Film Reviews

The Shallows Vs. The Martian – When Is A Thematically Relevant Backstory Unnecessary?

Spoiler alert for The Shallows, The Martian, Gravity, & Cast Away

Steven Spielberg once said that in the best movies someone “loses control [of his/her life] and then somehow has to regain it.” Isn’t it funny, though, how in certain movies the character has some definitive past trauma which dramatically informs their attempts to regain control? For example, in Gravity Sandra Bullock isn’t just an astronaut stranded in space; she’s a woman who has lost a child. To get away from truly dealing with that, she’s traveled about as far away as any human physically can.

And we, the audience, are bombarded with symbolic womb-like imagery as a reminder.

Similarly, in The Shallows Blake Lively’s not some random, supermodel-gorgeous surfer attacked by a shark and stranded on a temporary island with a pesky seagull; she’s someone who recently lost a mother to cancer. The related trauma caused her to quit medical school and run off to a far away part of the world which had sentimental value for her mom. Her father begs her over phone to honor her mother by fighting rather than quitting, but she tables that conversation for later and paddles out into deceptively dangerous waters. Life (or, more accurately, the screenplay written by Anthony Jaswinski) throws an inciting incident at her (the shark attack) which makes her internal conflict external. Now she has the choice to give up and die or literally fight to survive and honor her mother’s memory.

It’s very telling that the film does not end when Lively defeats the shark and floats to the shore. It ends after a one year time jump to her standing on a beach with her younger sister, preparing to head out into the ocean where she’ll finally teach her sister how to surf. In the year since the attack, her leg has healed, and she has graduated from medical school. She’s ready to move forward without fear, unwilling to let the attack deter her from facing the symbolic uncertainty of the ocean with anything other than courage and conviction.

640x360-pqQWe go on that journey with her so that we can cheer when she finally has her “I am not dying today” moment, so memorably punctuated by Lively defiantly aiming a flare gun at the oncoming shark and shouting, “Fuck you!” Maybe we’re not even consciously aware of the way the script has manipulated us into feeling that way, though. Maybe some people are too busy staring at Lively’s exposed body since she’s in a bikini for the whole film, and director Jaume Collet-Serra needlessly indulges the male gaze on a couple of occasions. Maybe others are just there to see some human vs. shark action, our appetites primed for such conflict since we are currently in the national holiday that is Shark Week. Maybe others scoff at the mere notion that The Shallows has a script worth mentioning since the film is clearly just an 86-minute B-movie about a girl fighting a shark.

However, Jaswinski’s script is actually quite classical in its very basic structure:

  • The hook. A boy playing with his soccer ball near a shore comes upon clear evidence of a shark attack: a splintered surfboard and a go-pro adorned helmet with obvious shark bite marks. Flash to one day earlier.
  • The backstory. We meet the main character being driven to the beach and learn about her dead mother.
  • The inciting incident. The girl is attacked by a shark after investigating a dying whale.
  • The midpoint. Two surfers are killed by the shark in front of the girl.
  • The crisis. A nearby boat fails to see her flare gun, thus proving to her that there will be no rescue. To survive, she has to kill this damn shark herself, which sets up the final showdown.
  • The realization. The one-year time jump to her having finished medical school and heading out into the ocean again, emboldened to always fight and never give up.

But if we don’t have that traumatic backstory about her mom then there’s not as much emotional engagement with the film because otherwise it really is just some girl fighting a shark. In a survival movie like this, simply surviving is rarely the main thrust of the story for the protagonist. It’s what their literal survival will symbolically represent on their journey which matters and resonates with audiences.

Jaswinski’s not exactly subtle about it, either. Lively spends most of the film on a temporary island with a seagull which has a clipped wing, its injury mirroring both her physical and emotional state. This seagull becomes her far more real version of Wilson from Cast Away, i.e., the necessary sounding board which allows her inner thoughts to become external.

the-martian-clip-let-s-do-the-math-e1442950735603-840x366In The Martian, Matt Damon isn’t given an inanimate object or a pet to talk to. Instead, he makes mission update video diaries, thus allowing the screenwriter (Drew Goddard) to use the film’s protagonist to frequently spell everything out for us. It’s through this device that we get the movie trailer moment of Damon’s Mark Watney pledging to “science the shit out of this” to survive.

But think back on The Martian and ask yourself this: By the end of the film, how much do we actually know about Mark Watney? Um, he’s an ingenious botanist. Meets adversity head-on with solutions and a positive attitude. Hates disco. Loves his parents enough to create a goodbye video for them should he not make it.

That’s about it. He’s a likable, genial guy with absolutely no thematically relevant backstory dramatically informing his actions. He is someone who lost control of his life and took it back, but why do we care outside of the basic human decency of not wanting to see a seemingly good person die?

Cast_Away_2763980cWhen The Martian came out it was often referred to as “Cast Away in space,” but the comparisons are only superficial. Both films involve stranded male protagonists adapting to their surroundings and conquering nature as best they can, and Matt Damon carries The Martian similar to Tom Hanks and Cast Away. However, The Martian is not about Mark Watney in the same way Cast Away is about Chuck Noland (i.e., Hank’s character).

Chuck is a man obsessed with control and time through his job as a systems engineer for FedEx, but his commitment to his job is such that he hasn’t yet made the time to marry his long-time girlfriend (Helen Hunt). Once he’s on the island, though, as Roger Ebert put it, “Chuck, the time-and-motion man, finds himself in a world without clocks, schedules, or much of a future.” The island will either remake him or kill him, and the situation speaks directly to who he is and what he needed to change in his life. His four years on the island ultimately costs him the love of his life, but he’d actually lost her before he was ever cast away because he prioritized work over her. However, he ends the story with a smile on his face, ready to freely embrace any of the endless choices which lie before him, as visualized by him standing at a literal crossroads.

3051733-inline-i-10-the-science-behind-the-martian-and-its-partnership-with-nasaThe Martian doesn’t have anything remotely like that, nor does it want to. Instead, The Martian is one half-competency porn/one half-ode to humanity’s inherent impulse to rally together and rescue those in need. There is something appealing about watching someone who is very good at their job going to work and problem-solving, and that is largely what The Martian offers in the Mark Watney half of the film, especially with everything involved with planting those potatoes. He is as much of a cinematic ode to science (specifically botany) as Tony Stark is (specifically engineering) in the first Iron Man where we see him taking his suit through a series of tests and figuring out solutions to problems, such as the way the suit’s thrusters freeze up at high altitudes.

The Shallows has its own degree of competency-porn as well. Lively uses her medical knowledge to treat her wounds as well as the seagull’s. She talks herself through it by pretending she’s simply treating a patient at a hospital, using a soothing voice to both describe her actions and make assurances that everything will be okay. Moreover, she also proves capable of tracking the high tide and clocking the shark’s movements.

We respond to that kind of thing because the fear of being stranded somewhere is so universal we want to see how certain people overcome the odds, and we secretly fear we wouldn’t be smart enough to know how to do some of the things these cinematic survivors pull off. But is that a good enough reason to care about someone like Mark Watney over anyone in Gravity, Shallows or Cast Away? The Martian is a movie in which a guy is left behind on Mars, and he uses his botany skills to survive just long enough for his fellow astronauts to return and rescue him, with generous assistance from the brightest minds on earth (e.g., Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover). Cool. That’s great. But who cares? What’s the point? What is the emotional baseline our protagonist starts at, and where is he by the end of his journey?

The Martian seems to reject the artificiality of the presumption that the situation should have some thematic resonance to the main character, though. Isn’t it more emotionally honest to present a survival story that’s simply about some person trying to survive, and how their efforts inspire others to help? Would it really be so bad if The Shallows was just about a girl fighting a shark? Is it maybe just a little too convenient that Chuck Noland is thrust into a situation which throws his entire worldview into chaos? Did Sandra Bullock really have to be a mother who lost a child? Is The Martian somehow more plausible than the more Earth-bound (and one adrift-in-space) survival stories centered around characters with dramatically convenient backstories? In other word, does The Martian seem less-stereotypical Hollywood, and more confident that the mere act of surviving is plenty dramatic enough?

Yes, it does, yet when I left The Martian last year I wanted more of a reason to care about Mark Watney than the jokes he tells, science knowledge he displays and action he inspires in others. The whole plot is basically a simulation of what would happen if NASA lost an astronaut in space, and concludes with a hearty nod toward the triumph of the human spirit and potential for international cooperation. However, because of the cinematic DNA for these kinds of stories I am programmed to expect a reason to care beyond the basic premise of “this person might die.” The Shallows gave that to me, and I walked away thinking I had just seen one of the better films of the summer.

the-martian-jeff-daniel-kristen-wiigI must be wrong to make that kind of distinction. The Martian grossed over $600 million worldwide, $228 million of that in the US/Canada. It is a deceptively process-oriented film as opposed to character-oriented, equally concerned with the bureaucratic structure of NASA and other such space agencies as it is with Mark Watney, and the world ate it up, perhaps sensing something more authentic and real at play than the bullshit Hollywood movies where the conflict must reflect some past trauma. I guess you don’t always need a thematically relevant backstory for this kind of story to work, but when it’s not there I kind of miss it.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Omg “competency porn” is SUCH a good phrase.

    I think the thematically relevant backstory really can come across as tiresome to a sophisticated audience, because it’s been done before and because, realistically, ANYONE in the situation the person is in will want the same thing: to survive; so the backstory can sometimes seem manipulative as well as been-there-done-that. That said, The Castaway did have a long-lasting emotional resonance that, much as I loved The Martian, I don’t think it will have (haven’t seen The Shallows). Maybe the tragic backstories feel unnecessary, but *knowing* the protagonist in some deep way is really important, and as you pointed out we don’t get to know Mark Watney in a substantive way. And you know Tom Hanks’ character from the idiosyncratic way he approaches each challenge he faces, not just from the backstory, whereas Watney has one approach: science.

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