“I’ve been thinking about laws on Mars. There’s an international treaty saying that no country can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth. By another treaty if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies. So Mars is international waters. Now, NASA is an American non-military organization, it owns the Hab. But the second I walk outside I’m in international waters. So here’s the cool part. I’m about to leave for the Schiaparelli Crater where I’m going to commandeer the Ares IV lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m on board the Ares IV. So I’m going to be taking a craft over in international waters without permission, which by definition… makes me a pirate. Mark Watney: Space Pirate.”
‘The Martian’, directed by Ridley Scott in 2015, is an American science fiction movie starring Matt Damon as a botanist, Mark Watney, who is left behind, injured on Mars when the a dust storm hits and the rest of his NASA crew are forced to abort their mission. Watney survives and then spends the next year and a half using his wits and training to stay alive, to improvise a way of communicating with the Earth and a way of escaping. It’s a film about technical details and human ingenuity as much as physical danger and hardship. Whilst Watney goes through the wringer, he does so with humour and self-deprecating one-liners so amusing that the film was classed as a comedy at the Golden Globe awards. There is a mesmerising pleasure to be had in watching the character rig up solutions to his every increasing problems using the material to hand, and a matching pleasure in watching his fellow crewmates and the scientists back on Earth risking their lives and positions to rescue him. This is a film without any baddies and (spoiler alert) one in which no-one dies. Compare this with Scott’s dark and apocalyptic ‘Prometheus’ movies, the second of which is forthcoming: films that are laced with death and disaster in which each crisis reduces the characters rather than building them. In this way, ‘The Martian’ feels like a palate cleanser for Scott, a feel-good science fiction film that says more about the spirit of NASA, of the global, boundary shattering power of science and of the indomitable ability of individuals. Watney doesn’t just escape from Mars with science, he escapes with humour.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a rare example of a film that seems to be a disaster movie but turns out to be something far more. Watch with ‘Moon’ or ‘Solaris‘ for a contrast: Duncan Jones’s movie is brilliant, but watching them both will show how isolation can breed humour as well as madness.