[Updated – see second paragraph]
Amy and I joined my good friend Lou this weekend to see The Martian. This isn’t a review. Let me just say it is a wonderful movie, which I enjoyed greatly.
What this post is about is a quick comparison between The Martian and last year’s science fiction film Interstellar. I’ve already written about my disappointment with that film. If anything, seeing The Martian made my contempt for Interstellar even deeper. Let’s just start with the fact that The Martian was lightyears ahead of Interstellar in scientific plausibility. [Update: Even rocket scientists agree — see here.] I’m not a physicist, so my opinion on this matter may not hold as much water as some others, but I rarely had one of those “yeah, right” moments viewing The Martian, whereas I had a large box of Milk Duds worth of scoffs at the so-called science in Interstellar.
Both movies are ultimately about the same thing: Measuring the size of the human heart on the instrument of the universe. Interstellar warped logic and reason, generating absurd paranormal babble in order to convince us of the power of our will to love and live and thrive. In that process it actually undermined its own message: The filmmakers weren’t even smart enough or ambitious enough to tell this story and stick to something that might actually happen. That’s okay in a fantasy film. It isn’t in a movie that claims to be grounded in science. The resolution to Interstellar was cloaked in some kind of quantum physics mysticism that was, frankly, laughable.
Interstellar also gave us a dead Earth, ruined by humans (apparently, though what has caused the planet to die is never really discussed). The plot is sterile and cynical: Mankind’s fate rests in the hands of one man.
In contrast, The Martian is the story of the world pulling together to save the life of just one man stranded on a distant planet. The heroes are scientists and astronauts and even political bureaucrats desperately trying to do something remarkable. They are smart, resourceful people, people who actually understand science and how the universe really works. Their success is inspiring exactly because it isn’t fabulous or fantastical. It is simply possible (only, of course, if we stop eschewing science in favor of bullshit mysticism) and that’s what makes it inspiring.
The short of it is this: The Martian is the anti-Interstellar.
Interesting side note: Both films feature Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, though The Martian uses the two of them much more satisfactorily.