‘A Huge Moment for NASA’ … and Novelists: A Review of The Martian

The Martian science fiction film reviewby Gary Westfahl

Let me immediately say that Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the best film I’ve seen in a long, long time, and it can be enthusiastically recommended as involving and uplifting entertainment. Most of the credit for its success, though, should go not to director Scott or screenwriter Drew Goddard, but to Andy Weir, whose novel The Martian (2011) provided them with a marvelous blueprint for a successful film. The filmmakers should primarily be complimented, then, for their wise decision to basically replicate Weir’s story, as virtually every character in the film, every event, and every witty line are taken directly from the novel. It is also a story that hearteningly contradicts almost every maxim in today’s Hollywood Handbook, since it contains no villains, no fistfights, no exciting action sequences, and only an almost imperceptible hint of romance; yet it still contrives to arouse your emotions and hold your attention for over two hours. The film is thus a distinguished addition to the tradition of what I have termed genuine spacesuit films, wherein the hero’s daunting and fascinating adversary is outer space itself.

Still, even while sincerely enjoying the film, I also felt a certain sense of ambivalence. For I would also agree that The X-Files (1993-2002) was one of the best television series I’ve ever watched, but Chris Carter’s drama disquieted me because, albeit in the form of fiction, the series was clearly and regularly trying to persuade me to believe something that is not true. And in its own fashion, The Martian has tweaked its source material to engage in the same activity.

There is no need to describe the film’s argument at length, since even someone who strives to avoid reading anything about a film before reviewing it could not help picking up the message that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is very, very excited about this film, hoping that it will inspire increased support for their own plans to someday travel to Mars. And despite the denials, NASA’s announcement last Monday about evidence of flowing water on the Martian surface was undoubtedly timed to heighten interest in the film. To be sure, buried in the closing credits is a disclaimer noting that, while NASA cooperated with the filmmakers, the agency was in no way endorsing its contents. But seeing is believing, and after reading Weir’s novel and watching the film, one must conclude that Scott and Goddard were more than willing to subtly but tellingly make some minor changes to better promote NASA’s agenda.

Weir’s novel matter-of-factly describes a near-future world that has decided to send several missions to Mars, but there is little if any rhetoric about how wonderful this is. Indeed, stranded astronaut Mark Watney dismisses soaring rhetoric in favor of space travel in his very first log entry: “The Ares Program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah blah blah.” All of the novel’s energies are focused on its scientific puzzles: how can a single person with insufficient supplies manage to survive on Mars for an indefinite period of time? How can Earth’s scientists and engineers ingeniously make use of preexisting resources to rescue him before he dies? And in the end, after Watney first struggles to stay alive by himself, and later becomes the object of a vast, multifaceted rescue mission, the only message he draws from his experience, in his final log entry, is a lesson about human nature: “every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out …. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies …. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side.” Watney, in other words, views himself as just another person who got into trouble and received assistance from innumerable strangers; there was nothing special about the fact that he happened to be an astronaut on Mars.

However, without significantly altering the story, Scott and Goddard nonetheless manage to transform this inspirational message about altruism into a commercial for space travel in general, and for NASA in particular. Certainly, audiences are never allowed to forget that NASA is responsible for sending the spaceship Hermes to Mars, since the NASA logo seems to be prominently positioned on every item of clothing that the astronauts wear, every piece of equipment they employ, every cup or glass they drink out of, and every television announcement involving the Mars mission. While reviewing a film that constantly promoted various brand-name products, Jurassic World (review here), I suggested a drinking game in which viewers would have a drink every time a plug appeared. Because the only product The Martian is promoting is NASA , its drinking game would involve having a drink whenever the NASA logo appears – the problem being that, by the time it shows up yet again in the final scenes, even the most hardened drinker will be too inebriated to pick up a glass.

We are also constantly reminded that the exploration of Mars is an all-American program by means of recurring glimpses of the American flag: while holding press conferences, NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is bookended by the NASA flag and the American flag, which also fly together at a NASA training center; a small American flag sits on a desk in Houston’s Mission Control, and on a table in the “Hab” that is the temporary home of astronaut Watney (Matt Damon); and of course it is sewn onto Watney’s spacesuit. And although Weir’s elements of international participation are retained, they are downplayed: one member of the Mars crew, Alex Vogel, is identified in the novel as a German from “the European Union,” but while they did hire a Norwegian actor, Aksel Hennie, to play the part, his accent is so mild that many viewers may assume that he is another American. And although the Chinese government contributes a probe to carry needed supplies in both the novel and film, the film fails to point out that NASA reciprocated by agreeing to include a Chinese astronaut on its next Mars flight – though a very alert viewer might infer that an Asian astronaut seen for two seconds in a final scene sitting next to Rick Martinez (Michael Peña) is indeed from China.

Regarding the film’s support for space travel, there is first of all one revealing addition to Weir’s usually effective dialogue. In the novel, Watney at one point tells his friend Martinez that if he dies, he wants him to visit his parents, noting that “It won’t be easy talking to a couple about their dead son.” But in the film, when Watney makes the same request to Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), he adds another instruction: “Tell them I love what I do and I’m really good at it and I’m dying for something big and beautiful, and greater than me, and I can live with that.” Well, as the novel’s Watney would say, blah blah blah. But the film really goes into overdrive in celebrating space exploration in its final scenes, and while describing them I will have to provide what must officially be described as a “spoiler” – though it is very difficult to imagine any intelligent person walking into the theatre to see The Martian and wondering, “Gee – will this major Hollywood film about an astronaut stranded on Mars played by Matt Damon end with him being rescued, or will he just starve to death?” So, here is my shocking revelation: at the end of the film, Watney is alive and well and heading back to Earth. The novel, as it happens, concludes right after Watney’s rescue with the aforementioned log entry, but the film adds several additional scenes: crowds of people all over the world, wildly cheering upon hearing that Watney is safe; an older Watney, a few years later, preparing to inspire and educate future astronauts to confront and overcome the dangers of space; two astronauts married and having a baby, presumably to follow in their spacefaring footsteps; and another Hermes crew happily blasting off to Mars. You almost expect to walk out of the theatre and encounter people asking you to sign a petition to urge the government to send some astronauts to Mars right away. Indeed, when a CNN reporter says after Watney’s rescue that it is “a huge moment for NASA,” the film might be hopefully talking about itself, not its fictional dénouement.

And, in the context of science fiction history, the message conveyed by these scenes seems unremarkable: space travel may be challenging, but it is an achievable and infinitely rewarding goal, and an activity that should properly become humanity’s main priority. How can anyone say that these views are “not true”? This is not the occasion to revisit old arguments about the wisdom of carrying on with the exploration of space; but one can simply note that the plot of this film, like that of many earlier spacesuit films I have studied, is contradicting its own argument.

As a general rule, the subgenre’s characteristic story line involves astronauts who are desperately struggling to leave outer space and return to Earth. One of the earliest spacesuit films, Destination Moon (1950), concludes with lunar astronauts frantically gutting their spacecraft so it will be light enough to get them back to Earth with limited fuel (foreshadowing Watney’s efforts to strip a Mars Ascent Vehicle so it will be light enough to rendezvous with the returning Mars spaceship). The Russian film Nebo Zovyot (The Sky Calls) (1959) describes two efforts to rescue space travelers: first, Russian cosmonauts save the rash American astronauts trapped in a runaway spaceship; then, when insufficient fuel forces them to land on an asteroid, a rocket filled with fuel must somehow be sent to them. Marooned (1969), an obvious precursor to The Martian, similarly focuses on Earthbound efforts to retrieve three astronauts stranded in space and facing death – a scenario that later played out in real life during the flight of Apollo 13, as reenacted in the films Houston, We’ve Got a Problem (1974) and Apollo 13 (1995). A more recent film, Gravity (2013) (review here) depicts a solitary astronaut’s struggle to get back to Earth. And in this film, borrowing the conceit introduced in Ray Bradbury’s “The Million-Year Picnic” (1946), Weir’s novel and this film describe a human living on Mars as a “Martian,” a replacement for the native Martians once so common in popular culture. Yet Mark Watney doesn’t want to be a Martian. In various discussions about how to save his life, he never proposes to stay on Mars indefinitely by means of additional supplies and seeds sent from Earth; at all times, he and his NASA superiors are solely focused on returning him to Earth – just as Gravity’s Ryan Stone never considers settling down in a space station to await assistance. As if to underline the point, just as the film begins with a image of Mars seen from space, it concludes with an image of Earth – Watney’s, and humanity’s, true home.

In sum, one must ask a hard question: if going into space and living in space is so wonderful, why are cinematic space travelers always so anxious to go home? The stark truth is that, notwithstanding the lofty goal embedded in the title of a 1955 film, spacesuit films never feature anyone achieving The Conquest of Space; rather, they are about people temporarily surviving in, and then escaping from, space. If The Martian wished to convincingly argue in favor of multiple missions to Mars, it should not conclude with an older Watney back on Earth, wearing glasses and, apparently, contentedly retired from the space program; instead, he should be observed serving as the patriarch of a thriving human colony on Mars. However, while the classic space novels of Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke regularly ended with protagonists settling into permanent residency on other planets, or preparing to travel to more distant planets, decades of experience with actual space travel have taught us things about life in space that Heinlein and Clarke did not fully anticipate.

One issue is that authors underestimated the constant dangers of space travel, and while this film acknowledges them in its incidents and in Watney’s final speech, it also downplays them in adapting Weir’s story to the screen. Astronauts need to wear spacesuits to keep them alive in the vacuum or space or the near-vacuum of Mars, and even a small breach – like the cracked faceplate that briefly imperils Watney – can quickly be fatal. Watney’s major worry is having sufficient food and water, though he also requires protection from Mars’s extremely cold temperatures, and he must find a way to communicate with the people and computers on Earth whose assistance is essential to all space travelers. All of this means is that astronauts are always depending upon machines to remain alive, and no matter how much redundancy is built into them, machines invariably break down. Weir’s novel in large part is a story about everything on Mars going wrong, again and again and again, demanding a recurring series of desperate improvisations to address one crisis after another. In the novel, for example, after Watney establishes communication with Earth, an accident shuts down the system, again leaving him isolated for a long period of time; and his long journey to the Schiaparelli crater is twice disrupted when a sandstorm limits the amount of solar energy he can generate and his rover gets bogged down in Martian sand and falls over. But in the film, Watney never loses contact with Earth, and his journey to Schiaparelli is uneventful. Also, when the novel’s Watney decides to “make a spark just by touching a metal tool,” he adds, “Fun fact: This is exactly how the Apollo 1 crew died.” However, while the film does note NASA’s policy of making everything fireproof because “fire makes everybody die in space,” it makes no reference to the tragic time when such a fire actually killed three astronauts.

In its final scenes, the film suddenly flouts another well established fact about survival in space: that it requires constant teamwork and collective effort. Watney’s individual actions can keep him alive for a while, but he will still die without the help of innumerable people on Earth and on board the Hermes; and in the novel, he plays no role in his final rescue, as it is solely the result of others’ work and well-calculated celestial mechanics. Martinez aims the spaceship in the right direction; Vogel builds a bomb to blow open an airlock and send air rushing out to propel the spaceship toward Watney; and Beck (Sebastian Stan) retrieves him. At one point, Watney suggests that he do something to make the rendezvous easier, but his idea is immediately and properly rejected as utterly ridiculous. But in the movies – the Hollywood Handbook, again – the heroes always have to be, well, the heroes, especially if the stars enjoy a degree of control over the script. So the film’s Watney actually does the insane thing he proposed doing in the novel, and it actually works, enabling him to effectively rescue himself, though he also requires a helping hand from Lewis, played by the film’s other big star, who shoves the cloutless Beck aside to complete an impossible, improvised maneuver that saves the day. (To give Chastain more to do, it will be recalled, she also replaced Martinez as the crewmate recruited to visit Watney’s parents.)

Other aspects of the film might inspire further nitpicking – casting a blonde Caucasian woman as Mindy Park? – but it is probably time to conclude by returning to my original point: The Martian is an excellent film, unsurprisingly because it is, for the most part, a faithful adaptation of an excellent novel. Yet the lesson to be learned, perhaps, is that even an experienced and widely respected director, who has apparently earned the right to do whatever he pleases, may find it expedient to bend to the will of an agency whose cooperation is necessary while making the film, or listen to the script suggestions of the major stars who will help attract audiences to his film. Like astronauts traveling through space, contemporary filmmakers can never do everything by themselves, as they must depend upon the assistance of many other people who will invariably have some effect on the final product. A Hollywood film can’t help ending up resembling, well, a Hollywood film, though we should always praise those directors who are most willing, and best able, to resist the industry’s insidious influence.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His new book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, is now available.

One thought on “‘A Huge Moment for NASA’ … and Novelists: A Review of The Martian

  • October 4, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Gary, do you really not see the difference between NASA and Coca-Cola.


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