Defending my review of 'The Martian'

I wrote my first movie review for The Martian and I wonder if I’ve done it some disservice, although I think it is defensible (from myself, not anyone else). In a wonderful interview of Salman Rushdie published in Mint recently, the author says it’s not his responsibility to tell the truth or document history, but only to exercise his creative imagination. Similarly, it was never on Andy Weir or Drew Goddard (who wrote the script for the movie) to present a realistic picture of interplanetary space exploration in their works. But Weir did and that’s where the book scored.

My apparent disservice to the review was done in two ways: by repeatedly comparing the movie to the book, and by expecting the movie to be closer to the truth than an improbable adventure, which Ridley Scott, the director, is fond of transforming tales into. The book’s story progresses on Earth like a traditional novel and on Mars as a series of log entries that the stranded astronaut Mark Watney leaves in a video journal. The log entries are not available for every day but Watney/Weir provides for the gaps between them to be filled by hints at the end of previous log entry. As a result, the book presents a continuous picture of what Watney is up to. For me, that became a very important part of the book: the tedium. It provided a fullness to the story and was emotionally satisfying, too, especially to someone who’s spent the last few years covering many space stories and knows it to be a part of space-based lifestyles. Without the tedium, the story swings closer to fiction. Without the tedium, and while watching the movie, I constantly interrupted myself with questions about what Watney was doing while the plants grew, how he was able to put the trailer-rover together so quickly, etc.

Speaking for myself: the book was worth celebrating when it hit the mainstream press because it was different. It was awesome not because it was a science-fiction adventure set on Mars but because it was an adventure set on Mars. It brought humankind’s future journeys to Mars much closer home and situated the experience in plausibility, not freakishness. Scott, in my opinion, presented a movie that downplayed these aspects, leaving the audience with one overwhelming takeaway: Mark Watney survived for what seemed like a week on Mars while time flew faster on Earth as NASA went not-quite-berserk trying to bring a marooned man home.

I say “not-quite-berserk” for two reasons. In the book, I believe Weir was careful in choose Mark Watney’s personality to be goofily optimistic in order to circumvent the many psychological issues that could erupt when a man is forced to live it out on Mars for 500 days. But Goddard’s recreation isn’t quite Watney – Damon gets quite emotional in scenes where Watney didn’t, and is prone to soliloquising now and then. Such personality traits betray a person who’s a little less optimistic than Watney was and just that much more prone to a stronger psychological impact. In other words, there must be a trait-wise price to be able to soliloquise but Goddard/Damon take the liberty to be like Watney in some situations and like someone else in others. That doesn’t sit well.

Second, the casting of Sean Bean as an apologetic Mitch Henderson. I quote from my review, written for The Wire:

In the movie, Henderson is essayed by Hollywood’s favourite fall-guy, Sean Bean, who’s got more resignation wrought on his face than gumption. Spoiler alert: after the scene where he gets Commander Lewis and her crew to mutiny but is pulled up by Teddy for breach of procedure, Bean looks shifty and apologetic. In the book, Henderson’s giving Teddy the lowdown, which is more emotionally satisfying and likely closer to the truth for a man of Henderson’s character: a man given to taking risks with five astronauts on a half-planned rescue mission between the orbits of Earth and Mars. In fact, through all parts of the movie where NASA is involved, there’s not enough tension in the air, not enough of a clash of emotions, not enough sleeplessness.

With Henderson being what he was in the movie, there wasn’t enough of a drive for the conclusion to be reached at NASA, at least in the span and with the spirit that it did.

There’s one more reason, too, and though it may seem too stringent, I think it applies. Hollywood’s space-movies have been setting the tone of the genre with scientific accuracy, which I think is the right way to go because it does a world of good for the genre: by showing it’s possible for the story to be great without resorting to imaginative failures in the “fabric of science”. So, claiming to be accurate but then leaving out small things that could’ve been included implies Scott was willing to bend the story to fit traditional cinematographic attitudes that probably made it easier for him to recreate particular emotions. A couple instances:

  1. The huge dark-grey cloud that descends out of nowhere on the edges of the screen during thoughtful soliloquies – Mars is not known to have such dense cloud cover, much less an atmosphere that could support such large quantities of water vapour. However, their appearance did make for a ponderous mood.
  2. The groaning noises of metal grating against metal could be heard in space during the last few minutes of the film – This is impossible because space is a vacuum and can’t transmit sound. But when the audience gets to hear them, it makes for foreboding moments as a crew prepares to rescue Watney.

I’d have liked it if Scott had tried other ways to recreate the emotions (Gravity used the silence, remember?).

These are the reasons why I didn’t like the movie. While you may dismiss them as being defined by my intricate expectations, I do think it wasn’t losslessly done.

Metal, flesh and monochrome

Sunday Magazine
May 18, 2014

Hans Rudolf Giger, the Swiss artist who conceived of the alien xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), died on May 12 at the age of 84 in Zurich. Here was an artist who was not awkward, harboring no pretense of subtlety. Giger was an artist suckling on a vein of psychotic posthumanism like a fat, usurious pup. His influence on various artists and art-forms cannot be overstated. From Alejandro Jodorowsky to Ibanez, from Dune to Doom, from gamers to tattoo aficionados, Giger’s biomechanical fusion of metal, flesh and insipid monochrome was the perfect picture of the macabre.

It would be wrong to remember him for just Alien. The author of dozens of paintings, sculptures and lithographs as well, perhaps his most profound accomplishment was the surgical depiction of posthuman fetishes. His 1977 book Necronomicon, a compendium of his pictures, was breathlessly celebrated for the psychiatric grimoire that it was. At the same time, it was one of the first complete impressions of unhuman lifeforms – beaten in time only by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos from the 1930s – where creatures aspired not to be ape-like, not to present distended limbs in an effort to approximate familiarity, but were beings in their own right.

What better example of this idea than Necronom IV and V, the conceptual beings that inspired the xenomorph. The Necronom had no eyes, and only the mouth to give its face any semblance of being facial. At the same time, the way Giger assembled these beings into an iconoclastic portrayal of sanity – such as with Vlad Tepes (1978) and the dharmic horror that was Goho Doji (1987) – drew forth chills, sleepless nights and confused arousal from very-human adolescents. The faces in his paintings weren’t screaming. They were staring even while they were penetrated by translucent metal proboscises. They were existing for pain and confusion.

When Ridley Scott arrived for his first meeting at 20th Century Fox for Alien, he was shown Giger’s Necronomican. “I took one look at it,” he said, “and I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”

To look at them was to realize the composition of the human psyche was independent of the human body, that the human mind was frightened not by the disfiguration of familiarity – such as the image of a mangled corpse or by someone jumping out from behind the shower curtains – but by its reconfiguration. Giger put fear and gratification where they didn’t belong, and the product always had a sheen of otherworldly Gödelian inaccessibility. That even alien constructions could inspire empathy and distress was a disturbing revelation, if only for me. And no, I have not made it as a normal adult.

While cinema may have moved on from the genius of Giger, the best collaboration being The Last Megalopolis (1988) and the last Species (1995), he did not suffer from the same decline in prolificity or skill that artists are wont to after tinsel-town toss-outs. He seemed not to work toward the shock factor that the screen is adept at reproducing because his success lay in his ability to parallely evoke and inhere humankind’s tendency for abuse, a chronically relevant motif. Giger’s sculpture Birth Machine (1967) on display in the permanent museum dedicated to him in Gruyeres, Switzerland, stimulates this sensation of an existential vertigo, like the thematically similar Doodlebug (1997) by Nolan. Better yet, consider Aleph (1972), or Li I (1974), dedicated to Li Tobler, his partner from ‘66 until she killed herself in ‘75 – both potent with occultist interpretations.

Such images, rather experiments with the triggers of strangeness, populate the breadth of his work. Growing up in the Swiss town of Chur, where his father ran a pharmacy, Giger admitted to having been fascinated by dark alleys between buildings that he could see from his room’s window. He also had serial nightmares, and took to art first as therapy. No wonder then that his work is effortlessly visceral, drawing as it does from the inviting darkness that pervaded Chur’s alleyways.

Long live H.R. Giger.