Ridley Scott’s latest release, The Martian, is a spectacularly filmed, well-acted, technologically astute movie. Unfortunately, its technophilia almost takes over. You will spend a little over two hours watching for its widescreen vistas of the red planet, exquisitely choreographed spacewalk scenes, and the eponymous hero’s survival smarts, but do not expect any exploration of human psychology—or of anything else that cannot be reduced to numbers or bytes.
Consider this. It is the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars for about a year, all by himself. Yet little to nothing suggests his inner struggle as he battles to survive and NASA cobbles together a rescue mission back home. The classic shipwreck tale, Robinson Crusoe, comes to mind for its themes of survival and extreme solitude. (See also the fun space version here.) But our castaway doesn’t even have a volleyball for a companion.
Although the astronaut, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon), eventually re-establishes communication with Earth, he spends at least a couple of months in complete radio silence. (As a result, NASA has no idea he survived the storm that forced the landing crew back to the orbiting space station and neither does the crew.) He busies himself with creating water, rationing food, setting up a small potato farm, and figuring out a way to travel many miles away to the site of the Mars Rover (which allows two-way communication). His resourcefulness, resilience, and determination are extraordinary. His loneliness and homesickness appear to be nonexistent.
Meanwhile, back at home, Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA as a grim, gruff father figure. Kristen Wiig gets third billing for essentially standing around looking worried, as a PR expert mom-substitute. Various techies, in their magnificent racial and sexual diversity, buzz around scale models, instrument panels, and state-of-the-art computers, their brains scintillating, trying to save the day. Up on the space station, a sweet-but-steely Jessica Chastain heads the crew of five. These nods to contemporary values aside, the entire production champions frontier-spirit white-maleness—and not just because of the perennial association between space exploration and tough individualism.
I learned from advance reviews that Mark is a botanist and, being a naturalist, not a space nerd, I perked up. A botanist on Mars! Then I thought, What’s a plant scientist doing on a mission to a barren, lifeless planet? (They didn’t even bring seeds to run experiments with.) The simplest answer, to my mind, is that Andy Weir (author of the book on which the film was based) needed to explain why Mark is able to grow those all-important potatoes. That leaves us to infer the cluelessness of a typical spaceman, who would have no idea how to gather soil, fertilize it with his own wastes, plant chopped-up spuds, and nurture them to maturity. (Fresh potatoes? Isn’t weight an issue on launches?)
In a later scene, one of Mark’s fellow crew members jokes that botany “is not even a real science.” Ha-ha. Next to the macho iconography of fearless astronauts thrusting pointy rockets into the outer regions, growing green things smacks of femininity (gentle, patient, nurturing). Well, as it happens, plants are little powerhouses in their own right. They capture sunlight and convert it into the building blocks of all food chains in the known universe. Botanists are the eggheads who study these marvels. They don’t skip through fields picking daisies.
Not only is Mark alone on another planet, with nothing but radio contact for part of his stay, his life back on Earth seems free of relationships as well. As NASA pulls out all the stops to save him, we are never given glimpses of an anxious girlfriend/wife (or boyfriend/husband), kids, or even a grieving mother. I really doubt this was an oversight. Hollywood loves this sort of thing. Indeed, Scott shows us that each of the other astronauts has loved ones. Mark, in contrast, may as well be the expendable crew member from Star Trek. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration: he and his rescue attract a huge outpouring of global love, so he is far from being a nonentity. Still, I find it sad or creepy that beyond the space community he has only strangers visibly rooting for him.
Is he an orphan? No, but the matter of kin arises only once. Mark instructs a colleague to contact his parents (never shown, never mentioned again), near the start of his ordeal. He says, “Tell them that I love … my job.” I was probably not the only one who fully expected the next word after “love” to be “them.” But, no, he says he loves his job.
Houston, we have a problem.
NASA’s rigorous training accounts for our hero’s tough and resourceful nature. It does not even begin to suggest how he deals with obvious malnutrition and other extreme stressors without turning psychotic. When Mark becomes “the first person to be alone on an entire planet” (as we are told about three-quarters of the way through), it is a delightfully mind-boggling concept. Yet for all intents and purposes, it is little more than an abstraction. Audience attention is directed away from the human being at the center towards the small, the large and the out-of-this-world technology surrounding him. All hail.
Much has been made of how the great news about water on Mars coincided with The Martian’s opening this month. Our nearest planetary neighbor, however, has been an object of considerable fanboy affection for some time.
There is a growing fanaticism about living on the red planet, not just visiting it, and it is no longer only a science fiction cliché. The driving force behind this obsession with extraterrestrial colonization is Elon Musk—billionaire inventor and all-round unstoppable force—and his company, SpaceX.
Journalist Stephen Petranek has written a timely new book, How We’ll Live on Mars, that explores Musk’s ideas and the technology required to achieve the “inevitable.” Citing UN Secretary, Ban Ki-moon, who said of our dear and highly threatened planetary home, “There is no Plan B,” Petranek and Musk claim that Mars is a suitable backup. That is to say, if Earth is devastated by our own stupidity or something like a meteor strike, we humans have a second chance.
(About millions of other species, they say nothing.)
Whether future populations end up settling other planets or not, they cannot succeed by relying exclusively on physics, engineering, and the like. Attention to “soft” sciences is absolutely necessary. For one thing (Twinkies notwithstanding), everything we eat used to be a living organism of some kind. In addition, the last frontier—as any neuroscientist will happily tell you—is inside our own skulls, not in outer space.
Whenever someone jokes about biology, psychology, or agriculture, or, worse, dismisses their critical importance, they strengthen dominant social paradigms. We revere both machines and institutions that function like them. We expect people to stay sane in high-density, green-free cities and throw pills at them if they don’t. Human relationships, not to mention non-human organisms, and certainly not the psychological need people have for nature, are collectively perceived as externalities at best, actual impediments to “progress” at worst.
Perhaps that’s why Weir and Scott created Mark Watney as a (likable) loner. I doubt that The Martian, truly commendable as it is, will be the last word on this fascinating subject.