The Martian Roundtable
Red Savina Review Founding Editor John Gist, Reviews Editor Royce Grubic, and contributing reviewer Brooke Carlson recently had this spirited exchange about the meaning and merits of Ridley Scott’s new blockbuster film, The Martian.
- Is science the salvation in this film or the problem? Or is something else the main problem or source of salvation?
RG: To paraphrase the bioethicist Margaret McLean, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. The astronomical achievements (literally, ha) of science brought Mark Watney (Matt Damon’s character) and the others to Mars, to that “unnatural” frontier—for air-breathing humans at least—where he would be stranded. His scientific ingenuity and the brilliant engineering efforts of the JPL and NASA crowd then saved him, of course. It could be said that science rescued him from science. In this regard the film might be sending a harmful message, because when we think about the environmental calamities our planet faces, industrial technology has been a main cause; it may be that only austerity and more human values are the answer, not science. In other words, engineering created the atomic bomb and so on, but something besides the engineering mentality is needed to manage such technology responsibly and to safeguard the future. Take that, the Enlightenment!
BC: Yes, science is proffered as the salvation, especially in the end of the film, when Mark Watney astronaut now professor, instructs his students to (and I am paraphrasing here): “Do the math. Do enough math and solve enough problems, and you get to come home . . . ” In this light, scientific engineering gets one home. Science affords one safety, security, life. The problem, however, is that science does not solve this problem, the deeper problem of finding one’s way home, or even simply being. As you point out, the “astronomical” (I like that) achievement, the ride home, happens through the group effort of the JPL and NASA groups, American and Chinese politicians, and more. Science does rescue science, but the idea that we can know, explain, and control—the scientific method, in short—is the problem. Mars is not amenable to human life, the Earth is. If we destroy our own planet through industrialization, an extension of science and scientific thought, then we, as scientists, are the problem. Inhabiting Mars may well save some of us . . . because who is going to get to go? Are any of us having or reading this conversation going to get to go? . . . with an extension on life, but is it the answer to our being? Having said that, I do think the film champions science as salvation, even as it undermines itself, calling into question who and what we as human beings are.
JG: “I’m going have to science the hell out of this,” says Mark Watney, or something akin to it, in an almost spiritual reverie. That is what I found odd about this film. Having never read the book or watched the trailers (I’m in the habit of doing this when possible so as not to spoil any surprises), I found it strange that the Damon character had no spiritual insights while stranded alone as a stranger in a strange land. The time seemed ripe and yet all he seemed to think about was maritime law and science. He was blinded by science. Science has usurped all to become pretender to the throne of salvation. Really, though, as you both pointed out, science may be a red herring to take us off the trail of the real problem: the need for a transvaluation of human values.
- How do the filmmakers want us to view engineers, bureaucrats, and astronauts? Who are the good guys?
RG: It’s nice to see geeky heroism celebrated, although exuberant nerdiness has been popular in culture with the Comic-Con phenomenon and in shows like The Big Bang Theory. It’s nothing new. The NASA adminstrators and more bureaucratic governmental figures in the film are seen as obstacles, but they sort of need to be as part of their job description, considering that decisions have to made based on what is best for the entire country and based on hard economic facts. Rationality itself might be called the bad guy, as odd as that sounds. The astronauts are of course brave and dashing and smart, as they probably are also in real life. I never imagined that they were all so good-looking, though.
BC: I can’t speak to nerdy television shows (save True Blood and Game of Thrones), but I do know the image of the geek over time has been raised up. And here, the astronauts are smart and sexy—the good guys, the heroes. I see the politicians and bureaucrats as wayward souls in need of redirection and control, as you mention. I question the reasons for the decisions a bit. But that may only be because I question today’s politicians and their motives. You say they decide both based on what’s best for the country and on hard economic facts. The film complicates that a bit through the media PR game that follows the discovery of the living Mark Watney. How far are these (and our current) politicians from corporations? And in whose interest are these choices being made? I find this part scary. The masses in the film, and the audience in the theaters, are left as observers, as people of no real consequence, cheering on the real players in Times Square, or cheering on the heroics outside in China. The good guys are the people in power, and the best are astronauts. I like that these astronauts are both male and female. Race is a complicated issue here and one that has been addressed by others elsewhere.
JG: The astronauts are like Greek Argonauts while the bureaucrats and politicians play the necessary roles of lesser evils who pander to polls and public opinion. Nothing new here. I found most of the characterizations underdeveloped and rather flat. A better question might be, “Who are the bad guys?” Walking into the film blind, I half-expected, at first, a Martian or a ghost or something to serve as antagonist. Instead, the antagonist is, for Damon’s character directly and indirectly, I guess, everybody else from the astronauts down to the masses, the environment. Damon must conquer the environment; science must conquer the environment; it is a war of sorts, one that, ironically, may just destroy the aggressor. I agree that from the perspective of the filmmakers the good guys are those in power but I’ll take it further: the good guys are the people and the bad guy is the other we call nature. Nature needs to serve humans; it must be subdued. Uh, oh! I found the religion I was missing above: Old Testament style subjugation of all worlds! To arms! To arms!
- Matt Damon played the title character in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. In that World War II film the government went to great lengths to rescue a soldier to avoid having a mother lose all of her sons in battle. While dodging bullets, the rescue team had to wrestle with the idea that apparently Private Ryan’s life was worth more than theirs. In philosophy this would be called a conflict between rational Utilitarian ethics and the more emotional Ethics of Care. In the latter, significant others (or those whose stories we’ve become invested in) take priority and matters of justice and logic take a back seat to compassion, empathy, mercy, etc. In The Martian Matt Damon’s (i.e. Mark Watney’s) life is apparently worth the cost of a special Mars Mission—something we can guess would approach $10 billion. How is The Martian different than Saving Private Ryanand how is it the same?
RG: The Normandy beaches aren’t stormed and no one is shot in the head by machine guns in The Martian, but I do wonder if Matt Damon is cast in these roles because of some waif-ish quality that he has—i.e., that’s the face of someone we must go to extraordinary lengths to save. But in this film he also had the vulgar Boston pugnaciousness and “street smarts” of his Good Will Hunting character, which to me is much less sympathetic. (“How ‘bout dem apples . . . er, I mean potatoes!”) I actually was rooting for the problem-solving itself more than I was for him as a character. Yay, intelligence! Matt Damon, whatever.
BC: Yeah, I like dem potatoes . . . haha. I didn’t see Saving Private Ryan because I’m a sensitive guy and that film looks so painful. I can’t weigh in on the differences between the two, but I would like to comment briefly on what you outline as the conflict between rational Utilitarian ethics and the Ethics of Care. The Ethics of Care allow the narrative to happen, precisely because they lead to human interaction and responsibility, all of which produce feeling. I enjoy the feelings and the passionate ride this film produces. I suspect it’s night and day, or Mars and Earth, from Saving Private Ryan.
JG: The Martian is Saving Private Ryan. Instead of bullets and bombs (products of engineering and science), The Martian has a team of scientists that maintain their own humanity by “doing the right thing” by going back to save their little buddy. It’d be like Skipper and the gang, after finally finding a dingy to get off the island, turning back for Gilligan even though they might have boarded a passing Carnival Cruise ship and radioed in the Coast Guard. The entire film, at least to me, was a somewhat clunky attempt to infuse hard science with a dose of “humanity,” or the objective with the subjective.
- Arguably, some of the best Science Fiction is the most realistic. Is The Martian realistic or more like a reality show, particularly suited to 2015 audiences? Is it better labeled “science fantasy”? Or Survivorman on Mars?
RG: Who even knows where those lines are currently. It is interesting that most of this is played out as an elaborate selfie or in the public eye live on CNN, etc. The most unbelievable parts of the film—not counting creating perfect airtight seals with only duct tape or entering space only covered with a tarp—were when TV editors didn’t take advantage of the satellite delay to censor the broadcasts. After the space shuttle disasters, there is no way any of this would be shown live. That may have been a greater leap of faith than Watney’s blast off.
BC: Hahaha—I love the blasting off from Mars without a top. That shot is fabulous! In all seriousness, though, this is the genre question. Is this sci-fi? Isn’t sci-fi just the Western, set elsewhere? Or is it the war film? These are big questions, and I think it helps to stick with sci-fi. Back in 1972, Darko Suvin defined science fiction as an exploration of all things new and that which is estranging. Fantasy is another space similar to this, and yet different in terms of time, if not also locale. Tvzvetan Todorov is a good person to explore along the lines of fiction and fantasy. Sci-fi tends to be the future and space. Part of what I see happening here is the recuperation of history— an attempt to re-tell what has happened in a different light, to make better worlds that in effect challenge the unjust present or worse worlds that highlight the same kinds of injustice. What is Ridley Scott attempting to make better in The Martian? As we’ve said, he is proffering up the engineer’s mind, the scientific method and logos (which transcend race and gender in a way that strips the reality from both) as the way to live and be in the twenty-first century. Scott recuperates history through the use of a not-too-distant future that builds on the real, present day world. As I mention, his world seems just like ours. NASA, JPL, a (secret) Chinese space program that surpasses ours, Times Square, Happy Days, all that fabulous disco . . . but with a giddy, triumphant ending. You’re calling what we have in The Martian a kind of reality TV. Real locations are used in what appears to be the present, and to great effect. The film works very well in that regard. I see you relegating the film to reality TV as a diminutive, when it’s success in this regard that actually makes the film so powerful. The real locations suggest the film is happening right now, or very soon, and the result is unsettling; which takes me back to Darko Suvin, and the genre as “cognitive estrangement.” I am estranged, in this picture, because of the way by which the film wields ethos and pathos, more than logos. When I walk out of the theater estranged, expecting to encounter the world of the film, that’s a great film.
JG: Blasting off of Mars without a top to showcase Matt Damon. I agree that a good portion of this film is a Mark Watney selfie and the film in general is one more attempt to celebrate the egocentrism of humanity disguised in a kind of Ethics of Care. Give me Blade Runner or, more recently, Ex Machina, both of which take more realistic looks at philosophical problems than The Martian. Sitting down to participate in this roundtable has caused me to deem the film as a rather shallow attempt to celebrate science and technology while ignoring the motivating factors that drive forward scientific innovation: the human ego and hubris.