A highlight episode of the sorely missed sitcom Party Down placed the crew of caterers at actor Steve Guttenberg’s house for an impromptu birthday party. Among the drinks, music, and merriment, aspiring screenwriter Roman (Martin Starr) and his writing partner (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) stage a live-reading of their latest script.

Roman prizes the purity of his commitment to ‘hard sci-fi’, a distinction marked by its adherence to fact and exhaustive scientific research. As such, his script skimps on depth of character and simple motivation within the story, instead thickly laying on the technobabble. In response to a script packed with nonsense about nitrogen levels and triangulation points, the Gute gently advises Roman:

“Are science fiction and heart mutually exclusive? One word: Cocoon.”


If he’s not too busy starring in the TV-movie franchise of Lavalantula (which is about tarantulas that can shoot lava), Guttenberg could probably get work as a script doctor for Ridley Scott.

The maestro of sci-fi has been on a slight downward slide over his past few films, delivering somewhat lackluster showings in his bland Robin Hood, the sporadically affecting but overall shaky Prometheus, oddball experiment The Counselor, and last year’s disastrous Exodus: Gods and Kings. 2015 sees Scott unveiling another ambitious science-fiction epic in the tradition of Alien and Blade Runner with The Martian, an adaptation of the popular novel from Andy Weir. And while the film’s technical proficiency renders the surface of Mars with a gobsmacking fidelity — it really looks like Matt Damon’s choking on space dust! — it still suffers from the same issue that plagued Roman’s unproduced script.

Scott’s new space opus is all science and no fiction, foregrounding the nuts and bolts of its premise and allowing the film’s reason for existence to fall by the wayside in the process.

Matt Damon stars in the film as astronaut Mark Watney, a smug Top Gun type with an ego made even larger by his ability to leave Earth’s gravitational pull. That dauntless faith in himself ends up as his saving grace when he’s inadvertently left behind on Mars by a crew under the impression that he’s died during a big dust storm.

With the place-setting out of the way, Scott leaves the audience with a drive-to-survive narrative in territory more hostile than ever, where the outside world itself violently rejects any and all life. Weir’s novel spares no expense when laboriously cataloguing the MacGuyverish means that Watney contrives to keep his ass alive until NASA can return for him# and Scott adheres to the source material with perhaps too much faithfulness.

We learn of the creative small-scale terraforming by which Watney enables the growth of potatoes on Mars. We learn how much various parts of a spaceship weigh, we learn the battery life of a interplanetary rover, and we learn how long exposed lungs can withstand the unfriendly Mars atmosphere before a total collapse. What we do not learn is who Mark Watney is, or why any of us should give a shit whether he lives or dies.


That sounds cold, but only because the vast majority of films understand that this is the most vital concern when telling a story of the struggle to evade death. We take for granted that a film knows enough to flesh out its main character to the point that he resembles an actual human being, and when it fails to do so, we learn just how minimal our baseline investment in a character’s fate really is. Dramatists flap a lot of gum about dramatic stakes, a higher-minded way of saying that the audience needs to care about the fate of the characters onscreen, if only a little, so that what happens to them can retain some emotional heft. Imagine if 127 Hours had killed half of its runtime by expounding on the advantages of the exact make and model of the knife James Franco used to cut his arm off, and then spent the second half showing Franco selecting an optimal point on his arm to make the first incision.

No critic should begrudge the people their right to love science. In fact, loving science has become surprisingly trendy as of late; the “I fucking love science” Facebook group numbers over 22 million strong while the likes of Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson have amassed cult followings as sizable as they are passionate. There’s a simple pleasure to be taken in seeing how cool shit in nature works, though the purists among us will indignantly note that there’s more to science than gaping at neat-o pictures of cosmos.


The trouble is that simple factoids and explanations lack the core elements that make up a story, and transform a series of images into a narrative. Human elements elevate otherwise arbitrary conversations and actions into the realm of art; as Guttenberg reminds us, heart and science are not mutually exclusive.

To gain an emotional foothold in any film, the viewer needs a personal point of entry to the action. Even though a presumably small number of audience members have actually traveled to space, they should be able to access the fear and desperation of Watney’s tribulations. (After all, everyone knows hardship.) But instead of providing any compelling argument for why this should work, The Martian goes all in on showing how.

A $108 million budget, and all Scott’s done is produce How It’s Made: Life on Mars Edition.