The Space Trilogy
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Cinematically speaking, this is undoubtedly (has been for quite some time) the era of the super-hero film. Yet – and although the genre never went out of fashion – a renewed interest in science fiction is lately patent, especially in the sub-genre directly related to space travel. Whether this is somehow impacted by recent developments (see the plans for Nasa’s Journey to Mars), it is difficult to say. But it is possible to consider, in retrospect, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Gravity, Christopher Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar, and this year’s The Martian by Ridley Scott as forming a trilogy of sorts where general subject matter is concerned.
Film criticism (as any other sort of criticism) is a largely self-referential area of human activity: people write about movies and in the process they also write about themselves, communicating their opinions, beliefs and worldview. I do not claim therefore to offer any objective views on the three films mentioned above – rather, I intend to argue that The Martian is a far superior film than the other two, and explain why I happen to think so.
As far as Gravity is concerned, I have never found myself more in agreement with a film critic, as I have with Richard Brody‘s review: “It’s hard to recall a movie that’s as viscerally thrilling and as deadly boring as Gravity, a colossal and impressive exertion of brain power aimed at overriding – at obviating – the use of brain power”. Although the movie clocks in at 91 minutes, I found myself looking at my watch during Sandra Bullock’s grand dramatic scene. Gravity‘s remarkable technical achievement is overshadowed by its trite dialogue (mostly between co-stars Bullock and George Clooney) and the story’s implausibility (why send a clearly suicidal person to a mission in space?). Strangely, whereas death figures prominently in the background story of the main character and serves as justification for her (re)actions, the film steers clear of meditating on the subject and limits itself on stating the obvious: the will to survive trumps the desire of death. Conclusion comes in the way of heavy-handed and obvious symbolism, with Sandra Bullock’s character ‘rebirth’ depicted with crawling out of the water at the end of the film, much as life forms must have done when they first evolved millions of years ago (a concept reminiscent of Mark Whalberg’s egg-shaped spacecraft crashing into the water in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes). Nevertheless, Cuarón deservedly won his Oscar as best director (and for co-editing), but rightly lost the best picture award to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (a movie that was so much more than simply ‘politically correct’).
Similarly, the core of Interstellar is emotional: while Gravity is an allegory of the will to live that overcomes tragedy, Interstellar is an allegory of love and a hymn to human connectivity over time and (literally) space. Unfortunately, the movie only gains momentum after the first hour, and the stunning three-dimensional construction of time/space towards the end does not compensate for its insufferable sentimentality and its questionable ‘love will conquer all’ message (disguised in scientific terms). Despite the plodding script by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, one has got to recognize that Interstellar is a film of much greater ambition than Gravity, although in the end it collapses under the weight of its own self-importance. Grandiose where it should be awe-inspiring, it displays a constant in Nolan’s work, a need that manifests itself as a conceptual weakness. In trying to say something of profound importance, the director/writer ends up uttering platitudes. Suffice to compare Interstellar with Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 Contact, where the themes of love, death and faith, are not only conveyed in an effective and memorable way, but – more importantly – where the wonder of science and space travel get their due.
Which brings me to the reason of The Martian‘s superiority over either Gravity or Interstellar – even though the films don’t set out to achieve similar or even comparable aims. Both Cuarón (focusing on the technical side of its representation) and Nolan (who uses it as a necessary device to advance the plot) fail to convey the wonder, the sense of purpose and the possibilities afforded by space travel. Although I am a devotee of dystopian science fiction (District 9 and Looper being by far the best recent samples), and Ridley Scott has excelled in the genre, directing what is probably its most significant and representative film (Blade Runner), I appreciated The Martian precisely for its positive depiction of (the future of) science. To put it differently, The Martian is the first film ever that provided – this viewer at least – with a credible portrayal of why the hell humans would risk their lives (not to mention spend billions) to go into space. Scott manages to capture not only the thrill of being into space, but also to convincingly communicate the desire to do so, the dedication it takes to accomplish it and the belief that this is an effort that is worthy of sacrifice and bigger than any individual. The collective work of scientists to bring the stranded Matt Damon home (who turns in a terrific performance) could be cinematically compared to Apollo 13 – although I admit I had found it impossible to be engaged by Ron Howard’s earlier film.
There is another aspect to the film though, expressive of a larger life philosophy. Matt Damon’s actions are fueled by more than his instinctive, and universally shared, drive to stay alive. They stem from a stubborn denial to be overcome by the odds even when they are stacked against you, and from a deep-seated conviction in the ability of science to provide solutions.* This optimistic view, which may be deemed naive by some, penetrates and elevates the entire film. The utter loneliness of being the only person on an entire planet, transmitted visually by Scott’s sweeping vistas of red desert, is mitigated by the camaraderie displayed on earth and by an unshakeable faith. It may not be faith in god (lacking, as in the atheist world of Blade Runner), or even humanity in general (think of the nihilistic Counselor), but it is a faith that is uplifting and life-saving.
* It is not coincidental that Scott was the executive producer, along with his late brother Tony, of the TV procedural Numb3rs, where math was put to practical use (specifically, to aid the police with solving crimes).