Whenever Hollywood mounts up and flies off into space, it takes on board earthly baggage. How could it be otherwise? Drama is always human drama, even when the beings involved have, you know, pointy ears, green skin, and come from Mars. Or humans go there.
Ridley Scott’s new film, The Martian, isn’t about little green men (unless you count the NASA bureaucrats who seem seasick trying to do lost-in-space crisis management). In fact – with all its technical brilliance (both in terms of actual filmmaking and portrayed technology) – the movie is more Robinson Crusoe than Buck Rogers. It’s the story of a man separated from the human community who must quickly adapt himself to a hostile environment.
Presumed dead by the rest of the crew of the Ares III mission after a Martian sandstorm overtakes him, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind when his shipmates make an emergency evacuation and set off for Earth aboard the mother ship, Hermes.
Unlike Crusoe, however, Watney hasn’t suffered earlier shipwrecks and kidnapping and all manner of adventures, but just like his 17th-century counterpart, Watney sets about to manage his survival with the flotsam of previous Mars missions. Trouble is, the storm that nearly killed him destroyed his link to NASA. He has supplies to last a year or so, properly rationed. But given that an Ares IV mission is several years off, his work is undertaken with full knowledge that he will die alone on the Red Planet. (Later he’ll decide that’s okay, since he’ll be “dying for something greater than me,” presumably scientific progress.)
Sartre quipped that “hell is other people,” but, really, we all know that hell is no other people: to be utterly alone is to be without hope; to have humanity stripped down to an insufficient singularity. And the spirit of The Martian arises when Watney figures out how to reestablish contact with the Green Planet.
How does one cope with overwhelming isolation and anxiety? With work and humor, but – because this is Hollywood – without prayer.
Scott’s film follows closely the novel by Andy Weir. I’ve carped before about Hollywood’s insistence – to paraphrase a copy line from another Scott film – that in space no one can hear you pray. Mr. Weir has exactly one religious reference in his book (curses and jokes aside), when Watney takes a Catholic crew member’s “wooden cross” (with corpus in the film), splinters it for what amounts to kindling, and burns it: “I figure,” Watney quips (the novel is mostly his on-Mars diary), “if there’s a God, He won’t mind, considering the situation I’m in.”
Mr. Weir’s attention to scientific detail is remarkable, although sometimes mind-numbing. His book is in the “hard” science-fiction genre. Ridley Scott has always loved showing tech in his science-fiction films (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus, and – no doubt – his forthcoming Alien: Paradise Lost). In The Martian the science fact is great fun to watch. In the book’s climactic moments, the reader’s education in geek-speak has a big payoff, as it does in the film. The staccato exchanges of the rescue crew have become fully comprehensible, because they do what Americans do: adjust on the fly. Literally.
The crew on Hermes, informed of Watney’s survival (with help from a Chinese resupply ship), returns to retrieve him. There’s courage here – in setting out on this impossible mission – and in the rescue, although in the end it’s the crew’s training, knowledge, determination, and creativity that are otherworldly.
Scott’s film is exciting, but also stunningly beautiful. The Mars scenes were filmed in the Valley of the Moon (Wadi Rum) in Jordan, the red sand of which resembles the Martian surface. The sense of being there is powerful. When Watney has to travel to his rescue rendezvous, he seems more like Moses in the desert than Crusoe on a desert island.
Matt Damon gives a marvelous performance, and the rest of the cast is superb, especially Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the rescue-mission point man at NASA, Benedict Wong as the head of the engineering team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Jessica Chastain as the mission commander aboard Hermes.
Of course, the rescue attempt is where the nail-biting begins. It’s reminiscent of Quint’s description in Jaws of the shark-attack survivors of the USS Indianapolis, whose fear and anxiety peaked as rescue ships came into sight. Watney is an emotional mess, so are the folks at NASA, not least because they know the whole world is watching: in Times Square, Trafalgar Square, Tiananmen Square – in every square everywhere.
We’ve seen such moments in real life. Think of the 2010 Copiapó, Peru mining accident: the world watched and waited for sixty-nine days until the thirty-three miners were rescued. (Now a November film, The 33, starring Antonio Banderas.)
Why do we care? Weir via Watney speculates that, in his case, it’s partly because space is a dream for earthbound mortals: “But really, they did it [cared] because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.”
Gosh, is that all it is: an instinct? Why nature should have selected compassion or empathy is a mystery.
God, of course, is the true wellspring of caring – of love, which is what those rooting for a man lost on Mars or men trapped in a mine are expressing: love, hope, and faith. These are supernatural gifts, not the endowments of trillions of cell divisions over millions of years.
Not for nothing, in the midst of one of the major crises in the film, does one scientist turn to another to ask if he believes in God. And when disaster strikes, the one says, “Jesus!” and the other says, “Christ!” Intuitively, where else does one turn?
The Martian is rated PG-13. There’s some foul language, although remarkably muted in comparison to Weir’s book. Much of the film’s music (disco!) seems lifted from last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, including, yes, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” “Amazing Grace” would have been better.