Stephen Miller

AI researcher, startup cofounder, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: The Martian

In 2010, a documentary crew filmed my typical Friday night routine: spending hours alone in a robotics lab, red-eyed and disheveled and muttering about calibration errors. When Wiseman’s At Berkeley eventually came out, a handful of reviewers singled out that scene as a metaphor for dehumanizing curricula, an “amusingly literal parallel” for “the worry that students…are being turned into robots.” I still haven’t seen it. But what it must have failed to capture — or what I lacked the hindsight to emote — was that those frustrating, sleep-deprived nights were some of the best of my life. And possibly the least calculated, most reckless. Frat parties are a temporary fix. Collapsing on a pillow after five consecutive all-nighters in service of a few numbers in a last-minute conference submission — that’s what hedonism feels like. Problem solving is addictive.

Mike D’Angelo called The Martian the God’s Not Dead of science flicks, and I know exactly what he means: it’s totally a uncritical celebration of the drug of problem solving, meant less to make you think than evangelize. Maybe fifteen minutes in, all requisite exposition is already out of the way. Matt Damon is stranded on Mars. He’s been allotted some five minutes of what I’d assumed would be the core of the movie: repetition, loneliness, despair. Then, looking out at Camus’ vast, absurd nothing, he laughs. “Nah. I’m not gonna die here.” Cue disco and space potatoes.

From there on out, the film progresses as pure science porn; outlines of Gravity and Contact painted with a notably giddier brush. Like a point-and-click adventure game, we’re perpetually faced with seemingly unsurmountable challenges and just enough items in our inventory to surmount them. The message of the film is the very reason the space program exists: there’s always an answer hiding somewhere, and the collective spirit of humanity can never stop looking. To search for reason in an unreasonable universe.

All that probably sounds a bit After School Special, and to a cynical eye, it probably is: everything, from the wavelength of Watney’s emotional troughs to the precise demographic balance of the cast, is calculated to maximize its positive message. So why turn off that cynical part of me? It has a lot to do with Damon’s charisma: like Oscar Isaac from Ex Machina’s friendly doppelgänger, he brings the perfect blend of jock-y playfulness, self-deprecation, and nerd cred to the role. It turns the whole thing into a communal experience, complete with that genuine hero worship of classic movies: we, the audience, are huddled around the screen together. And we really want to bring our boy home.

I found this movie irresistible. If you’re hoping for a rumination on the bleak loneliness of space, look elsewhere: The Martian doesn’t spend much time in Gethsemane. But between M Night Shyamalan, Ridley Scott, and Pirate Blonde Beard of ARES III, it’s been a great month for resurrections.

See my review on Letterboxd

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