Toiling, Triumphing and Terraforming: A Review of Ridley Scott’s The Martian

Patrick O’Connor, Senior Lecturer of philosophy at Nottingham Trent University, explores the philosophical vision of Ridley Scott’s The Martian

The Martian [2015], Ridley Scott’s latest cosmological adventure about survival on Mars, has a unique philosophical vision. It is in the main a conservative one, but one that also has a charmingly progressive dimension. The conservatism of the film is plainly evident in its aesthetic. The Red Planet is deeply fixed; there is a relentless ‘thereness’ to the red hue that suffuses the film’s images. Mars remains eerily immutable; it is both mundane and obstinate, and it resists the possibility of any form of change. Also, the film’s aesthetic does not really correspond to common conventions typical of the sci-fi genre. For this reason, the aesthetic of the movie is conservative, in that its view of the future hardly holds any substantial difference to the present. There is nothing really new about this strangely familiar other world. There is no alternate dimensions or time travel to be seen, nor any mutations or warp speed which appear regularly in other films. The Martian presents a world that is profoundly Newtonian. The technology, the biology, and the representation of space itself are bluntly mechanical and instrumental. Mechanics matter, the journeys take time, fuel and force is precise, gravity is accounted for, and fine calibrations are crucial for the operation of spacecraft. The film firmly remains more an example of speculative fiction than of science fiction. That is, it is more about the remotely plausible than the remotely possible. The latent conservatism of on-screen events is present in Mark Watney’s character (Matt Damon), who has to engage in endless testing and experimentation on Mars. There is a piecemeal slowness to his labour; any change is only ever incremental, and only emerges from countless tiny trial-and-errors. Any radical change potentially results in his destruction, which we see from the explosion that occurs when he attempts to generate water from hydrogen. Such perhaps is the nature of scientific discovery, but for a film that attempts to present a more optimistic view of the future, the presentation of place, and the elapse of time, remain remarkably earthly. The Red Planet is, in effect, a red earth, there to be manipulated by the sheer will of Matt Damon’s cosmic Robinson Crusoe.

The Red Planet itself becomes an example of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger called a standing-reserve

The instrumentalism of the movie also belies an Enlightenment faith in efficiency.  Everything comes across as easy to the point of nonsensical, both in Watney’s physical exertions and in his psychological struggles. There is no real sense of isolation, or that he is stranded in an impossible position. Watney simply goes to work and suffers remarkably little turmoil. With typical conservative gusto, work is the easiest thing in the world: Watney sets to, colonising his new world. Labour does not make you tired, and Watney has infinite energy to perform a plethora of complex tasks, all the way up to terraforming Mars according to his own will. Watney gives us a proxy for the Protestant work ethic of self-reliance, perseverance and diligence. As Matt Seitz points out, despite the drastic situation, there is something radically menial about Watney’s tasks, like he is mowing the lawn while listening to background disco music. The Red Planet itself becomes an example of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger called a standing-reserve; the nature of Mars is in itself a stockpile, an infinite reservoir to be drawn upon to ensure the efficient and smooth running of Watney’s world. This new world is there to be bent to the will of the individual, and this is precisely because his world, in a classically conservative sense, is mundane, predictable and ultimately stable. Thus there is a distinct lack of the tragic in this movie, and for this reason, we always know that Watney will ultimately survive. The whole point of efficiency is that it works.

Watney’s inner world, like the rest of his time on Mars, seems remarkably unperturbed. But this psychological coherency is absolutely essential for the philosophical axis of the film. There is nothing that cannot be bent to his will, which is why even Watney’s own excrement can be turned into something productive. In this way Watney is, if not an entrepreneur – after all entrepreneurs need a market – then an actuary. There is the sense that everything is accounted for not merely as a matter of survival, or life and death, but in the same sense that one might approach a risk assessment form attempting to foreclose the possibility of hazard. As is compounded by Watney’s jokey psychology and video confessionals, there can be no disintegration of his inner self, as that would mean the world would not match his creative vision, where everything is only a problem to be solved. Watney is very rarely out of control. The shipwreck form is thus robbed of its dramatic potency. Just as Mars is a wild world which offers infinite possibility, so too does Watney’s inner turmoil never last long and is thus an infinite reservoir of ingenuity and innovation. The trick is in the message that work and self-reliance are easy: all you have to do is do it, and even the deserted Mars can provide you with ample resources to survive.

There is nothing sacred that cannot be an object of humour, or turned into an instrument for the improvement and progress of mankind

Notwithstanding Watney’s voluntarism, the film is refreshingly atheistic and materialist in its outlook. The scientists, the engineers and the intellectuals are the good guys and heroes. This is in opposition to, say, Interstellar [2014], where teachers, scientists and intellectuals are portrayed as dull, grey, visionless technocrats standing in the way of Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) personal quest to transcend time and space. In one of the more overt irreligious moments of The Martian, Watney carves a crucifix into a tool, in order not to make the point too sacrilegious, Watney has a jokey one-to-one with Jesus. The message is clear, there is nothing sacred that cannot be an object of humour, or turned into an instrument for the improvement and progress of mankind. In one of the few moments of pathos, where we see Watney genuinely afraid, he lies prostrate in front of his ever-dwindling source of potatoes. Transcendence is only before the altar of output and scarcity, not in any external notion of a God.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian
Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

While the obvious interpretation would be to suggest Mark Watney is the all-American individual who saves the day through sheer rugged self-reliance, this would be on the whole unfair. On the more progressive side, there is something achingly human about Matt Damon’s first and last man Watney, taking Sisyphean steps to transform the dimensions of his world. There is also a somewhat charmingly ham-fisted celebration of intelligence in the film, with Watney’s survival depending on his ability to “science the shit out of it.” Likewise, the denizens of NASA are a collective of multi-racial enlightened pragmatists, all devoted to solving the challenge of bringing Watney home. By the end of the film, it comes as no surprise that Mark Watney is transformed into an academic, lecturing future space explorers, albeit while extolling the virtue of mercantile ethics: “You can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” It is in the blend of the ideal and the pragmatic that the distinct ethical force of the film emerges. In a decidedly un-American way, The Martian is less about the pursuit of happiness and more about the good that can be found in the pursuit of survival.  The ethic the movie reveals comes through its idiosyncratic delight in the advances that emerge from human efforts to survive: civility, knowledge, thoughtfulness, collective enterprise, courage and humour. In this Mark Watney is not just a castaway Robinson Crusoe; he is Nietzsche’s last man. The truest and most satisfying meaning is one of eternal struggle, and the virtues that collectively and psychologically emerge from it. While The Martian is hardly endorsing a revolutionary overthrow of the State, it does serve to remind us of the dignity that emerges from efforts to survive that are not rabidly Darwinian. Although, perhaps more worryingly, the lesson it teaches is, such dignity comes at the expense of the tragic. If ever there were a film that deludes itself into thinking there can be no such thing as a lonely American, it is this one.