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Martian, The [film]

Entry updated 30 January 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (2015). Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/TSG Entertainment/Genre Films. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Drew Goddard from The Martian (2014) by Andy Weir. Cast includes Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Mackenzie Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Azel Henne, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Whig. 144 minutes. Colour, 3-D.

The Martian begins in the very Near Future as a Robinsonade set on Mars. A spat of bad weather there has forced NASA's Ares III scientific expedition to abort its mission and return to its orbiting ship, the Hermes, leaving behind botanist Mark Watney (Damon), apparently killed in the freak dust storm: his body cannot be seen in the desolate sand-choked Marscape, and his Communications gear is dead. In the event, Watney regains consciousness too late to wave down the departing lander. All that remains to him is a rover and the half-wrecked expedition camp, the Mars Lander Habitat (known as the Hab), which contains some oxygen and food; he also has his native wits. He is otherwise entirely alone, or so it seems. Certainly the first sequences of The Martian can be understood as describing the solitary ordeal of a Robinson Crusoe, cast on his resources, but with much less of a world to build a mercantilist's compound out of than the original Crusoe enjoyed. Very soon, however, the model of entrepreneurial survival articulated in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) is left behind. Far more plausibly than in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) directed by Bryan Haskin, where the arrival of an Alien spaceship transforms robinsonade into Space Opera, The Martian soon becomes a different and more interesting film.

We soon learn that Watney is no solitary figure cast upon his own resources, despite the fact that only at the very end of the film does he meet another character (Damon never in fact met other members of the cast during filming, until the final sequence); he is as it turns out an exceedingly resourceful, well-trained, skill-biased employee of NASA, and the mantra he utters at least once (and clearly has constantly in mind) lies at the heart of the SBTC (Skill-Biased Technology Change) doctrine that NASA expounds: "You do the math," as he says at one point. "You solve one problem. And then you solve another. And then another. Solve enough and you stay alive." If this sounds rather as though he were reminding himself of the rules governing survival in some live-action Thought Experiment that ultimately plays fair, there is some reason to think this is deliberate: for The Martian is an inescapable paean to a view of the world savable by Technological ingenuity; and an implicit narrative strand of the film as a whole is that NASA (and its cohort of Watneys) are able to earn the future. It is a view of things beholden to traditional twentieth century sf (which famously the engineers who dominated the Cold War space race read avidly), and as we follow Watney and his colleagues, back on Earth and on the Hermes, solving every problem thrown at them by Mars, the polished relentless nostalgic shining purity of the telling of their exploits may explain the otherwise oddly comforted response of viewers and critics to that mission statement.

Very soon, Watney begins to get a grip on the problems facing him. He applies his rigorous training to the eking out of his supplies and to creating a hydroponic environment in which he can grow potatoes to survive for a time. In the meantime, back on Earth, the Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) and planner Mindy Park (Davis) observe that the rover has moved, realize Watney is still alive, and through some genuinely intriguing legerdemain manage to establish written communications with him (Watney is warned to watch his language, as the whole world is now following his story). There are some internal disputes within NASA as to how to go about saving Watney, with NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Daniels) and Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Bean) clashing over the rescue strategy; but as soon as they are essentially resolved, any "normal" worries about untoward reveals disappear from the telling of the film: no film made in 2015 in which NASA is intimately involved at the diegetic level (and to the making of which NASA must have had considerable extradiegetic input) could climax in NASA's defeat. It is therefore a mandatory condition of The Martian that Watney be rescued, and that no other astronaut will die in the long drama of effecting that rescue: such a death would import moral cruces destructive to the triumphalist field of vision of the film.

In becoming an inspired infomercial for NASA and the brilliance of Watney, The Martian is therefore stripped of all normal suspense tropes, though narrative worry-points do surface at points, with various Spacesuit Film crises vividly solved more than once. The ultimate goal of rescue is never shied from by dithery bureaucrats on Earth; there are in fact no villains at all; none of the crew of the Hermes have any personal problems with families back on Earth, or with sexual frustration, or existential anguish, or disease, or the potential stress of hierarchy-governed interactions in tight quarters: nothing that might fog over the loyal team clarity of their decision to participate, at seemingly great but (as we know by this point) only apparent risk, in the prolonged rescue operation.

This all might seem insultingly cartoonlike, but Watney's constant ingenuity, and Damon's astonishingly convincing enactment of his character's openhearted go-do-it gladness (he is a bit like Carl Barks's Woodchuck-enabled Donald Duck, without the beak), does much to smooth the road to the inevitable happy ending [for Barks see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. A second or third viewing may uncover some moderately disappointing doublethink in the Hard SF presentation of the underlying science: a storm impactful enough to half-wreck buildings and bury poor Watney would, for instance, require a much thicker atmosphere than Mars affords, a Scientific Error implicitly admitted to at the film's climax, where a tacitly normalized Mars atmosphere allows Watney to take off in a recovered lander whose nose cone consists of a plastic sheet reinforced with duck tape. This works. The cast heads homewards safely. In the last scene, Watney is seen back on Earth at a NASA campus instructing eager young prospective astronauts in the essentials of problem-solving.

But no infomercial-engendered cynicism detracts from the purity of the vision of a graspable future that the film, at points movingly, urges upon us. However viewed, and however often, The Martian is a vacation to take, a joy to watch, a right-stuff apotheosis, a Utopia just around the corner to dream of entering. It won the 2016 Hugo for best long-form dramatic presentation. [JC]


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