Contains spoilers for the 2015 film The Martian, and one moderate swear word quoted from it.
The 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars proudly declares on its poster: “This film is scientifically authentic! It is only one step ahead of present reality!” You can guess, simply from the year and title, what we would make of this claim today. Fifty years later, Ridley Scott’s The Martian plots exactly the same vector, just from a different starting point.
The most realistic aspect of Scott’s The Martian, adapted from the self-published novel by Andy Weir, is that its protagonist, botanist and astronaut Mark Watney, never questions his faith in the power of science to save him. Beyond this earnest depiction of contemporary non-religious zeal, the movie’s claims to showcase anything that might be called ‘real’ evaporate. This, indeed, is inevitable: the lesson from The Martian, should we choose to accept it, is that ‘realism’ describes accordance with whichever mythologies we align with our concept of ‘reality’. That does not mean nothing is true: it just highlights the problems entailed in trying to assert terms like ‘realistic’ in connection with imagined events.
The Martian is real to positivists (those who put their faith in the sciences) in precisely the same way something like The Greatest Story Ever Told is real to Christians – right down to the way either cultural cohort would approach nit-picking the content. There is a quasi-religious fervour to the way ‘scientific inaccuracy’ is reported in connection with films such as this, a duty to educate on the back of entertainment, all while extolling the need to witness the film in question for its edifying qualities. While there is no denying (for instance) that the Martian dust storm that serves as the inciting incident would be harmless because of the thinness of the atmosphere on Mars, as the author of the original book acknowledges, I was personally more bothered by the internal problems this creates. If killer storms are an aspect of Mars in the fictional world of The Martian, it cannot be the case that the rockets for departure are recklessly sent by NASA years in advance and ready-to-fly, a key plot device upon which hangs the resolution of the film’s crisis. Mind you, none of this matters in terms of claims to this being a ‘realistic’ story, since such a claim is not about what could happen but about how we conceive reality.
To call The Martian a Robinsonade i.e. a tale in the form of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, is perhaps not too surprising. Surely many expected they were going to see Castaway in Space, rather than Apollo 13: Martian Edition. But herein lies the insurmountable rift at the centre of any claim to realism leveled against the film; not that physics, chemistry, and biology are neglected (rather, they are lavishly worshiped, however inaccurate some details may be), but that the central character is not a character, but a mere cipher through which the miracles of Science are channeled. I would compare Mark Watney to Moses, if it were not for the fact that Moses could barely believe the incredible superpowers that flowed through him. Like the preacher upon the pulpit, Watney doesn’t have to be human; to have our frailties, our weaknesses, to fall prey to depression, to slip from sanity – all this is impossible in the given role. Watney, like a good fundamentalist, never questions, and never doubts the agent of his salvation. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!” he declares. Hallelujah, brother, testify!
It could reasonably be objected that The Martian doesn’t work as a Robinsonade because so much of the story entails the work of NASA to line up all the necessary science-flavoured plot devices involved in its hero’s rescue. It is certainly a twist on the format! But in many respects this helps reinforce the way that both stories are deeply colonial in their perspective. Writing in the same year as Robinson Crusoe on Mars was released, the Irish author James Joyce noted that Defoe’s protagonist was the “true prototype” of the colonialism of the British Empire. Joyce remarks upon Crusoe’s “manly independence” as well as “the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” This description matches Watney perfectly. Certainly, some of the “efficient intelligence” is outsourced to Earth in The Martian, since many of the characters in the movie exist solely to deliver a domain-specific plot device to its proverbial desert island. But it is Watney's “manly independence” that is always the focus of the action.
The principle difference between Watney and Crusoe is that the latter, as with British colonials, had to deal with the indigenous ‘savages’, and only truly turns to faith at the denouement of the novel. Watney on the other hand is alone, and disturbingly unfazed by it. Perhaps his perfect Earth-agricultural potatoes – utterly implausible given what we know about plant growth, incidentally – are his companions? The colonial reference is made internally to the movie, and it would have been interesting to see the film accept that potato plants grown on Mars would be utterly different vegetables to the ones we know. It would have been an acknowledgment, however small, that what we were seeing was palpably unnatural, in the sense this term is usually deployed. Perhaps coming eye-to-eye with an unrecognisable tuber would have allowed Watney to encounter something other than what his scientifically-flawless sainthood projects: mastery of all, dependence upon no-one.
In both Defoe’s novel and The Martian, we are presented with a mythos whereby one soul is able to survive against the odds. This is not coincidental. While separated by nearly three centuries, both stories build upon a conception of the human soul that was given mythic breath by Descartes’ philosophy. The contemporary sciences, in a brutal irony, deftly unweave the idealism of pure individuality implied by Descartes’ cogito: we are a social species, we cannot be human in isolation. Yet a great many contemporary scientists and their fans, swept up in a mythology they cannot quite perceive because of its status as background assumption, continue to presume this individualism, a narrative massively intensified by the Enlightenment – originally to our benefit, now to our considerable loss. We have been colonised by this way of thinking; its truth has supplanted older ways of being that now seem ‘savage’ by comparison. Of course we must idolise the individual as the embodiment of freedom! Anyone who doesn’t is not ‘one of us’.
The Martian offers to reassure you that you can exist as a pure individual provided you place your faith in the sciences (while ignoring what these discourses reveal about us), and that humanity will act to deliver you from evil – at astronomical expense! – provided you do not live on our own planet. This does not exhilarate me the way it has other cinema goers. I find it somewhat pernicious that we can be entertained by this, for reasons directly parallel to the critique I leveled at Interstellar and Sunshine. I enjoyed the movie only guiltily, quietly concerned by what it reveals about our contemporary mythologies. The sciences cannot save us because they have become quintessentially bound to our problems; not quite their cause, but inestimably far from being our salvation. We cannot go on without their help, but in ascribing to them the unique capacity to determine what is ‘real’ we extend the power practices of our officially dismantled Empires indefinitely. Perhaps it is time to apply the deeply questioning methodology we ascribe to the sciences to our notion of ‘realistic’ and bring an end to the colonialism of truth that underpins far too much of our cultural baggage.