Monday, October 12, 2015

The Martian

Not so much a review as a series of thoughts, so ... mild spoiler alert.

There have been stories about astronauts stranded on Mars before, of course. Short stories by Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon, Rex Gordon's novel No Man Friday, and the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars have all turned on various kinds of Martian shipwreck (and one of the characters in my novel The Secret of Life refused to leave the home she'd made on Mars when offered the chance of rescue). But The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novel by Andy Weir, brings a couple of new ideas to the game.

It's a film whose beats are snaps of inspiration and the appliance of science. Unlike Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Martian doesn't dramatise the effects of solitude and the continual struggle for survival on its lone protagonist. Like his departed colleagues, who left him behind in the confusion of a dust storm, the stranded astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a scientist, come to Mars not to fight monsters or set up a hotdog stand or moon about ancient crystal cities, but to do science. And he goes about the business of survival in a thoroughly intelligent, rational and convincing way, confronting each problem and sciencing the shit out of it. As on Mars, so on Earth. Once they realise that Watney is alive, NASA scientists and engineers begin to devise a way to rescue him, and like him they must work with what they have, within the immovable limitations of physics and orbital mechanics. As in Apollo 13, the ticking clocks of dwindling resources and orbital windows drive the drama; unlike Apollo 13, there are few glimpses of the hinterlands or interior lives of its protagonists. Its gaze is not unsympathetic, but is cool and vast, more comfortable with technical details than messy human lives.

That same gaze pans across vast panoramas of Mars as we now know it from the camera eyes of spacecraft in orbit and rovers and robot landers. Views from high above showing Watney driving across vast desolations in a Mars buggy are resonant with the Romantic sublime: the works of man lost in the enormous emptiness of nature. There's a wonderful Martian sunset, and a nice shot showing Watney sitting on a rocky ridge and looking out across the ochre landscape: part of a short passage in which in which, in a rare moment of introspection, he reflects that everywhere he goes is new territory, his every footprint the first.

Despite the film's claim to verisimilitude, there are, inevitably, compromises made for dramatic purposes. The dust storm that kicks off the story is far more violent than any possible in Mars's thin atmosphere; Watney recovers an actual probe that landed near the landing site of his fictional expedition by digging it out of an unlikely dune, presumably deposited by similar storms. I appreciate the dramatic reason -- the excavation nicely parallels the unveiling of its Earthbound twin in a Jet Propulsion Laboratory warehouse -- but it misses an opportunity to show Watney finding it by navigating the rocky landscape where it actually landed, and which it extensively and famously imaged. Likewise, the region where he's stranded, Acidalia Planitia, contains some fantastic geology -- outflow channels where ancient floods have modified the landscape; tens of thousands of mounds that might be extinct mud volcanoes; huge boulder fields and areas of shattered blocks -- but while an actual expedition to the region would most definitely science the shit out them, they're never mentioned in the film. A pity, I think, as they could have been used to give a sense of Mars as a place with its own deep dynamic history.

But the film is after all called The Martian, not Mars. And its story of tribulation and dogged survival, of the triumph of one man's will, and of human ingenuity and cooperation, is upliftingly optimistic. No wonder, despite a subplot that depicts technicians outwitting NASA politicians, the agency has thrown its weight behind it. It not only shows us how it would be for humans to walk on Mars; it's also a hymn to the space industry's scientific and technical capability, and to the spirit of exploration.


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