Wednesday, October 7, 2015

"Let's do the math": six dreams of Ridley Scott's The Martian

I enjoyed Ridley Scott's The Martian, but afterwards found myself dwelling on all of the dreams that undergird the movie's realistic surface. In comparison to the dark beauty of Scott's Alien (1979) and the extravagant mise en scene of Blade Runner (1982), The Martian is an oddly square, geeky, almost prim picture of our future in the year 2035, one in which Mars ends up appearing fairly dull as a place to live (but the movie is too well-built for us to notice that). What are some of the dreams that support this well-grounded vision?

1) A fully funded NASA. With movies like The Martian, Gravity, and Interstellar, the film industry can at least picture keeping the space program alive. Writer Andy Weir fully invests his narrative in supporting NASA, and who can fault him for that?

2) Science can solve most any problem. As Mark Watney (Matt Damon) keeps exhorting himself and others, "Let's do the math." He must figure out, sometimes through trial and error, multiple solutions to the immediate problem with keeping himself alive after being accidentally left by the rest of the crew on Mars. Indeed, Mark constantly confronts complicated dilemmas with a can-do spirit that proves infectious. As he says, "technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!" At one point, in the midst of trying to manufacture water, he blows himself up (with minor injuries). But he returns to work out a solution. His success with growing potatoes evokes both the American depression-era use of the tuber as well as the Irish famine. As much as anything, his scientist's cheer, his bemusement with trying to professionally fight the long odds against his survival, keeps The Martian engaging and funny. The Martian kept reminding me of Apollo 13 (1995), especially in the way various severe extraterrestrial problems could get solved by a highly caffeinated gang of scientists and engineers back on earth. When things go wrong, most problems are those that a gang of scientists can solve. This movie is not interested in doom, only setbacks.

In my killjoy negative way, I couldn't help being reminded of the many seemingly insurmountable complications left back on earth (terrorism, climate change, illegal refugees, overpopulation, religious extremism, etc.) so neatly explored in darker science fiction movies like Children of Men (2006). The Martian neatly sidesteps all of that by sticking largely to the blank, largely untouched surface of Mars and the propagandistic agenda of supporting NASA.

3) Traveling by solar power. At one point, Mark drives his rover across Mars, stopping every day to let solar panels absorb enough sunlight to recharge the vehicle to go on. What a perfect guilt-free form of transportation, one that even allows for meditative breaks along the way.

4) Duct tape. Watney repeatedly shows how duct tape can fix a broken helmet, a blown-out hole in his work station, etc. Duct tape can fix anything.

5) As in the case of Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Martian very carefully demonstrates how the United States can work with China to solve any extraterrestrial issues, as well as find broader international cooperation with the space program. Inconvenient things like wars, ethnic strife, etc. do not come up as everyone back on earth cheers for Mark waiting in the sky.

6) Mark mentions that he understands loneliness at one point, but The Martian depicts the introvert's ultimate dream: the pleasure of having an entire planet to yourself. Back on earth, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wonders what could Mark be brooding about back on that distant planet, but then the movie cuts to Watney cheerfully boogieing to Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" in his rover. Often Mark comes across as tickled with his Robinson Crusoe lifestyle and the continuing unlikelihood of his existence. He's free to have total privacy, a mythical relationship as a pioneer on his adopted planet, and later, total fame as the entire world looks on when he figures out a way to communicate with those on terra firma. Who knows if returning to earth may be something of a letdown?


DeadSpiderEye said...

NASA it's an interesting body, in it's earlier incarnation as NACA, an oddly unique and altruistic institution, it probably accelerated the development of flight by an exponent. Then as it became NASA it was tasked with fulfilling the agenda set by one man, who was also oddly unique, in that he was tainted with the legacy of war crimes an yet spent his latter career diverting resources from the military towards scientific endeavour. It's the dichotomy intrinsic to the space race, the development of weapons technology set against the advances of human achievement,that might explain the Shuttle, utterly useless for sending nukes over oceans. Unfortunately it turned out to just mostly useless, except for a certain utility for servicing spy satellites.

Will they go to Mars? Unlikely, unless they find something there, and that something would be in the specific sense, Uranium. We're back to weapons again because there isn't enough of that element here to make the ambitions for its civilian utility to be feasible. Not unless you've got a plan to filter sea water, try shucking peas while throwing the spent shucks in with the unopened ones, to get an insight into how impossible that is: the law of diminishing returns. Since the likely hood of running across Uranium on Mars is slim (according to one hypothesis, it was there but was largely expended through spontaneous fission x billion years ago) it's the black stuff you dig out of the ground that still counts. Oh and hasn't that dependence and its finite scope, provided such rich insight into the primitive mode nascent within the bounds an ostensibly civilized and technically advanced culture.

FilmDr said...


Thanks for your info about NASA. It makes cynical sense that "diverting resources from the military towards scientific endeavour" would comprise much of the history of the agency. NASA still looks so sweet and well-funded in The Martian.