The Martian

August 7, 2018 § Leave a comment

Choosing a film from the pile-up I’ve recorded is often a matter of mood, the less worthy prevailing because of tiredness or the need for sheer escapism. So last night I finally watched Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), a film it didn’t occur to me to see in the cinema, or to read any reviews. It was Matt Damon stuck on Mars for 500 Martian sols, at a not-too-distant future time when it takes a mere three or four years to get there and back (maybe just two – hard to keep up with the discrepancy between Earth days and Martian sols). Matt Damon (the shorter, less handsome version of George Clooney, both of them liberals with their own line in wisecracking) as scientist/astronaut Mark Watney growing potatoes on Mars for 2 ½ hours – that was all I knew about the plot. But it wasn’t entirely a waste of my time.
Here was a height of US optimism film, a demonstration of how that confident country really can do the impossible: shipwrecked astronaut grows vegetables to feed himself on a planet without water, after healing himself from a very nasty wound inflicted by debris during a tornado-like Mars storm – the one that had forced the emergency departure of fellow crew members when their spacecraft was threatened with destruction. They believed him to be dead. Instead, knowing time is not on his side, he faces a Robinson Crusoe challenge.
From what I remember, Robinson Crusoe did quite a lot of soul-searching. Mark Watney doesn’t, he just gets on with it and we don’t have a moment’s doubt about his survival. This Crusoe is the closest you get to Superman in human form: not only is he a botanist by training, but he also turns out to be a very clever physicist, a brilliant chemist, thermal engineer and technical whiz, and even gets to do some Iron-Man style flying. He is all he needs to be to take on Mars, chirpily good-humoured, fearless and self-deprecating, matching every apparently insurmountable problem with a light-bulb moment.
Not only is this a survival movie where an individual performs the work of a specialised team, it’s also a rescue movie with teamwork required in space and on Earth. More light-bulb moments: ‘I’ve done the math!’ (that amputated little word, so jarring to British ears it’s no wonder we haven’t adopted it). When things go wrong, international cooperation saves the day in the shape of a benign pair of Chinese scientists.
Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon. No American flags fly here on Mars, but Mark Watney does plant those potatoes and makes a little joke about crop cultivation constituting a first action of colonisation – one of many tongue-in-cheek lines.
Is there romance in this movie? Well, spacecraft commander Jessica Chastain betrays a certain tendresse in her sorrow at leaving Mark behind, dead or not. They are finally reunited in a bulkily suited space embrace, gazing into each other’s eyes, framed by the pretty orange-pink tangle of the spaceship tether that holds them safely together. She has a partner on Earth, but the astronauts seem to cling more to the bonds of mission team than to family. So it’s a happy ending, even if they never meet again.
What struck me most of all about this film is its unlikelihood: I couldn’t imagine it being made now. It belongs in 2015, the tail end of Obama’s presidency. It plays with light comedy on the idea of US supremacy in a way that makes that time three years ago a distant era, the world before Trump.

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