There is an ambivalent moment in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Martians,” when the father of an Earth family colonizing Mars promises his family he’ll show them Martians only to reveal their reflections on the placid surface of a deserted Martian canal. As the children are aware, and as the reader knows too well, there are other Martians, native Martians, who have been entirely, or almost entirely, wiped out by the arrival of Earth’s colonists. They are the Martians the children had hoped to see but never will or can, since what they want to see has vanished long ago if it was ever there in the first place. It is a narrative all too resonant for those who call themselves Americans, and, perhaps unintentionally, it is echoed in Ridley Scott’s latest science fiction film, The Martian.
The movie stars Matt Damon as botanist Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars when his research team encounters an especially nasty storm in which Watney is thought to have been killed when a communications dish is catapulted at him by the driving wind, its antenna breaching his space suit. Due to sheer luck, however, Watney survives, only to realize that his camp’s oxygen, food, and water supplies will last a fraction of the time it will take before somebody can return to rescue him. So, with the application of a little science and whole lot of gumption, Watney sets out to survive against the odds.
To his credit, Scott has crafted a handsome, fast-paced movie out of material that is probably best-served as a book. Its action, a combination of crisis and discovery strongly flavored by science, recalls Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama in that The Martian is also an adventure story that without the science is pretty thin. The movie’s plot really just bounds from one clever solution to a problem after another. Cinematically, The Martian is like a cross between Gravity—minus the zero-g splendor—and Robinson Crusoe on Mars –minus the monkey—plus, in its vision of the rival Chinese and US space programs reaching a détente in the name of rescuing a fellow spaceman, a dollop of 2010 minus the portentousness.
If this promises a modest movie, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, not least because Watney seems to be such a likeable fellow. True, he only seems to be likeable because that’s how Matt Damon plays him. Over the course of the film’s nearly 2 ½ hours, hardly anything is revealed about Watney except that he doesn’t like disco, that he is possessed of a high degree of ingenuity, and that he is willing to risk his life to save it. The relentlessness of The Martian’s narrative keeps us from knowing anything more, not making room for the kind of introspection that admittedly led to some of the clunkier moments of Gravity. Still, such pacing, while necessary for survival in the Cineplex, seems at odds with a movie in which a man spends more than a year alone, enough time to have experienced the kind of boredom that functions like a dark mirror, allowing one, without distraction, to look into eternity’s maw.
But Watney is squarely cut from American cloth. Death is his enemy. Should he die, or even prepare himself to die as Stone does in Gravity, he will have lost. Instead, with a rousing can-do attitude, he beats death at every corner. His commitment to the belief that technology can push back death’s inexorable tide, is so American that one can begin to see how calling Watney a Martian is akin to calling those immigrants who come to the United States, taking up its unwarranted optimism, the breathless rush forward of progress, Americans. In fact NASA even points out to him that by growing crops on Mars, he has effectively colonized it. So in The Martian, America, having colonized Earth’s unconscious with our cultural products and our peculiarly venomous brand of capitalism, is leaping out of orbit to Mars and, undoubtedly, beyond, a kind of virus. No wonder our creators in Scott’s previous science fiction film, Prometheus, wanted to rip our heads off.