On Friday, both Joshua (JA Prentice) and I went to see Ridley Scott’s The Martian in theatres. I had read the book, (and wrote a review about it!) he had not. We do, however, both love science-fiction and critiquing things. After a brief odyssey involving the world’s most specifically placed and inconveniently timed traffic-jam which forced us to watch a slightly later, slightly more expensive viewing, we settled in and watched the movie that’s taking the world by storm.
Afterwords, we wrote up our thoughts on the movie based on five components: The writing, the characters, the directing, the acting, and finally we compared it to the other movie where Matt Damon is stranded on an alien planet: Interstellar. A comparison picked because it seems inevitable that The Martian and Interstellar will become film rivals in the future, with cinephiles forced to take a side just as they have with Tangled vs Frozen, Forrest Gump vs Pulp Fiction, and Saving Private Ryan vs Shakespeare in Love.
For those who have not yet seen the movie (or Interstellar), there are SPOILERS ahead.
Our thoughts on the writing:
Joshua: I have mixed feelings on the script. I liked the way Whatney’s problem-solving was portrayed, presenting the issues and then explaining the solutions. It was just technical enough to make sense without being boring. A lot of the scenes felt really suspensful, which is partly down to the writing and partly down to the directing. The humorous stuff fell flat for me. A couple of the lines were good, but none of them were laugh-out-loud funny. For the most part this wasn’t a huge issue. However, it really ruined the big finale for me. In the middle of this high-tension scene, Whatney decides to poke a hole in his suit and “fly around like Iron Man.” It looked exactly as absurd as it sounds and almost ruined the climax of the film. So I definitely have a mixed reaction.
Jaden: I’ll start by saying the screenwriters were working with a source material I previously described as needing “an inkling of emotion or psychological punch” and “more like a math problem than a story.” So the writers were obviously stuck in the situation where they had to either make the story their own, or stick to what they knew was popular and make a faithful adaptation. In the end they decided to be faithful, and so the writing has some of the same issues as the book. I did find some of the humor didn’t translate quite as well on screen, but the math and numbers stuff came across better and less tedious. Basically though, it’s not exactly a strong point or weak point in the movie. It won’t really be looked at for its writing either way down the road. I will say that the ending was the only scene rewritten from the book, and while I think I liked it better than the book, it still wasn’t quite right. Come to think of it, “better than the book but still not quite right” sums up my thoughts on the whole.
Joshua: I would second all that except I didn’t read the book.
Joshua: This is the weakest area of the film for me. All the characters are pretty flat. Even Whatney has little depth. We know little about him except that he has a sense of humor and can do science. There was one scene where he talks about his parents, which was good, but we needed a little more of that. The other characters were even less developed. I could tell you very little about any of them. Most of their strength came from the actors playing them, who did their best to elevate the material. None of them were downright irritating, but I couldn’t really connect with them. I didn’t have a sense of who they were as people and what it was that drove them.
Jaden: God damn it we have to stop agreeing. Yes, the characters are the weakest part of both the film and book. They even took the one character on earth (literally) that had a personality in the book and made her a non character. (Annie.) While they weren’t stock characters, they were more like character outlines, incomplete manifestations to be fixed at a later date. Again, I want to fault the author here, but the guys at Cinemasins would tell me “the book doesn’t matter.” And yes, the screenwriters definitely didn’t expand the characters very much.
Joshua: I think the fault does still lie with the screenwriters ultimately as they could have chosen to fix the characters, but they didn’t. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a sin of omission.
Jaden: I think that’s the best way to approach it, yeah.
Joshua: And this is where my thoughts take a much more positive turn. Ridley Scott is an amazing director. Alien alone puts him in my upper tier of filmmakers. He definitely delivers some stunning visuals here. Every shot of Mars is breathtaking. He makes this alien world seem both real and fantastical at the same time. I don’t doubt for a second that I’m really seeing Mars. I forget that it’s all special effects. The action was really tense, which definitely came at least in part from Scott’s directing. The storm and the final rescue were particular standouts. The former was chaotic and disorienting, really showing the fear and confusion the astronauts experienced. The latter managed to work despite having one of the stupidest ideas I’ve seen in action film (Wow. That’s really saying a lot.) I can only chalk that up to Scott’s skill as a director. Basically, I want Ridley Scott to make films of my books. How much more do you think I need to praise him before he’ll consider it?
Jaden: First off, I’M the one who’s redrafting a sci-fi novel so Ridley Scott directs MY movie, damn it! And second off, while you’re definitely more knowledgeable in the directing department I still know enough to comment on it. I agree that I liked the directing, lots of shots I liked, and the visuals alone elevate the movie above the book because there’s no freaking visuals in the novel… I also didn’t totally *notice* his direction if that makes any sense. Sometimes a movie’s director shoots the movie in a way that goes “look at me! look at my directing skillz!” and this one didn’t. Scott simply gave us some bomb ass shots of space and mars.
Joshua: I like the technical terminology there.
Jaden: I believe it was Kubrick who invented the “bomb ass shots of space” technique.
Joshua: I felt that a lot of the shots of the Hermes were very “Kubrick.” Of course, every space movie since 2001 has been influenced by Kubrick. (editor’s note: Including Interstellar, which will be discussed later, and feature some actual disagreement!)
Jaden: I, conversely, am not a fan of Interstellar. Though I don’t strictly dislike it, I definitely don’t like it either. Both films feature great shots and visuals, and that coupled with the cast is why they’re inevitably going to be compared. I will give Interstellar credit for having the two best acting performances (McCoughnahey and Foy) and the best emotional scene between the two. However, Nolan’s rambling, saccharine script and use of what I see as stock characters predictably getting killed off one by one irritate me. I also feel like my favorite character, Young Murph, becomes just as vanilla as the other backing characters after the time jump. Nolan clearly bit off more than he could chew, though the ambition in Interstellar is admirable. The Martian’s adherence to real life science may even cause it to be rendered obsolete sometime soon, in the way Jules Verne is.
And you’re right, Interstellar is an epic, it’s trying to be strange and out-there in the way 2001 was. The Martian is more like Apollo 13. All that said, I give The Martian the edge, the difference being how much I disliked Interstellar’s script. I think we can agree though: Keep Matt Damon the hell away from space.
Joshua: Clearly once we formed a blog, we became part of a hive mind. Dissent is no longer tolerated.