What does Mars tell us in The Martian?

This post contains spoilers.

THE MARTIAN illustration
Illustration by Shayla Sabada

Imagine this: you are stranded on a distant planet without water, food, internet access, your smartphone, or even other humans. What crosses your mind first? Of course, you want to survive. Maybe your goal is to find a way to reconnect with the Earth, or perhaps you’d prefer to settle down in this foreign land and crown yourself as its first ruler.

Matt Damon does both in The Martian, a sci-fi adventure blockbuster brought to you by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus). The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir. Weir’s first novel was self-published in 2011, and soon topped the Kindle sales chart. Well-researched yet fantastical, Weir blends real science and fiction without sacrificing either one for the sake of trying to be more entertaining.

On the eighteenth Martian day, or sol, of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is separated from the rest of his team, the other members of which are forced to evacuate the planet when it is hit by a sudden sand storm. While everyone on Earth (including NASA and his teammates) presumes that he is dead, Watney wakes up the next day impaled by an antenna in his abdomen, finding himself to have been abandoned. Being left behind on Mars might suck for many reasons, but Damon’s character doesn’t drown himself in self-pity. Instead, he decides to ‘science the sh*t’ out of every single resource he is left with on the Red Planet.

The next NASA manned mission to Mars is four years away, which means nobody will notice Watney until 1460 Earth days later. It is frightening, but the good-humored and strong-willed Watney does not just curse Mars and then cry until he cannot breathe. Thankfully, the astronaut was a botanist back on Earth, and he manages to cultivate four hundred and something sols worth of potatoes using his own feces and the universally scarce resource that is water. Meanwhile, Watney has to figure out how to regain contact with NASA and find a route to the spot closest to the landing site of Ares IV in the hopes that he will be picked up and brought back to Earth. Thanks to Watney’s super-brain, he translates his scientific knowledge into creative engineering, which ultimately saves his life.

Despite Watney having devised a comprehensive plan to keep himself alive on the Red Planet, those four hundred sols are riddled with frustration and uncertainty. Watney’s courage and endurance are tested as he struggles to overcome the volatility of Mars.

How should he positively deal with the decompression of the airlock on the habitat which blows up his shelter and kills all his crops inside? When the crew returns to Mars to rescue Watney, how can he ensure his vehicle achieves the necessary altitude to intercept the spaceship?

Undoubtedly, one could very quickly get discouraged in such situations. However, Watney is the poster-boy of human ingenuity, and his cool-headedness and optimism are qualities that audiences should take home with them. He does not beat himself up for miscalculating the amount of heat needed to create water by burning hydrazine rocket fuel (OK, well, he does—for like one or two seconds). He even jokes that he has colonized Mars, because he cultivates crops on its soil. Weir’s character lives up to the idea of “Keep Calm and Carry On” brilliantly.

Loneliness is hard to cope with, but Watney keeps his mind active on Mars by recording daily video logs. Scott shrewdly grants the video logs the dual purposes of allowing Watney to explain complicated scientific ideas in plain language while also giving the audience a chance to get a closer look at the intimate side of the character.

Besides recording what he is going to do next, Watney complains about the poor musical taste of the mission commander (played by Jessica Chastain) while blasting her old-school disco music collection in the background during his recording. This is just a little comic relief, which gives you a break from feeling bad for the poor guy.

Regarding the purpose of the recordings on a broader scope, they show that it is important for us as humans to learn how to cope with loneliness. Watney learns this incredible lesson, but we all do not get a chance to experience what he goes through—nor do we want to.  Not everyone can dance with loneliness classily, and if you can, that is truly an amazing ability. Human beings rely on the need to belong, but who knows when you will have to be all alone. The movie conveys that coping with loneliness is also a vital survival skill.

The Martian is not a typical Scott movie in terms of its cinematography and script (I had expected the story to be more devastating, to be honest), nor is the movie a typical disaster sci-fi movie. You’re sure to become infatuated with Damon’s charisma during the video logging, and be prepared to get yourself into the nostalgic mood when Gloria Gaynor’s disco dance number “I Will Survive” plays in the background.

-Contributed by Michelle Luk

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