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The Martian, from director Ridley Scott, is an exciting film about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet. It celebrates the heroism that comes from human reason. And it points to what it will take for humans in coming decades to make Mars a new home for humanity. With the film coming on the heels of NASA’s confirmation of liquid water on the Martian surface, that home could be closer than you think!
The Martian is based on a novel that author Andy Weir originally published himself online and offered as a free download. The author and the film take care to be as scientifically accurate as possible in the context of a fictional offering.
The movie opens with the third crew to land on Mars rushing back to their landing craft ahead of a sudden sandstorm that threatens to destroy it and them. (In reality, Mars’s thin atmosphere would mean such a storm would annoy rather than kill. But then there’d be no story!)
Unfortunately, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris from some destroyed communications equipment and blown away. Sensors indicate his suit’s seal has been breached, meaning his oxygen has escaped and he’s likely dead. The rest of the crew takes off without searching for his body to avoid being killed themselves.
They begin their sad, year-long journey home after informing the world of the tragedy.
But Watney is alive! The breach in his suit was sealed by blood and the debris lodged in his side. He gets back to the habitat the astronauts had used as their base. But his future still looks grim. He is out of contact with Earth and his shipmates. The next Mars mission is not scheduled to arrive for four years and will land 3,000 kilometers from where he is. He has nowhere nearly enough food rations to survive that long. But he declares, “I’m not gonna die,” and we see his mind at work in the video logs he makes of his efforts.
“Let’s do the math!” he says as he figures out that he must grow three years’ worth of potatoes on a frozen planet where nothing grows and find some way to water and fertilize his crops. But he’s a botanist and he declares, “Mars will come to fear my botany power!” He converts part of the hab into a makeshift greenhouse. Human waste—what the crew left in its short visit and what he will produce in the years ahead--will be his fertilizer. The water will come from a jury-rigged setup that extracts it from other substances at hand in the hab.
Watney contemplates how to get his tractor, which needs batteries recharged every 35 kilometers, to trek a hundred times that distance, how to carry enough supplies for that journey, how to contact Earth, and many other challenges. And he declares, “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this!”
Director Scott does not give us wishful thinking, mere muscles, unconvincing machismo, or deus-ex-machina miracles. He gives us intelligence as the key to survival.
Meanwhile, back at NASA, satellite photos show activity at the hab, meaning Watney is alive. Scientists on Earth observe him trekking out into the desert and guess, correctly, that he’s searching for a decades-old Pathfinder probe to try to revive its old radio system, which he does. Now they can communicate.
But Watney’s farming efforts are cut short by an accident, and NASA’s plan to send an unmanned resupply ship does not go as planned. The one slim hope, which NASA opposes, is for his shipmates to swing around Earth rather than land as they’re supposed to and return to Mars to rescue him. Will they do so? Will they succeed?
Many elements of The Martian are familiar from other movies. Gravity (2013) gave us drifting in space, trying to return to a ship. Apollo 13 (1995) was a film version of real-life astronauts with a disabled spacecraft trying to get home safely from an aborted lunar mission. The Martian, like Apollo 13, gives us a vision of the heroic that comes from the same source that allows humans to travel to other worlds to begin with: the human mind.
Some might think that a film about the how hostile Mars is to human life would discourage people from ever wanting to go there, much less live there. I disagree. Humans are explorers and achievers.
In 1996 Robert Zubrin published The Case for Mars, outlining an innovative plan for getting to the Red Planet for a fraction of the cost of a NASA mission. He founded the Mars Society, which runs conferences and simulations of Mars missions in the arctic, in preparation for the real thing. Other groups such as Explore Mars have sprung up in recent years. Other innovative mission models have been proposed, including one from Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. And Mars One proposes to send settlers to the Red Planet on one-way trips, to be permanent occupants. Private entrepreneur Elon Musk founded his rocket company SpaceX with the goal of establishing permanent settlements on the Red Planet. And NASA’s confirmation of water on the surface of Mars opens further possibilities for future colonies.
The Martian is an uplifting film that does not minimize the challenges of life; indeed, Watney explains that he knew going in that space travel was dangerous and that he could be killed. But he says that once you acknowledge that you might die, you deal with the problem at hand and the next and the next. This is humanity at its best. Damon as Watney gives a fine performance. His character must keep up his optimism—without maudlin emotionalism or self-deceiving bravado. He must demonstrate intelligence and ingenuity. In all this we see the best of the human spirit!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.