The Martian (2015)


“An imitation of an action that is (not) serious?”

In a petulant snit in accordance with the boy-men in his movies, director Judd Apatow recently whined about The Martian winning a Golden Globe award for best comedy. The strange categorization of science-fiction was a clever marketing maneuver by 20th Century Fox to allow Ridley Scott’s film to win a best picture award that it most certainly would not have in the crowded field of serious dramas. However, outrage at The Martian stealing an award is not the most productive critical response to this odd turn of events. The concept of genre itself is what we should hold in contempt. What the marketers at Fox did was nothing new: genre in Hollywood cinema has always been associated more with economics than sound critical theory. In Thomas Schatz’s useful formulation, genre is a contract between filmmakers and their audiences: If you liked Dracula (released in February 1931), you’ll like this new one, Frankenstein (released in November 1931). They are, after all, both about monsters, shot on the same Universal soundstages.

The Martian is an intriguing case study for the complexities of contemporary film genre. The film’s source is an inexplicably popular piece of fan fiction by Andy Weir, presumably a good engineer but a very bad creative writer. His novel begins in diary format but then shifts to a third person omniscient voice for no reason other than narrative necessity. The short journal entries read like a vicious assault on As I Lay Dying (1930), but without the grandiose pretensions of Faulknerian world building. The film delivers some funny moments based on Weir’s conceits, the best devoted to the absent commander’s disco music collection, which threatens to drive the central protagonist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) insane far before he’s done in by the barren conditions on Mars.

In The Poetics, Aristotle claims that comedy is the imitation of an action that is not serious. What makes something serious for Aristotle is merely social class: tragedy is stuff that happens to important people, comedy is what happens to the rest of us. In this foundational definition, not only is The Martian a comedy because it ends happily, with the US and Chinese space programs triumphant, but indeed so are a great preponderance of all Hollywood films. Because of their desperate attempt to appeal to the largest audience possible, Hollywood films pretend to be telling us the story of everyday people in extraordinary circumstances.

Because of the theoretical bankruptcy of genre theory, much film criticism remains trapped in monolithic ways of thinking about how movies work. The discursive frameworks given to us by marketing departments often impede our understanding, but the hamstringing of high school or college English classrooms is just as deadening to discovering new ways of thinking about narrative.

Ridley Scott helmed the great triumph of the mature American science-fiction film, Blade Runner (1982), a generic recombination of science fiction and film noir. However, his earlier film, Alien (1979) also hybridized science fiction to a different genre, the slasher variant of the American horror film. The script for Alien by Dan O’Bannon reworks his earlier student film script, made into a feature by John Carpenter as Dark Star (1974), a parody of science-fiction movies, and indeed much funnier than The Martian.

Scott recently revisited Alien in a prequel, Prometheus (2012), a ponderous film about the nature of human evolution. I think The Martian, for Ridley Scott if certainly not for Andy Weir, is a kind of inversion to that serious re-visitation of Alien, a light-hearted film that drains away the horror components, replacing them with comedy. In her essay, “Body Genres, “ film theorist Linda Williams argues that Hollywood genre films are interrelated in that they produce bodily visceral effects: horror makes one scream, while comedy makes one laugh. In Aristotle’s terms, these films produce emotional catharsis, expressed via calming bodily functions.

We can use Alien as a reading frame for The Martian to better explain the replacement of horror with comedy, a far most interesting maneuver than Fox trying to make more money by winning a phony, self-congratulatory award. The titles of both films are presented with horizontal strokes creating the slowly forming letters, set amidst a science-fiction backdrop, deep space in the case of Alien, the red, dusty surface of Mars in The Martian.

By the end of The Martian, composer Harry Gregson-Williams layers in music cues quoting Jerry Goldsmith’s original score for Alien. The isolated horns that conveyed the loneliness of deep space in the earlier film now emphasize Mark’s isolation as he prepares to ascend from the surface of Mars to reunite with his crewmates, who have returned to save him. To discard the excess weight of the space capsule, NASA has him remove the nose cone and replace it with a flimsy tarp. “Are you {bleeping} kidding me,” Mark responds, quoting the human’s desperate encounters with the monster in Alien. The monstrous in The Martian is merely the unknown, easily overcome by human ingenuity. The new film thus veers dramatically away from the dominant dystopian tradition of science fiction, best represented in contemporary film by Alien and Blade Runner. Instead, the film comes to inhabit the world of Star Trek and Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995), triumphalist narratives about mankind’s abilities to explore the deepest recesses of the unknown.

The films interrogate the opposition between human isolation and community. The dystopian films depict the corruption of community: Ripley alone survives to defeat the single alien; Deckard is on his own hunting the murderous replicants, only to be set free by the benificent act of freewill that is Roy Batty’s transcendent death. Conversely, the deathly elements of Mars serve as the only antagonist in The Martian. Mark’s fellow astronauts, the workers at NASA, and even the Chinese space agency, without debate or conflict, all rally to the aid of the stranded astronaut.
More is at stake in The Martian’s generic conversion than Judd Apatow not winning an award: the very ideological dynamics of the science-fiction film have been realigned. The dystopian tragedies of science fiction have been replaced by jingoistic celebrations, a celestial singing of Kumbaya. Even Aristotle’s tenets cease to pertain: comedy’s interest in everyday people has been abandoned by the film’s celebration of the experts who cannot solve the ecological collapse of the Earth, but can rescue a man from Mars. I’m afraid this human comedy might be more serious than Aristotle led us to believe.

–Walter Metz