material is similarly light-hearted or if The Martian’s humor was the initiative of the filmmakers.

Still, the film felt in the end like a cop-out. It’s not that every funny movie should have to balance its humor and its bleakness. Mean Girls hardly demanded a scene of existential crisis (although that bus’s arrival near the end is pretty damn real). But when a film tackles a subject as weighty as a person stranded on Mars, certainly one of the most isolated positions a character has ever been placed in film, it seems the character should reflect the real pain and fear of a person in that position, rather than remain some hyper-resourceful prankster nearly unshaken by his complete solitude. The Martian felt unreal and inhuman to me: a smug grin in the face of incomprehensible aloneness.

Jack Jones is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Despite all the Amputations appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].