By Gabrielle Marceau
In the Bourne trilogy, Matt Damon plays a stoically tortured semi human, and the void in his personality made space for a kind of pure capability and physical economy. He was a modernist uber mensch: unbridled strength and efficiency dissimulating a fragmented identity. But in Ridley Scott's new film, The Martian, Matt gets a lot of dialogue, and most of it is so unbearably smarmy you start to suspect he was left on Mars on purpose.
His body is still impressive in his old age, but he barely exerts himself and lumbers around his space station dragging solar panels and canisters back and forth like a middle aged dad doing yard work. Didn't we come to the cinema to escape reality?
The Martian is about Matt Damon, a member of the ARES III crew who was “accidentally” left on Mars when “presumed dead” by the rest of his team. Matt realizes he must extend the life support of the station from 300 days to 4 years until the ARES IV lands and he can be brought home. The rest of the film is a kind of montage of all the ways Matt and NASA have to “science the shit out of it”.
The Martian is old school but not in structure, more in tone. It moves forward at such a clip that any setback or obstacle is swiftly overcome with minimal drama or conflict. There’s no doubt that Matt will be rescued alive and the how is not particularly exciting. The sequence where Matt pulls a shard of metal out of his abdomen and staples the hole shut is the most embodied and affective, it also happens in the first five minutes. The Martian is like high stakes summer camp without any of the sexual energy, or as a friend said “an ad for how awesome it is to work at NASA”.
Strangely, the film invests no time into the psychological effects of Matt’s four year exile. He maintains his good spirits even after he runs out of ketchup. Matt is sustained by his love of science and discovery and the fact that he finds himself endlessly amusing. Only someone so self satisfied could tolerate his own company for four years without going completely mad.
There’s a palpable disappointment in everyone’s face when they find out Matt is still alive. He is a truly unlikable person who's utterly convinced of his own likability. He’s like Tom Cruise in real life; cheerful to the point of being off-putting, obsessed with space, possibly a virgin. How many turtlenecks do you think Matt owns back on earth? Somewhere in the Fox vaults there’s deleted footage of the Ares crew guiltily returning to rescue the eunuch Matt Damon, shaking their heads solemnly: “We were only joking about leaving him on Mars”. The truth is The Martian gives no real hint to Matt as a person, more like Matt as a personality. He’s the lego version of a scientist.
The Martian’s chipper optimism is destabilizing, and I kept waiting for the cynical shoe to drop: Is Matt the Truman Show esque pawn of an elaborate propaganda campaign? Will NASA Director Jeff Daniels shoot Flight Supervisor, Sean Bean in the back because he's in secret cahoots with some old school Soviets? But instead we get the only film where Sean Bean doesn't die. Even the stern looking members of the China National Space Association swiftly gift their technology to the Damon rescue mission. The Martian’s nods to globalism are pretty shallow, its romance is firmly located in America, or inside an Americanism that runs on ingenuity and heart and guff and bootstraps firmly pulled up. I mean, Matt survives because he manages to grow french fries in martian soil. He loves those potatoes more than he could love any human woman. Matt reminds me of Tintin, a character that had to be cleansed of all sexual desire in order to be a beacon of morality. Jessica Chastain is the most likely candidate for Matt’s love interest but she just seems exhausted at even the mention of his name. There’s enough hetero romance in the rest of the film to make up for this omission. The characters are paired off with such aggression, it seems as important to demonstrate their heteronormative adherence as it is to rescue Matt. Indeed, both are inextricable from the nationalist project.
The tagline of the film is Bring Him Home, it doesn’t specify whether or not he should be alive. Once Matt is able to communicate with earth over a rudimentary chat platform, his conversations with NASA are eerie, like the light from stars that died long ago. Matt is already dead in the sense that his life (and the stuff of it: experiences, choices, potential) has been distilled down to what his body can carry as a nationalist symbol. He is property, and we know how Americans feel about people that fuck with their property. It’s inconceivable that the American public would lose Matt’s matter to a planet that resists colonization. Matt returned can be forgotten but Matt left on Mars would be a ghost fucking up NASA funding for all eternity and reminding Americans of their embarrassing interplanetary defeat. Animated or not, we want to keep our bodies within our borders. It’s a lot of significance to rest on Matt’s broad shoulders and the film undercuts it at every single opportunity.
The Martian is the most spectacularly miscast film of the year, each performance feels like a cameo. Ridley Scott is like the girl who thinks her party will be good as long as all the cool kids show up. But parties are more subtle than that, they require a lighter touch. The actors are selected and directed almost mathematically. For gravitas: Jeff Daniels + Jessica Chastain. For warmth: Chiwetel Ejiofor + Michael pena. For laughs: Donald Glover + Kirtsen Wiig, the latter of which is not given a single joke and approaches every scene like she’s being called onto the stage at a particularly bad improv show. Donald Glover plays the astrodynamicist Rich Purnell by doing his Abed impression.
The Martian has been frequently compared to Interstellar, a film I loved the first watch and even more the second. Where Interstellar aimed for awe, The Martian aims for arch. And while its plot is often ridiculous, Interstellar provided the opportunity to feel about things that I have no proof exist, to experience things I never could for real. The Martian is more concerned with small scale and technical detail. The film frequently divest space technology of any magic or beauty, leaving its most rudimentary and accessible parts (which, when broken, can usually be fixed with fucking duct tape). It’s plausible sure, but pleasurable? The climactic scene where Commander Jessica struggles to reel Matt in by an orange tether is about as impressive as that time Homer Simpson ate chips in zero gravity. It's also the single time I laughed. Interstellar could muster up elegant and affective images, like the planet which is barren save for a gigantic rolling wave. The Martian has some beautiful backdrops.
I wish Matt had been left up there because there’s beauty in accepting that death is unknowable and our bodies uncontainable; our lives finite, our matter infinite. I also think it's unjust that future generations of astronauts will feel obliged to indulge Matt and his terrible new haircut, semi drunk at the NASA holiday mixer, telling the story of that time on Mars. Eventually you have to learn when to leave the party.