An otherwise outstanding movie is marred by the pervasive portrayal of men as complicated, three-dimensional beings versus women who exist mostly to nod their heads and smile.
Matt Damon of course is phenomenal. As NASA Astronaut Mark Watley, stranded on Mars after a mission gone bad, he breathes life into the role of a man whose training, ingenuity and attitude wind up saving his life.
Supported by an exceptional cast of men and women alike, Damon captures the soaring spirit upon which NASA itself was founded. On a broader level we can see the vision of President John F. Kennedy at work, one in which all of humankind work together to solve impossible problems, making life on Earth better for all.
Situated as it is in an environment of growing chaos and terror in the real world, “The Martian” offers a world-uniting way. Rather than competing, we can cooperate to solve the kinds of stubborn and pressing problems that keep all of us from realizing our dreams.
Solve one problem after another, one foot in front of the other, using all the skills at our disposal and all the creativity of the team, and we have a chance of making it.
Or as Watley says: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option. I'm gonna have to science the s**t out of this.”
Watching Damon’s performance, I couldn’t help but think of Sandra Bullock and her outstanding performance as Ryan Stone in “Gravity.” In both movies, we get to see through a normally impenetrable armor -- the carefully crafted persona of the scientist. We see them human, suffering, crying, racking their brains to survive while also preparing for an imminent death.
Unlike “Gravity,” however, the action in “The Martian” centers as much on the culture of NASA as on the astronaut - or at least that culture as director Ridley Scott imagines it.
And this is where the movie goes off the rails where gender is concerned. For the female characters in this movie, unlike the men, are nothing more than bobble heads, nodding at things the men say while periodically uttering a word or two.
Kristen Wiig as media relations chief Annie Montrose is the most obvious example. Why, oh why would you reduce such a powerful, versatile female character actress to a mannequin? There’s Annie, wearing a black suit without a turtleneck. There she is, with. Now she’s onstage at the press conference. Now she’s saying, “We’re not letting you in front of a microphone ever again.” And in the most degrading sequence, she actually has to stand there as a small object is flicked on her forehead during the course of a meeting with the NASA director.
It is not that the women in the movie occupy traditional female roles, low-level jobs, or are portrayed as crazy or incompetent. Thankfully those old Hollywood stereotypes aren’t here. It is that, unlike the men, the females are not granted the privilege of being human.
The men in this movie are all kinds of interesting. Here’s Jeff Daniels as NASA Director Teddy Sanders, dealing with the President, the media, and the scientists whose creativity make or break the program. He’s got mutiny from the one and genius from the other and has to keep his head on straight throughout.
There’s Sean Bean as Mitch Henderson, the head of the crew, who makes good decisions and bad decisions and is tormented by them all.
There’s Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, in charge of Mars Missions, trying desperately to save one man, confounded by the sheer number of variables involved in accomplishing that task while keeping the space program afloat at the same time.
On and on it goes...there’s Benedict Wong as Bruce Ng, head of the Jet Propulsion Lab, operating on a timeline that grows shorter by the day. As a character we are with him as he scratches his head and labors and sweats to do what is asked, trying not to reveal worry rising to the level of panic.
But the women are so simple, and untroubled, and bland. Jessica Chastain plays Melissa Lewis, head of the Mars crew. She is standard-issue “strong yet feminine” all the way, nothing surprising there and not one word comes out of her mouth that would surprise you. Kate Mara plays Beth Johanssen, “the geek” and the most interesting thing about her is a sexuality that seems unorthodox at first, but by the end is rather unsurprising.
On and on the story goes. It’s well-told, it’s exciting, it made me laugh and lifted my heart and more than once I cried.
But I walked out of the movie theater with a bad taste in my mouth, too. It’s the “woman problem,” that big blob of issues that seems to come up over and over again and just as frequently gets shoved aside.
Ridley Scott is a phenomenal director whose most notable characters inspire feminist dreams. Who can forget Demi Moore as the you-will-never-break-me Lieutenant Jordan O'Neil in “G.I. Jane?” Or Sigourney Weaver as the ultimate warrior hero in “Alien,” Warrant Officer/Lieutenant Ellen Ripley?
“The Martian” suffers from its lack of dimensional women. It’s not about affirmative action for the cast. It is about making art that speaks honestly to the viewer.
For me, the lack of human-ness in the representation of female characters in “The Martian” caused the movie to fall a bit flat.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.Federal communicator and co-founder, All Things Brand
Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a visionary thought leader, writer, speaker, social networker, federal communicator and co-founder of the best practices portal All Things Brand. She is the author of several books, including 125 Questions & Answers About Branding and Beyond Brand Transparency, and a regular contributor to such industry journals as BrandChannel and Journal of Brand Management. Blumenthal was formerly an executive at the Institute for Brand Leadership and Young & Rubicam’s The Intelligence Factory/Brand Futures Group. Within the federal government, she has spearheaded outreach campaigns and built brands across several agencies. All opinions are her own and do not reflect those of her agency or the federal government as a whole.