Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why the Movie Version of “The Martian” Isn't About Mars – Or Science! by A.E. Williams

The latest in our series of guest posts by A.E. Williams, author of Terminal Reset: Why the Movie Version of The Martian isn't about Mars - or Science!

Well, I finally made it to see Andy Weir’s book “The Martian” as made into a film by Ridley Scott. While I absolutely adore the book (I admit to having read my Kindle version of it at least six times!), the movie was a perfect example of how Hollywood can bend the message of almost everything it touches. Now, this is not to say that it is bad. It’s an awesome and entertaining film! I absolutely loved a lot of it.


Ridley Scott, coming off the less-than-stellar sequel to his “Alien” film, (and which I am loth to acknowledge even exists), does an outstanding job of story-telling with “The Martian”.[1]

It does seem to be happening on another planet. The attention to details is so great that you don’t even notice the special effects as such. [2]

My focus here is to tell you that the film is NOT about Mars. Or even NASA. It’s a metaphor for – are you ready for this? – DIVORCE!

Now, some may feel that this is me just projecting my own experiences and bias onto a tidy little science-fiction story.[3]

But, hear me out ---The book is all about Mark Watney getting stranded on Mars.

A marooned astronaut uses his wits and courage to overcome outstanding obstacles, in a life-or-death struggle for survival in a hostile environment. This is a story that is as old as history. Many excellent examples of heroic men overcoming vast odds to succeed can easily be cited, from “The Odyssey” all the way to “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”.[4]

“Man Overcoming Nature to Survive” is a concept that we love to revisit. [5]

A modern viewer of “The Martian” sees a beautifully rendered vision of a poor bastard stranded on an alien world, figuring out problem after problem until all is well. They are shown just how important ONE PERSON is to the entire world!

It’s narcissism writ large, with Watney substituting as every viewer who is vicariously living the story through him. And the film carries this off with nary a misstep. [6]

The film unfolds neatly, and (SPOILER ALERT) actually has a happy ending for everyone.

 In fact, no one dies…[7]

The reality of space flight means that NASA has lost a number of astronauts during its history. These stalwart individuals were brave men and women, who thoroughly understood the danger of space exploration. The book and film both get the attitude and psychology of the typical astronaut correct.[8] But, the part regarding the mutiny to try to save Watney goes against type. Astronauts understand the danger and the importance of mission success. They also are superb at following orders.

The movie and the book both get it wrong that any one person would be THAT important, so as to launch a multi-billion-dollar mission of mercy.

In reality, there would be an excellent memorial on Mars, and his name would be etched on the Astronaut Memorial wall.


And perhaps even less[9]

But, what I really wanted to speak to in this article is a different thing entirely.

After pondering the differences between the book and film, I feel that the movie is actually about how men perceive divorce in America today.

Say what? Are you insane, A.E.?[10]

OK –
Here is how the story unfolds – in the book:
·       Astronaut Mark Watney is part of a crew, with a strong, independent female in charge.
·       They are all following her orders, when suddenly, something unplanned occurs
·       Watney is knocked unconscious and separated from the rest of them[11].
·       They are forced to leave him, thinking he is dead.
·       When he comes to he’s been abandoned in a hostile world, compelled to live by his wits alone.
·       Every decision he makes is life or death to him.
·       A large group of people mobilizes to keep him alive when it is discovered he did NOT die.
·       The crew is kept in the dark about the actual truth of things.
·       When they find out what’s going on, they immediately mutiny and take matters into their own hands.
·       They return to the initial location and try their damnedest to rescue him.
·       They succeed, and Watney rejoins the crew.
·       Everyone is happy again!

This follows a typical American divorce scenario and path thus:
·       A man has a family.
·       His wife is a strong, independent woman. Everyone is happy. Then, -something- happens.
·       The woman must make a hard decision, and ends up taking the family away.
·       The man is now on his own.
·       The woman depends on other ‘authorities’ (attorneys) to guide her.
·       Her first concern is the children.
·       The man is also dependent on these ‘authorities’, and his friends, to try to keep his life together.
·       The outcome is uncertain.

In the ‘dream’ ending, (which is the one many children crave), the parents are united, and status quo ante is obtained.

In the ‘real-life’ ending, many times the father is removed from the family permanently -or perishes. Reconciliation is possible but unlikely.

The movie “The Martian” is the dream ending.

While they are not married (hey, this is a metaphor, remember?) Commander Lewis leaves Watney behind for the ‘safety’ of the rest of the crew.

The finale of the film has Lewis substituting for Dr. Beck during the rescue sequence. This diversion from the book is what cemented my mindset regarding the divorce metaphor for me.

Commander Lewis is cast as the savior; a redeemer who has come to liberate Watney from his exile. She effectively gives him back his life and unites him once again with his ‘family’.[12]

The interesting part, to me, is why does Watney WANT to go back to Earth?

Think about this for a moment, to see how deep is the conditioning:
Watney was surviving on his own, practically and efficiently.
Sure, he had a couple of bad turns, but he would have made it HAD HE IGNORED NASA![13]

All they needed to do was launch a food rocket, and take their time doing it. The circumstances of how the failure of the resupply mission exploded would have most definitely been identified in the real world. One thing NASA is, post-shuttle, is CAREFUL!

Now, I can hear you from here shouting “But, LONELINESS! Man is a social animal! He belongs on Earf!”


There’s a ton of precedent against that viewpoint.[14]  Mountain men, sailors, soldiers, explorers and adventurers throughout history have tested their mettle ALONE.

Astronauts are specially chosen for their ability to adapt to long periods of solitude. They are self-sufficient in almost EVERY way.[15]

Mark Watney could have been the first man to actually live on Mars, is all I am saying here.

As long as the water and oxygen machines were maintained and the occasional carbon absorbing filter reused, (and maybe NASA sends him an occasional shipment of toilet paper)[16], the dude NEVER needed to come back to Earth.

Therein is the danger in the non-Hollywood-massaged metaphor - that a man really doesn’t need anyone to survive and thrive. There is a message here that he can live his own way, without interference from meddling bureaucrats, or people who will eventually screw him over.

“The Martian” is also a study in convincing viewers that no man is an island. That he requires a vast infrastructure of ‘experts’ and ‘geniuses’ to allow him to live a full and fruitful life.

You can hear the subtle subtext of “You didn’t build that” echoing in its portrayals of how hard NASA (the government) is trying to rescue him. [17]

Now, I certainly don’t want to come across as somehow pro-men and anti-women here.

My position is how the medium really IS the message, as McLluhan stated.


In conclusion, I find “The Martian” is a splendid book.

It speaks to the wonders and meticulous processes that science can provide, and is a rousing tale. The pacing is fast, and we care about Mark Watney. The ending is contrived, but all-in-all, it’s a fine example of man triumphing over adversity, using his wits. Oh, and maybe some science…

The film, while technically brilliant, seems to have some intrinsic problem with the idea of solitude. There was a conscious effort to downplay Mark Watney’s smart-ass attitude, as I read it. His triumphs were predicated on a need to be vindicated, not by his own survival, but by how successful he was at reintegrating into a society that literally abandons him. Watney was cast into this as a metaphor to reflect how dependent a modern man is upon society, (and specifically one that is veering away from a patriarchal hierarchy[18]).

Left to his own devices, Mark Watney may have eventually ended up as a real Martian.

Up Next:
November - Cyborgs, Artificial Intelligences, Trans-Humans, the Singularity and the Merging of Humans and Machine.
December - The Physics of Science Fiction Weapons.
January – Some of the Thinking Behind “Terminal Reset”.

A.E. Williams,  October 11, 2015

[1] I leave it up to the motivated reader to find the rest of the pertinent details about the actors, etc. over on IMDB. Or Google…
[2] When the crew is moving about in the Hermes, it is so seamless you forget it is not possible to film this kind of thing in gravity.

[3] And, in all fairness, I can certainly point to events in my life that have given me some perspective on this. This is also an attempt to present this premise from a decidedly male worldview, so you will please excuse the tone. I am not at all arguing against or for feminism. There are two sides to relationships, as we know. I’d like to voice my arguments using some slight amount of male privilege. The last time I checked, I do not qualify as female.
[4] Which is  to “The Martian” as “Peter and the Wolf” is to “Dances with Wolves”.[4]
[5] So much so, that Joseph Campbell called it “The Hero’s Journey.”

[6] Sure, there are a few - like Jeff Daniels’ portrayal of a total a-hole NASA Director putting up with Danny Glover’s asocial uber-nerd presentation of the basic slingshot maneuver. And Lewis at the very end. But, at least they sort-of-kind-of omitted the Beck/Johanssen romance bit from the book.

[7] Can you even believe that? I mean, this is a RIDLEY SCOTT movie, for Pete’s sake! I expected at least one exploding astronaut, just to spice things up a bit, at the end there.

[8] Having met a few, I’d just like to add that astronauts are only typical in that every one of them is a demigod.

[10] Like Sheldon Cooper, my mom had me tested and I am not crazy!

[11] Literally blindsided
[12] This does not happen in the book, and is my main point in just how different are the messages between these two versions of the same story.

[13] Watney was doing pretty well on his own. He had managed to grow food, and could have probably survived until the next mission reached him. Ask why couldn’t the ARES 4 mission just land at the ARES 3 site? It was even hinted at, when they discussed ‘retrieving his body’ using ARES 6. Once NASA got back in touch with him, he was basically ordered to try to reach the MAV at ARES 4. This event was far more hazardous to him than just staying put. NASA was ready to send supplies, and that could have included landing another MAV right at ARES 3 again!

[15] Male astronauts, as of this writing, are unable to bear offspring. It is probable that female astronauts can probably inseminate themselves and reproduce unaided, although NASA is mum on the subject.
Actually, he appears to have that problem solved…

[17] I really do not want to politicize the film, since the book does a great job explaining the rationale for the rescue efforts. But this is another instance of how film and print differ greatly. The book goes to great lengths to explain how the entire world is cooperating to rescue Watney, once he is discovered alive. The politics behind this decision, and the inclusion of the Chinese space program, speaks more eloquently to the point than I can in a short article.

[18] Jeff Daniels seemed to be channeling Hillary Clinton, don’t you think?

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