Hollywood has released a feature film starring the scientific method. In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, special effects take the backseat to a computer from 1996, and hexadecimal digits and botany unexpectedly upstage an impressive cadre of actors. Undoubtedly, science is the mainstay of The Martian. Author of the book the film is based upon, Andy Weir, took great care to create plausible scenarios, only taking poetic license with a Martian dust storm as a plot impetus. In the face of terrifying obstacles, stranded astro-botanist Mark Watney innovates constantly to stay alive, determined to, in his words, “science the shit out of this.”
The film depicts the scientific process with surprising accuracy—we see the failures, the explosions, the setbacks as well as the inspiration from unlikely sources, the persistence in the face of discouraging odds. The filmmakers recognize that scientific advancement rarely, if ever, occurs in a void, and series of bewildering, humorous, and innovative problem solving episodes propel the plot. Limited food supply? Watney rummages through freeze dried meals to find a live plant to farm in Martian soil. Limited water? He smashes together two hydrogen atoms with an oxygen atom using combustion. Flame retardant NASA habitat? Watney starts a fire using shaved wood from a crucifix.
In a movie ostensibly about solitary confinement on Mars, the basic tenets of survival remind us of the communal nature of human existence. Crops spring from potatoes originally intended for a Thanksgiving feast with the crew, and a universal symbol of Christian community fuels the fire.
The Martian isn’t simply an extended ode to science and the power of creative problem solving. Without the fundamental tension of human fragility in outer space, the film could be reduced to the realm of highly amusing instructional science videos. The exposure of life in space, unsupported by our protective atmosphere, enables us to remember our shared vulnerability more easily. Watching a person with flesh and blood, the same blood as ours, kept from imploding by only a tarp and duct tape taps our instinctual desire for survival.
The heroics of science take place within a wider community of caffeine-fueled problem solvers. Scientific breakthroughs happen while heating Ramen noodles in NASA’s cafeteria, or at conference tables with an enthusiastic pitch casting office supplies as interplanetary objects. The six voyagers, their flight commander, the NASA bureaucracy, the coders, the absent-minded graduate students, the industry contacts, the families of the astronauts, form a vast, tenuous support network. Watney is stranded, alone, but at the same time, he isn’t.
The chain of events that leads to Watney’s ultimate rescue depends on international cooperation between countries. We see the fate of one man caught up in a bureaucratic debate, as perhaps countless silent lives are, but the distance and strangeness of his situation kindles an empathy which overcomes divisions that seem so strong on terra firma. One might expect human relationships to take a backseat in a film about solitary confinement on Mars, but instead we see a single scientist sustained by a collaboration that crosses typical earthly boundaries. Watney reflects on his improbable survival,
“If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.
Perhaps it is naïve to think that five astronauts would selflessly spend an extra 500 days in space on behalf of someone who they left behind through no particular fault of their own. The notion that rival nations would share cutting-edge defense technology to retrieve a lone citizen abandoned on Mars prompts skepticism. The presentation of NASA as a painfully honest government entity is admirable yet unrealistic.
Yet, seeing Earth as a whirled marble through the window of the spaceship Hermes has a way of dispelling cynicism about its inhabitants. That heart-stopping view and the sheer vulnerability of astronauts somehow stirs what Vaclav Havel names “the dormant goodwill in people.” Havel continues, “The dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence.” The heroics of an international cohort on Earth and in orbit to support a solitary man challenge the pessimistic view that society is increasingly fragmented and self-serving. The silent vacuum of space enables humans to listen deeply to the plight of a man on a remote planet.
The Martian shows us those stirred people—the architects of the rover who emerge out of the anonymity of graduate school to troubleshoot communication, the absent-minded student who offers his hasty computations with a blatant disregard for his own success. The industry, government, and academic partners that rally in support of Watney, a self-proclaimed “dorky astrobotanist” are a testament to basic instinct of human decency. The sparks of ingenuity are insufficient to save Watney in and of themselves—his rescue requires ingenuity and empathy. In a genre that tends to glorify science, progress, and interplanetary exploration compounded with a culture that values rugged individualism, The Martian refreshingly reinforces fundamental impulse towards compassion.
As we watch the world, from Taipei to Trafalgar Square transfixed by the unfolding story, we remember our common fragility, nudging us forward towards collaboration and camaraderie as resident Earthlings.