Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015) has now earned a number of Academy Award nominations including those for best actor (Matt Damon), and best picture.
The Martian apparently directed itself, since Scott was not nominated for his significant role in crafting the film.
But suffice it to say that The Martian’s nominations are well-deserved. This is a great science fiction film, and one of the two best genre films of the year (the other being Mad Max: Fury Road).
In both instances, a lone astronaut survives alone on the red planet using his only scientific skill-set.
Only here, of course, we don’t meet alien slaves or slavers, and the focus is much more on the possible than on the fantastic. Robinson Crusoe on Mars brought aliens, alien spaceships and other wonders into the tale of human loneliness and fortitude, whereas The Martian simply focuses on a key issue: Man vs. Nature.
In this case, that "Nature" belongs to different and infinitely more harsh world than ours: Mars.
The Martian deftly, and without apology, reminds us that no frontier is off limits if we dedicate ourselves to conquering it. We must merely possess the will to conquer it.
Perhaps it’s not that we are Star Trekkian-like perfect beings -- at least not yet -- but rather that the individual fear of death -- coupled with the human race’s fear of stagnation -- can push us to the next horizon, and then the one beyond that. The Martian is realistic in its approach, and yet optimistic at the same time. It imagines that mankind can achieve big things, and do it under his own auspices.
What are those auspices? Knowledge. Training. Endurance.
And no less important, imagination too.
The Martian is very much about what happens when a dedicated, imaginative scientist is given a challenge, and rises to the occasion. The film will, I imagine, inspire many young people to become astronauts, botanists, physicists, or the like. And of course, that's a very good thing.
So Scott’s film reminds us -- in a sadly anti-intellectual time -- how knowledge, not ignorance, can transform not merely our lives, but the planets themselves.
Now the organization must rally and determine a way to bring the marooned astronaut home alive.
One answer involves launch a second rocket, but a brilliant young physicist comes up with a plan to redirect Lewis’s ship back to Mars for an extraordinary orbital rendezvous...
Basically, Gravity is about how the entire space program is pulped in one day, but one woman survives, and learns to deal with her personal demons (the death of a child). It only took the destruction of every shuttle, station, and satellite in orbit for her to accept her past traumas.
Worse, the film makes no notation that though it is a good day for Sandra Bullock’s character, psychologically-speaking, it is a very sad day for mankind, and humanity's efforts in space. The space program, in that movie, would have been set back years, if not decades. And yet, we are expected to cheer when the scientist arrives home safely on Earth.
All I could think about was the future lost, destroyed, or prevented by the incidents of that terrible day.
It’s a movie about people navigating challenges -- in bureaucracies and on Mars -- and figuring out how science, technology, and know-how can rescue people and break boundaries.
It’s not merely about survival and escape, while the space program crashes and burns as a consequence. The Martian is about how the space program can achieve great things, even though death is always a possibility.
The film’s protagonist, Mark Watley, is given no facile “back story” to conquer. There’s no Hollywood bullshit here to attempt to falsely manufacture psychological drama. Instead, Mark must keep his vision trained squarely on the present, battling each problem as it arise. He then uses his wit, skill, and training to conquer it.
Watley pulls together every scrap of knowledge and training he has, but even that considerable effort is not enough. We see throughout the film that man survives not just when he is smart and adaptive, but when he employs his imagination.
Mark isn't depressed, brooding, or angsty about the set-backs and reversals he encounters.
On the contrary, he keeps engaging his imagination,considering new ways to survive and thrive.
In both films, the camera hurtles (relatively low to the ground) across an inhospitable surface. In Prometheus, that surface belongs to Earth, as the alien Engineers attempt to seed it with their DNA.
In The Martian, that surface is Mars.
In both cases, knowledge, reason, science and technology ultimately re-shape that surface to accommodate or welcome life.
It’s on a huge scale in Prometheus, and a small one (for now), in The Martian, but as Watley trenchantly notes, by growing his own food there, he has, by definition, colonized the planet. He has taken the first step of introducing new life to Mars.
In Prometheus, the search for God is what impels man to the stars.
In The Martian, man survives a harrowing space journey not on faith in a supernatural being, but by faith in his own abilities, ingenuity, and know-how.
The two films provide a kind of perfect yin/yang in terms of philosophy.
One is about the literal search for God, and the divine within. The other is about mankind -- through his knowledge -- evolving into something, if not Godlike, then at least able to brave the dangerous realm of outer space.
It's no accident, or coincidence, that Mark Watley puts a crucifix (belonging to another astronaut) to practical -- rather than spiritual -- use during the duration of the film. He must use his imagination, training, and every material he has on hand if he wishes to endure. There is no time to worship idols.
The two films -- Prometheus and The Martian -- work well together in tandem, as a Ridley Scott double feature, actually.
One is a horror film about what terrors could await us in space. Prometheus reveals to audiences ow small we are in the scheme of Cosmic Things. When we meet our Maker, we are not ready for the knowledge that flows from that encounter.
Its philosophical book-end, The Martian is a hard science fiction film that suggests how we will already know, by 2035, enough to survive and flourish in our first steps away from Earth. We will face challenges, and we will beat them back. And we will learn from our successes. We will tell others (as teachers), and build on them.
Here, early on, an empty chair looms large on the Martian escape ship (and in our imaginations), a reminder that an astronaut has been lost.
Again, the typical dramatic bullshit approach would demand histrionics on the part of the commanding officer, or shipmates.Instead, we get no words, just close-ups of anguish, and of that empty seat.
And in the film’s climax, Mark practically bursts out of his capsule into a whirling void (in orbit). His only way to survive (and get home) is to cut his suit open, and utilize the escaping pressure as a means of directing himself through that void.
This is a perfect symbol for man’s capacity to reshape fate, and nature, to his desire. We are all on a spinning surface too (the Earth), but we can direct its future with our technology, our science, our imagination, and our know how. We aren't just passengers. We have the capacity to exert power and control over our environment.
The soundtrack, straight from a hedonistic time and place in America culture, lightens the mood, provides stark contrast to Mark’s travails, and finally, calls us back to the last time in history -- the heyday of the Apollo program -- when America looked to the stars, dreamed, and then made real plans to reach them.
The disco music, in essence, makes The Martian a kind of sequel to the early 1970s, before the combined weight of Vietnam, Watergate, Three Mile Island, Inflation, and Oil Embargoes brought human dreams crashing back to terra firma.
Life is hard.
And life in space is even harder.
If we want to endure as a species, however, survival in space and on other worlds is a virtual necessity. We can cry and whine about how dangerous the endeavor remains, how expensive it is, or even how time-consuming it is.
Or we can look at the challenges…and, using our knowledge as a starting point, imagine how to beat them.
As one character here memorably notes, “you can either accept” the difficulty of reality, and the constant nearness of death, “or get to work.”