The movie version of ‘The Martian’ is surprisingly relevant to our historical moment

February 28, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 28, 2018

Mars isn’t a very hospitable environment for humans. It’s cold and it lacks breathable atmosphere, accessible water and arable soil. In short, you wouldn’t want to be left behind there by your five crewmates when your base is suddenly hit by a massive sandstorm and a piece of debris crushes your spacesuit transponder and knocks you out and renders them unable to find you as they’re staging a hasty retreat to orbit and the spacecraft that will carry them home to Earth.

However, that’s exactly what happens to astronaut Mark Watney at the start of The Martian. More than three years ago, regarding Andy Weir’s blog-turned-self-published-novel-turned-conventionally-published-best-seller The Martian, I wrote:

Watney, who’s well-trained and naturally innovative, jury-rigs a series of solutions to each of his problems using techniques and technology that I imagine would be available to someone in his situation. He recycles his bodily waste, converts the floors of his living quarters into a potato farm, and scavenges hardware in an effort to reconnect with Earth. Weir structures his book with an exciting, if somewhat predictable, problem-assessment-solution-resolution cycle that repeatedly gooses the tension levels.

Director Ridley Scott (AlienBlade RunnerGladiatorBlack Hawk Down and Prometheus, among many others) and screenwriter Drew Goddard (the horror movies CloverfieldThe Cabin in the WoodsWorld War Z and a number of TV shows) gave The Martian a faithful adaptation with their 2015 movie. As Watney, Matt Damon narrates some of the action, which — like the novel — falls into a predictable pattern over its middle third.

Watney’s fight for survival is intercut with scenes on Earth and his crewmates’ flight back to our big blue planet as NASA comes to realize that their missing astronaut isn’t dead after all. This still isn’t a character-driven story, but Weir’s creations seem more lively and realistic than they did on the page thanks to engaging performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig as various American scientists and administrators and Jessica Chastain, Kata Mara, Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan as Watney’s erstwhile crewmates.

Although I recalled the broad outlines of the story, The Martian was still pretty entertaining, and I truly found myself caught up in the tension of the climactic rescue attempt.

It occurred to me as the end approached that this feature — released about 13 months before Donald Trump was elected president — has an important message embedded in its DNA, one that reflects on the zeitgeist that helped produce it and is very relevant to the moment in which we live.

America’s 2008 presidential campaign ended amid a period of turmoil, with the United States locked in two long-running overseas wars and the economy cratering both at home and around the world. Even so, the election of Barack Obama seemed to reflect widespread optimism that we would not only survive these trials but emerge from them an improved and stronger nation. This feeling was endemic not just in the U.S. but abroad — witness the surprising decision to bestow the Nobel Peace Prize upon a then-new president the year after his election.

This optimism was not sustained throughout Obama’s two terms as president. It was subverted in part, I would argue, by Obama’s limitations as a leader and the fierce opposition posed by conservative politicians, pundits and media organizations. It also fell prey to the hard realities of economic woe and international strife that Obama encountered (and may have inadvertently inflamed, in some cases).

Trump’s campaign and election seemed to bring out many of the worst aspects of some Americans, and the conduct of his administration is regarded as utterly dismal by many on the left. But I found myself feeling inspired as I watched scientists and engineers tackle one daunting problem after another in The Martian.

The story shows us that great minds working together can overcome nearly any obstacle. Success is not guaranteed, of course. But when a life is on the line, these battles are certainly worth engaging. And when we succeed, the reward is very sweet indeed.

Trump and his anti-scientific appointees may not wish to grapple with the challenges posed by climate change, poverty or health insurance. But that’s no reason for the rest of us to give up.

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