Sunday 10 April 2016

Science in The Martian

The Martian has two very unique features not shared by your average big budget blockbuster. First, it has Sean Bean in it and his character lives. Second, as a science fiction piece it is virtually alone in projecting forward a non-dystopian future in which scientific endeavour comes out smelling of roses. Before you read any further, this review is a touch spoilerific, so stay away if you're saving The Martian up for a rainy evening.

That said, I don't think there's any need to dwell on the plot as it's not a particularly deep film. Set at some unspecified point in the near future, Matt Damon gets left for dead on the Red Planet as a dust storm swoops in on a NASA landing site. The next couple of hours are spent trying to get him back home while Damon has to "science the shit" out of his meagre supplies and technology to stay alive. Okay, scraping up vac-packed faeces and mixing it with Martian soil might not produce the kind of potato crop we see in the film, at least not straight away, but it has enough pseudo-realism for it to be plausible. And puncturing one's space suit to use it for propulsion is a bit iffy, but again, it sounds just about right for it to work.

It goes without saying that the wide panoramic shots of the Martian desert (i.e. Jordan) are stunning, yet the sense of desolation doesn't overcome the film, nor is Mars the "real star". Throughout Matt Damon does a good job of playing Matt Damon, so don't expect much in the way of brooding and existential angst. Thankfully his ubiquity doesn't get tiresome as his adventures in the habitat and on the rover are interspersed with ground control action. Overall it's very watchable. Not a masterpiece by any means, but an entertaining enough update of an Apollo 13 (and an Apollo 13)-style space disaster scenario.

The real hero here has to be science. When it suits, which is often, NASA likes to dress its organisation and its mission up as the repository of all that is best about our species. Its official discourse evokes essentialist notions of exploration, that it is in our very nature to strap ourselves atop a rocket and blast off into infinity. And when it's not reworking old American frontier ideologies, it's presented as an instantiation of the absolute, of a manifestation of reason straight from a late 20th century misreading of Hegel. As such, any film that has official NASA involvement - and this does - the agency has to come out of it looking good. Hence Matt Damon was never in any danger.

Putting that aside, anyone whose politics aren't hitched to the primitivist bandwagon has serious respect for the space science NASA does. Even I follow them on Twitter. And that is shown in the best possible light, here. Matt Damon applies his botanist know-how and astronaut training to grow crops, establish communications with Earth, improvise habitat and suit breach repairs, and lots of other gadgety-things. Meanwhile NASA get their heads together to formulate a rescue plan which, in the best tradition of American schmaltz, a lowly underling at the Jet Propulsion Lab manages to come up with. Whenever a problem presents, all concerned apply ingenuity and the scientific method to arrive at a solution, even if the bounds of credulity take a little stretching.

Nevertheless, this is more than just pro-NASA propaganda. The Martian sets its face against the contemporary wave of dystopian sci-fi that delights in creating misanthropic situations to subject our descendants to. Much harder is to produce a compelling, successful, believable film that ignores the zeitgeist. It shows we have the tools and know how to fix seemingly intractable problems, and that our efforts can be successful. In a world haunted by social problems and looming environmental disaster, give me that message over fashionable fatalism any day.


Chris Williams said...

I think that the real hero - of book, but even more of the film - is not science. It's Lewis. Everyone else just gets to do their thing to the best of their ability. Only she gets to have to make an actual decision. The plot revolves around whether or not she's going to decide to risk herself and the rest of the crew to save Mark. It's neatly done.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. You got me thinking, I reckon a more interesting film would be one that critiqued NASA, because most of what I see about NASA is how fantastic they are, which I am sure has truth to it.

But for balance a critique would be nice.

David Timoney said...

The real hero is humanity.

'The Martian' is essentially a corporate video for NASA, which has ambitions to put a human on the Red Planet sometime in the next 20 to 30 years. Since the Challenger disaster, films about feasible space exploration have struggled with the dilemma that chucking meat into space is costly and dangerous, compared to the use of probes and unmanned vehicles, but that without human interest there is unlikely to be sufficient political support to ensure adequate funding.

This has given rise to a guilty fascination with jeopardy and sacrifice, from 'Apollo 13' to 'Gravity', where the focus is on safe recovery rather than exploration. This new film follows the same outline, but with a more gung-ho attitude, arguing that human ingenuity will overcome most problems so let's take the risk. Given that by 2030 we will have even better explorer-bots, 'The Martian' is a plea for the flexibility and endurance of the hardworking meat-based astronaut.

The ideological core of the film is Watney's evocation of John Locke's colonial theory: it is only by growing crops that you can lay claim to the land (as Native Americans were assumed not to, they could be legitimately dispossessed). In this context, the reliance on that iconic New World staple, the potato (handily available in a Thanksgiving dinner pack), is deliberate, as is Watney's mixing of his labour (i.e. mission shit) with the land. That there are no aborigines on Mars (hence the irony of the title) is irrelevant: this is a claim for American pre-eminence.

This propertarian worldview explains why Watney goes out of his way to justify appropriating the personal gear left behind by the other crew members, from audio tapes to a crucifix that he uses for kindling. He even expounds on international law in respect of piracy when planning to commandeer the rocket ship handily left in anticipation of the future Ares IV mission many miles distant.

The real hero is humanity, but specifically those who respect the property rights of settlers.