Ridley Scott’s latest film THE MARTIAN is a realistic portrayal of the challenges faced by one man, Mark Watney, stranded alone on Mars, and of his struggle to survive, to obtain help, and to return home safely to Earth. It is based on the novel THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, a computer scientist, which he self-published in 2011 and that quickly became a best-seller. Both book and film could be called a science fiction robinsonade.
The film is quite enjoyable and emotionally engaging, with some very moving moments. Despite the dramatic tension the overall mood is positive: resolution, confidence, satisfaction at overcoming obstacles and getting things done, optimism, human warmth and solidarity. Watney does not give in to despair or depression or even to doubt. Indeed he does not seem to have much inner life at all: no memories, a little humour, a moderate sense of wonder at the alien beauty of Mars and at the uniqueness of his position, perhaps a little melancholy. But he does not dwell on his predicament nor reflect on the larger context that put him into it.
The story is an ode to the joy of problem-solving, but as Nick Montfort says it gives a reductive image of problem-solving, and, I would argue, of science too. Watney does not really as he claims “science the shit out of it”, but rather “engineer the shit out of it”. That is to say, the scientific concepts that he employs to survive and to return home in one piece are at the level of comprehensibility of junior high school science.
We are happy to follow the calculations about food and mileage and astrodynamics, without going into the details. There are some numbers, but the science we are exposed too is more qualitative than quantitative, aimed at giving us the “feel” of what is involved. The film positively invites us to ask how realistic the science is, and most of the reviews concentrate on this aspect. The answer is that the film is quite realistic except for a few points (e.g. the “windstorm” at the beginning, moving about in the reduced gravity on Mars). The film is entertainment, not a documentary, but it does have pedagogical value.
If science fiction is defined as the “literature of cognitive estrangement”, then the estrangement involved in THE MARTIAN is minimal. Despite the story’s show-casing of “scientific” problem-solving, the whole plot is based rather on magical thinking. Magically everything that is needed to keep Watney alive and to bring him back to Earth is already in place or becomes available with a little effort, and real tragedy is avoided. Magically, political and economic barriers fall, and planet-wide solidarity is achieved around the imperative of bringing Watney back home.
The message seems to be the rather reassuring one that if only scientists, geeks, and engineers could be freed from the undue constraints of politics, administration, public relations (dystopia) and financing, then everything would be all right and nothing would be impossible (utopia).
The protagonist Mark Watney is not really transformed by his unique experience on Mars, and does not become a “Martian” at all, but remains very much an Earthling, happy to transmit his knowledge and experience to future astronauts, and to promote business as usual for Nasa.
The philosopher of science Karl Popper affirms that “all life is problem-solving”, but maintains that the problems have to be created just as much as the solutions. In the story of THE MARTIAN problem-solving is trivialised into puzzle-solving, and the puzzles exist within a set of givens imposed from without. For Popper, science exists when the problem-solving is no longer a matter of mere survival, where error-elimination means death. Science involves the speculative proposal and elaboration of hypotheses that are then subjected to tests to eliminate errors without eliminating the scientists.
The story thus comports an ideological reduction of science to puzzle-solving (no speculation here) and of the human to the almost animal individual concerned with survival and enjoyment. Watney does not come to problematise his mission and its economic and political basis, and his vision remains contracted, limited to basic science and 70s pop culture.
THE MARTIAN is part of a line of science fiction that emphasises the difficulties involved in leaving our natural habitat, the Earth, and that tries to give a realistic picture of what being confronted with those obstacles involves. Recent works in this spirit are the films GRAVITY and INTERSTELLAR, and the novel AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson. The most famous ancestor to this sort of “hard-headed” science fiction is Tom Godwin’s classic short story THE COLD EQUATIONS.
The similarity of THE MARTIAN to Robinson’s AURORA also lies in the pessimistic knowledge that the “math” is against us. Space is a hostile environment and allows no bagaining: one slip and we’re dead. However, AURORA comes to the modest conclusion that we must respect our limits, and that there are some problems that the engineering approach cannot resolve. THE MARTIAN ends with the pursuit of the Ares missions and Watney’s lesson in solving problems one after another.
The difference between them is that THE MARTIAN is one-dimensional whereas the approach in AURORA, for all its faults (see my review and musings), is multi-dimensional. AURORA is SF that is not just Science Fiction but Speculative Fiction as well, and problematisation is a significant part of its process and import. Robinson ultimately sees the engineering mentality, if left unchecked, as part of the problem, in danger of making life on Earth unendurable. AURORA ends up calling for a more ecologically aware and responsible engineering approach. We get a glimpse of such a consciousness in Watney’s tenderness for the lone little green shoot growing in the ground in front of his bench, echoing the first growth in his garden on Mars.
A final perplexity remains. One may wonder how to reconcile Ridley Scott as the author of the metaphysical noir masterpiece BLADE RUNNER with the director of THE MARTIAN. I think it is a mistake to see Mark Watney as a spokesman for Ridley Scott’s vision, but the signs of distancing are sparse. Andy Weir is a software engineer (and novelist) but Ridley Scott is, or was, a visionary cineast.
Perhaps Ridley Scott is himself the “Martian” and the very flatness of the characters reflect a Martian anthropologist’s vision of the geek engineer mentality. Scott is not denouncing, nor even making fun of, this culture, but merely providing us with an affectionate portrait of this sub-culture which is taking on ever greater importance. These are the sort of people who love science fiction and fantasy, who enjoy films like BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN, and have made them such a success. There is a tautology here: Ridley Scott has made a film about the sort of people who are likely to appreciate the film, to both enjoy watching it and enjoy pointing out its mistakes and improbabilities.