What’s so bad about mechanics? I think I said this sentence so many times that it became an aesthetic mantra. I fell into deep zen trances as the kinetic energy of the question brought me closer and closer to cinematic moksha. Descending upon me was oneness with strange, almost religious sentiments behind the film industry’s magic mystique for creating transcendent visual bliss somewhere between viewer predilections and industry satiation (in dollars, of course… spirit be damned).
Mechanics, I think, what’s so bad about a movie that puts all their money on mechanics?
Many times I find myself neck-deep in a lost cause. I’ve given up trying to convince folks that Hail Caesar is anything but some kind of performance art piece by the Coen Brothers (I still hold onto the chance that it’s a Lebowski-sized diamond in the rough but I’m losing faith, folks.) But listen, The Martian is a movie that I’ll draw a line on. There’s a certain thrill I receive in seeing a movie that tells a mechanically-sound story.
Now, what do I mean by mechanics and why do I think they hold more weight than the other fine films this year (some up for and some just missing the Oscar’s timeline)?
In particular, I’m referring to a certain sensation that I feel after seeing any particular act done in a holistic manner. “Hokey” might be a word some people use. “Sincerity” is one that I like to use. In fact, “sincerity” is the one I’m going to push on you because it’s most often confused for “hokey” and “sardonic”. This last word is one that The Martian, I think, verges on, but verges on only in light of a particular cultural outlook that thrives on suppressing an aspect of reality that may be too emotionally and/or intellectually draining for some people to risk any type of self-investment in.
Andy Weir is by no means Ray Bradbury, although I can feel The Brad-man’s presence in his work. The Martian’s narrative is about as dry as the sand that dots the red planet’s surface. It’s not about atmosphere though. Bradbury didn’t exactly create atmosphere; however, he had an incredibly creative mind. Content and not style was his forte. That’s where Andy Weir’s novel (and Ridley Scott’s film) pair up. Kindred spirits these guys. They share a gesture that I can only describe politely as a forward thrust. A movie that does not turn to look at itself but bares itself as a storytelling machine openly, honestly.
Let me explain this a bit better.
Take Spotlight (a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed) and The Big Short (a movie that left me depressed for my financial future as an American). Spotlight’s cinematography was incredibly predatory. Viewers watch characters constantly from behind as they move through labyrinthine spaces. The Big Short broke the fourth wall about forty million times; it seemed bent on demonstrating the absurdity of the financial misdeeds leading to the 2008 collapse as so absurd that they are unable to be told in anything but a rootless, quantum narrative. These were both incredibly serious subjects and the same sort of sardonic tone permeated whatever “sincerity” the movie tried to convey.
In Spotlight, sincerity becomes a creepy, haunting presence. The movie almost can’t get over itself. Reviews itself over and over in the mirror and wonders if it really got itself right. In The Big Short, Adam McKay is deeply terrified of sincerity ruining the pace of Michael Lewis’ book about the 2008 collapse and falls back on pop culture referential OCD that seems to have studied a page or two from Seth MacFarlane’s playbook.
Now, back to mechanics. Seems sort of banal? Yes, perhaps. The majority of The Martian’s shots are still and panoramic. The dialogue is robotic, explanatory. Characters are developed as much as they need to be IN ORDER to support the thrust of the story. No more. The story screams for theatrics, for all-the-stops-pulled out. For a love affair! For crying children! Give me Armaggedon! Give me Deep Impact! Give me Gravity!
But all those movies are painfully aware that they’re looking at themselves. They’re constantly occluding the storyline in order to feed us with colouring that may or may not be wanted or helpful.
The Martian resists the pull. Its acting, dialogue, cinematography and score create what I most long for in a science fiction movie: banality. It’s incredible. To create banality that’s not only intriguing but aesthetically pleasing is an incredibly difficult task. What Ridley Scott does in The Martian is akin to what Jane Austen does in Sense and Sensibility: extrapolating the utter beauty of the mundane, the quotidian as essential to the work of the whole.
Now, the fact that this is done in the context of an undeniably shocking event: the first human mission to Mars and the stranding of an astronaut on said planet. Scott successfully combines these two iconoclastic ideas, producing a movie that satisfies the joyous, centrifugal impulse of exteriority’s largeness as well as the infinitesimal details of the interiority, domestic, centripetal energy that creates characters by enlivening the space around them.
Coming from the periphery and colouring in.
By the end of the movie, we see Matt Damon’s Mark Watney not according to other characters but in relation to himself. He is a piece of a moving machinery. A story that builds itself in front of us. Not one that blatantly tries to pulls our heart out over and over. It’s working class push. A genuine class of story above sappy distractions of over-characterization and character relationships that suck energy from the core message and movement of the story. That’s different than any movie this year and that’s why The Martian should win best picture.