Six astronauts are on Mars. They evacuate during a storm and they accidentally leave one astronaut behind. Two hours later, they rescue him.
The Martian is that boring. It’s two excruciating hours of pseudo-documentary: we imagine some hypothetical event and then play through its solution as if it were a past event. Except documentaries — good documentaries — at least try to explore the humans behind the events. On The New Yorker, Richard Brody does an excellent job of showing that the human element is absent from the film. The lead character, played by Matt Damon, is a mushroom who, for all we know, popped up on Mars twenty seconds before the film started rolling. Despite being a botanist (why would they take a botanist to Mars? Because the plot demands it!), we never meet his family or any other human connexion. The structure of the film is so distinctly transhuman: Matt Damon is the Ideal Man who cares about nothing but using science to maximise his chances of survival.
It’s this feature of the film that lets us explore some of its uncomfortable assumptions, and the way the broader public is coming to view science.
Matt Damon is the embodiment of Science in this film. He’s white, he’s male, he’s middle class. And all he cares about is his survival. The masculinity of science plays out in a number of respects, not least the complete lack of any female characters being part of the scientific endeavour. Women can be PR executives (who is disrespected several times by socially awkward male scientists). Women can enter information into a computer if they’re instructed to be an older male. And women can have action scenes. But where men do Science and make unilateral decisions, women have admin roles and only make decisions if all the other people (mostly men) are happy with the decision.
This is a film with a lot of alpha male garbage in it. The head of NASA makes a bunch of strategic decisions, but he’s constantly undermined by scientists with whom he works, and he’s constantly challenged by scientists with whom he works. The brilliant, young, brilliant astrophysicist doesn’t even bother treating his supervisor like an actual person because he’s too busy doing Science (asking a computer to do equations).
And it’s within this space that ethical problems are (incompetently) explored. Should we spend the money to go save Matt Damon? Who should decide if the five astronauts who successfully evacuated should go back to fetch him? &c., &c., &c.?
The amount of money sunk on funding the rescue mission could have cancelled the debt of a country. Closer to home, it could have been used to fund a hospital, build trust housing, or construct a shelter. But this wasn’t that kind of movie. Instead, it was a movie about science: by men for men.
The scientists are completely inept at making decisions. All the real decision makers — the politicians, the policy advisers, the lawyers — are eerily absent from the film. If anything, secular authority is an invisible, omnipresent negative force: ‘No, we can’t make that decision because Congress won’t sign off on the bill. We should act soon so that the voters will support us, because they won’t care in a year.’
So, left to their own devices, they make shockingly bad decisions. The decisions they do make are chaotic. And when decisions are made, they can still be undermined by other (male) scientists who unilaterally decide that they know better. They are moral imbeciles distracted entirely but what they can do to the detriment of what they ought.
The film itself is beautiful. It’s long. But the shots are splendid. It’s just boring and there are no likable characters.