Why I Hate The Martian

Monday 5 October 2015, 7:42 pm   //  

The Martian is a movie (a book, too, but I haven’t read it) where Matt Damon’s character, Matt Watley, is stranded on Mars and has to figure out how to survive as people on Earth figure out how to rescue him. It is a version of Robinson Crusoe (without Friday). There are no enemies or bad people, just understandable mistakes and the capricious forces of “nature,” or as it’s called here, space. Watley declares himself officially the first colonist of Mars, and he solves every problem, as he explicitly says, with science.

To turn to more contemporary references, it seems to me that the film is a conflation of Gravity, Moon, and Apollo 13. Which is fine with me – I’m all about movies that mash up, reference, and reinvent other movies. Film A = film B + film C + film D can be a nice equation. Romeo and Juliet with modern street gangs, or with modern street gangs and fast cutting, or with zombies. But in any case film A needs to do something innovative by combining elements from these other movies, or, at the very least, it needs to do the same things that B and C and D did, but better.

From one perspective The Martian, Gravity, Moon, and Apollo 13 are all basically escape-the-room puzzles, just with larger and smaller rooms and solved on-screen for you. They are all narratives about problem-solving and the virtues of being clever. Now, sometimes there are problems that can be solved by science and engineering, just as sometimes there are problems that can be solved without science and engineering. You bump into someone on the street; you say “sorry,” acknowledging them and your mistake and keeping society from deteriorating a tiny bit. Didn’t really need science there – even social science. But most major, significant problems involve both to some extent.

The Martian, however, is a parody of problem solving. By glorifying its brand of problem solving as something quintessentially American (but with global appeal), it suggests that we should narrow our understanding of how to think when things get difficult. There are plenty of things one can pick at in the film, but its model of problem solving is why I hate it.

First, The Martian presents its big, complex problem – one that engages the interest of mass audiences across the Earth, in different cities – as a “pure science” problem. I will do science to it, and it will be solved. Although international relations and tensions, along with congressional funding for the space program, are all a very explicit part of the film, they are rapidly glossed over when it comes to problem solving, so that a purely engineering approach is all that is needed to triumph. Being a Martian colonist and being a pirate in “international waters” are invoked as time-filling jokes by the protagonist, but there’s no hint that colonialism and international relations might be real issues – in the latter case, even within the film’s fictional world. There are no international issues, though. Those in the Chinese space program just shrug and say that of course they’ll help out, since they’re scientists. Any political or cultural difficulties that might arise are left unmentioned. Even Gravity involved one astronaut sacrificing himself for another instead of solving an engineering problem to cheat death. That film also presented the cultural (rather than purely technical) challenge of entering a space station where the controls were all in another language. In Moon, an unethical corporation was central to the situation. In The Martian there’s none of this complexity. Solving problems is just about making the right calculations.

Second, problem solving in The Martian is always a solo flight. In the case of Mark Watley, left alone and initially without communication capability on Mars, of course he’s going to start off solving problems alone, and it makes sense to showcase his individualistic ability to survive and prevail. But while collaborative problem solving was central Apollo 13 (based, remember, on real life), the people back home on Earth, even though they have the ability to work with one another to solve problems, never do. We just hear a snarky remark about how they tell him to drill through the roof of the rover and jump on it until it breaks open. Consider the socially inept mega-genius Rich Purnell, the JPL scientist whose insight is critical to NASA’s rescue attempt. Purnell communes only with the supercomputer as he figures out his ingenious plan. He uses other people only to represent Earth and Mars as he produces one of the film’s many exciting astrodynamical visualizations using everyday objects. Purnell even stops himself from talking to anyone else about his idea several times. There’s approximately one case of someone saying “that gives me an idea!” in response to something someone else said, and no instances in which people are shown working out problems together. Please. Moon essentially has only one character and even that movie has people working together to solve problems.

Sure, this Robinson Crusoe in space; I don’t expect the main character to be dealing with international relations, thinking as a team, or doing much more, for his part, than being an individual scientist. But the film has a lot of other characters, and none of them solve problems except by doing science to them, without reference to society, culture, politics, or language. None of them think about problems together.

Consider just the most “scientific” sorts of problems that are important to us today (such as climate change, water quality, disease from AIDS through cholera and ebola) without even getting into such important issues as war in the Middle East, mass and police killings, and the drug war. I submit that to make progress on these problems, and certainly the other ones, it is essential to consider social and cultural issues, and it is also essential for people to work together. For instance, a scientist decades ago can develop a drug that today helps those who have AIDS, then the company that produces it can raise the price 5000%. This is not a problem to which science can simply be done. Of course, engineering is in many cases essential to better water quality, but the civic and social contexts are important as well.

The Martian really didn’t have to insist that reductionism and solitary thought are the only ways to solve problems, even with its focus. If you’re looking for an escape-the-room movie, allow me to suggest Gravity, Moon, or Apollo 13.

20 Comments »

  1. Damn, you spoiled Gravity.

    Was the movie that bad? They just had a focus on something.

    Comment by Oreolek — 2015-10-05 @ 10:12 pm
  2. Well, I was trying to avoid major spoilers, but I drip one now and then.

    As to whether the movie was that bad, your mileage may vary. But it was a film almost entirely about problem-solving with reference to important personal/national/global issues. And its perspective on problem solving was almost entirely backwards. And the three films it conflated did it better.

    Comment by Nick Montfort — 2015-10-05 @ 10:32 pm
  3. I haven’t seen the film yet, nor read the novel, but both sound like updated versions of the classic science-fiction cliche of the Capable Man. In most Robert Heinlein novels in particular there’s that one guy who can see clearly and cut past all the bullshit and dumb ideas to just do the needful. Wouldn’t it be great, goes the implied subtext, if the world had more clear-eyed rationalists like him? This kind of thinking has huge appeal to a certain kind of mind. There’s a single Right Answer, Heinlein tells us, for everything from how to get back into a Martian rover to how to best structure a society and its economy. We just need to be clear-eyed thinkers and find said Answer.

    The problem, of course, is that — and particularly when it comes to the big questions — there is very seldom one clear answer. Life is messier than that, and solutions require reckoning with culture, personality, history as well as ideology. The world we live in is less comforting than the one portrayed in these science fictions, but a hell of a lot more interesting. It’s why movies and books like this have such an artificial feeling, a feeling of thinness to them when compared to the proverbial Great Literature that is willing to engage with all those messy human qualities that are so important to the way the world really works rather than just have Mr. Capable Man hand-wave them away.

    My two cents as someone who’s never seen the film, anyway. ;)

    Comment by Jimmy Maher — 2015-10-06 @ 4:09 am
  4. Read the book, saw the movie. (Still trying to disentangle the movie from the book in my mind.) The book is not your usual book. It’s not a mix of film A+B+C+D (or the book equivalents). The author didn’t think of a story idea, do the research and then write the book.

    As an intellectual exercise, he designed a mission to Mars. Then he looked for flaws in his plan, and either modified the plan to remove the vulnerability, or worked out how to cope with the problem.

    At some point he started to write short stories about these problems, and later, he turned the stories into a book.

    No romance. No character development. Just a conga line of disasters, with some humor (Swearing publicly at NASA bureaucracy! Pirates!) injected into what would otherwise be a relentlessly grim tale.

    It’s a pity the movie was a parody of problem solving for you, since the book is itself a consequence of problem solving.

    The movie, it left out or otherwise compressed a lot of the book. In the book, A happens which causes B. In the movie, they didn’t show A, so why did B happen?

    To be fair, I don’t think the author spent as much time plotting realistic international diplomacy as he did working out the continuous acceleration course to Mars (I don’t think ion drives were feasible when the Mars Direct plan was written) that would put them on the surface during Thanksgiving.

    The author is a computer programmer. The film directory (I’ve liked all work) is a film director.

    The cinematography was great. (Not as great as Fury Road though.)

    Comment by Scott — 2015-10-07 @ 4:59 am
  5. I saw it last night, and after two hours, walked out. It’s boring, slow, contrived, annoying, and utterly by the numbers and silly. I liked the disco music and that was about it!! Give me the awesome Alien any day of the week. Everything that this film is not!!

    Comment by Tanz — 2015-10-09 @ 9:07 pm
  6. […] Read Nick Montfort’s critique of The Martian too. […]

    Pingback by On The Martian | this cage is worms — 2015-10-12 @ 1:03 pm
  7. I keep trying to drive a wedge between the film and the book. I think it is a mistake to see Mark Watney as a spokesman for Ridley Scott’s vision. The book is an ode to problem-solving, but as you say it gives a reductive image of problem-solving, and of science. Watney does not really “science the shit out of it”, but “engineer the shit out of it”.. That is to say, the scientific concepts he employs are at the level of junior high school comprehensibility. If science fiction is the “literature of cognitive estrangement”, the estrangement here is minimal. Despite the show-casing of “scientific” problem-solving, the whole plot is based rather on magical thinking. Magically everything that is needed to keep Watney alive and to bring him back to Earth is already in place or becomes available with a little effort, and tragedy is avoided. Watney is not really transformed by his unique experience, and does not become a “Martian” at all, but remains very much an Earthling, happy to transmit his knowledge and experience to future astronauts, to promote business as usual for Nasa.

    Comment by Terence Blake — 2015-10-17 @ 3:58 pm
  8. Karl Popper affirms that “all life is problem-solving”, but the problems have to be created just as much as the solutions. Here problem-solving is trivialised into puzzle-solving, and the puzzles exist in a set of givens. For Popper, science exists when the problem-solving is no longer a matter of mere survival, where error-elimination means death. The story comports an ideological reduction of the human to the individual concerned with survival and enjoyment. Watney does not come to problematise his mission and its economic and political basis, and his vision remains contracted, basic science and 70s pop culture.

    Comment by Terence Blake — 2015-10-17 @ 4:46 pm
  9. Full review of film here: https://xenoswarm.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/review-of-the-film-the-martian-the-community-of-geeks-versus-the-cold-equations/. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Comment by Terence Blake — 2015-10-18 @ 5:05 am
  10. My wife and I viewed this movie last night. We seldom go to the movie theater, and after hearing the hype, thought we’d try this one. It is 2 1/2 hours of my life I’ll never get back.

    First of all is the nonsensical politically correct social engineering being foisted upon the viewer. Even though a white man is in charge of NASA, he’s cold and unfeeling — the bottom line for the agency is all that matters. Who is in charge? The Hermes is commanded by a young white female who ultimately takes the biggest risk of all near the conclusion and emerges the heroine for her bravery to compensate for her decision to leave the planet without astronaut Watney in the first place. This commander and the other woman on the crew were the brainchild of the ship and the poor idiotic white male buffoons who accompanied them surely could never have accomplished the ultimate feat of plucking an astronaut out of Mars orbit without being bossed around by these women. Give me a break.

    Next are the two main black characters in the movie. The mission supervisor was the one with the heart and feelings to initiate a rescue, which never would have been done by the heartless white NASA chief. Then you’ve got the genius black astrophysicist, who, living in squalor, is the behind the scenes hero of the movie for calculating the Hermes-Earth slingshot tactic. Sorry. These characters — all of them — were poorly conceived and developed during the movie — and none convinced me of authenticity.

    Then finally, the whole China involvement. Again, this is telling the audience, see, those communists, they’re not so bad after all. Of course America can’t get a rocket launched on its own and no mission could be successful without the commies. Again, please. I see clearly the subtle and not so subtle manner in which the director attempts to bring about 21st century political correctness, and I resent it.

    Then there’s the science. With Mars’ atmosphere being equivalent to only 1% of earth’s, the storm that forced vacation from the planet would be impossible. And those large chunks flying through the air? What was that. There are dust storms on Mars, but they are DUST storms. Good grief. Then the scene of tornadic like activity from thick clouds — never would happen. The small amount of atmosphere permit only cirrus-like cloudiness. And while there are dust devils that form on the surface, they look nothing like what was presented to us. And what is that planet we keep seeing in the sky exhibiting moon- like phases? Is that supposed to be earth? Sorry, it doesn’t look like that from Mars. Oh yes, I could talk cosmic radiation, planetary rotation, and so on, but I won’t. A tarp on top of the capsule and removal of windows? For Pete’s sake.

    Finally was all the levity — the stupid disco music, though I enjoyed Abba’s ‘Waterloo’ as a teenager. Then why all the four letter words by supposedly intelligent scientists? Does this just not give dirtbags the stamp of approval to commonly use this language? Again, the message is — it’s perfectly fine and “everybody does it.” Sorry, but when you’re fighting for your survival, the nonsensical humor and cavalier approach to problems just simply would not happen. Of course then, this wouldn’t appeal to the masses immersed in pop culture, either. And what was that stupid kiss by gallant #2 woman in charge on the Hermes on the helmet of one of her buffoonish male contemporaries? Was that supposed to indicate something far more serious between these two — again never developed and gratuitously inserted, serving no purpose other than throwing more candy to the audience.

    And why the long hair and beard on Watney only towards the end? Wouldn’t that have been something that manifested itself from the beginning if he were letting personal grooming be a low priority?

    This could have been a GREAT movie, but I came away feeling like this was a huge waste of $22 and change and 2 1/2 hours of my time. My wife, bless her little emotional heart, loved it. While I enjoyed the well done special effects and 3D imagery, I absolutely hated the movie, thoroughly seeing that it was simply aimed at your typical “man on the street” who knows very little scientifically and is easily entertained. The plot was good, but the politically correct social engineering, the unbelievable science inaccuracies, and the lack of character development just didn’t connect and ruined it for me. In fact, I barely connected with Watney. Though I have Everest and the new 007 movies on my “to see” list, if “The Martian” is what passes in today’s culture as “incredible,” maybe I’ll rethink returning to the cinema for a long time. I do not recommend it unless you like flushing your money down the toilet and wasting precious time. Just awful.

    Comment by Michael Swanson — 2015-10-24 @ 7:19 am
  11. thank you. I’ve been unable to articulate what irked me about this movie. All I could think of was: Cheeeeeese. In my head, I was just screaming- stop. please. stop. thank you. really.

    Comment by stacie — 2015-10-25 @ 8:34 pm
  12. […] Nick Montfort is an expert on “interactive narrative” and “digital poetry” among other things. His blog is both techy and creative, and I like the bare fact that there are people out there pushing these frontiers. Here he does some pop-culture critique: Why I Hate The Martian […]

    Pingback by Blogjam | Glitchpuke — 2015-10-28 @ 4:41 pm
  13. Comment by Michael Swanson — 2015-10-24 @ 7:19 am

    You nailed it. Your review is almost exactly what I was thinking as the movie progressed. Contrived social engineering and manipulation. So Progressive…White males (except for Watney, cause he’s Matt Damon their poster boy) are at best competent, at least at the lower levels. If it wasn’t for women and minorities all would be lost. Thank goodness we have them to save us!!!

    And your observation about the genius (Purnell) who comes up with the brilliant plan all by himself is right on. They work in teams. Nothing would be even considered without multiple reviews and checks. That’s another falsehood sold to gullible viewers.

    Excellent post!

    Comment by Rastafarian — 2015-10-29 @ 7:59 am
  14. I was beginning to think I was the only one on planet earth who thought this movie was a pile of dog doodoo. I want my money back.

    Comment by Bill — 2015-12-25 @ 11:31 pm
  15. Look et the helmet scene, there was a crack on his helmet glass which he covered with a tape, then later on we see him apply the tape on the lab’s window and surprise ! his helmet glass is no longer broken ( no crack, no tape )

    Comment by Fred — 2016-01-14 @ 6:17 am
  16. Thank you for this review and especially also the comment from Swanson. I saw right through this flick when I saw the trailer and successfully avoided seeing it, but you, sirs, have articulated what I suspected all along!!!

    Comment by David — 2016-01-26 @ 10:16 pm
  17. So, the fact that Mars had earth gravity only bothered me? I could have forgiven every other flaw in the movie, but, Mars having the same gravity as earth was every bit as annoying as Sandra Bullock going through all of Gravity without peeing.

    Comment by scottalias — 2016-01-27 @ 4:10 pm
  18. Yea I hated this movie I tried I really did, but I just could not sit and enjoy it! My boyfriend loves it and asked me kindly not to big him since I’m obviously not interested in the movie as he’s currently watching it. Lol! I don’t exactly know why I hate it besides it seems boring to ME and my attention span won’t allow me to finish this movie.

    Comment by Donna dee — 2016-01-30 @ 1:11 am
  19. There was a moral aspect to the movie that was glossed over. The Head of NASA thought that risking the lives of the whole crew to save one man wasn’t one that NASA should contemplate. I thought that was a valid point of view but the filmmakers chose not to go there even though they did raise it as a possibility. It goes against every submarine movie when the Captain orders the hatch to be closed even though there are crew in those flooding compartments. Hey it’s an American action adventure movie … a genre movie just like Detective movies, Spy movies, Comic Heroes movies etc. So the focus is always going to be on the individual who comes up with a Eureka idea. If you understand those limitations, THE MARTIAN isn’t awful at all. Also, I watched it on TV so I didn’t pay for it !

    Comment by GaryL — 2016-08-06 @ 8:29 am
  20. dude i hate the movie and the book, and the author of the book stole the idea from some kid on the internet

    Comment by marshall — 2016-12-20 @ 5:10 pm

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