If there is a reason why Americans do not easily cease from exploration it is because, for us, knowing a place for the first time is a horrifying prospect. English colonial writers had a sense of place and Russian novelists a sense of space, but Americans have always been most at home on the frontier—a place which is, by definition, not home. And it is, perhaps, for this reason, that audiences have taken so warmly to Ridley Scott’s portrayal of Mars’s cold, dirty, desertous, lifeless landscape—if you squint right, it almost looks like home.
It might take some getting used to. And getting used to it provides the narrative arc for the film. The film follows a similar structure to others of its genre—think Castaway and All Is Lost. The Martian, however, takes it up a notch in its portrayal of life spent marooned on a desert planet. Interestingly, life in such a place seems almost enviable comparted to the lives of so many earthlings back on the lonely blue satellite. The film’s hero, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), never even has to worry about the ennui of unemployment. After his presumed death and abandonment during a slight cyclone dustup, Watney finds that there is always something to do on planet Mars. Sometimes, that something is figuring out how to grow potatoes from Martian soil and human excrement. Sometimes, it means cannibalizing the parts of earlier Martian probes to create a not-so-primitive-but-dangerous thermal system.
Of course, in an era when the government is watching everything on planet earth, it isn’t long before they are watching everything on Mars as well and, when satellite imagery picks up that the Mars surface vehicle has moved from one place to another, NASA discovers that Watney is still alive and unwell. This sets off a crescendo of questions of ethical, biological and mechanical variety—should they tell his crew, who are en route from Mars, or send another expedition entirely? Should NASA accept help from their Chinese counterparts or trust his food supply (which at two or three potatoes a day is positively Irish) to hold up?
Giving voices to the conflicting opinions are Theodore “Teddy” Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the government executive whose main job is to give voice to the Establishment; Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who cuts a middle course between PR and the moral imperatives of command; and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean). In this role, Mr. Bean is effective, having frequently before played the role of the old school institutional man, more devoted to his subordinates than his superiors (see Richard Sharpe series). When Sanders bitterly spits at him the time-worn cliché—“When this is over, I will be expecting your resignation”—it doesn’t take a NASA rocket-scientist to figure out that that is probably not going to happen. The matter is further complicated when Watney’s fellow crew members, on their way back to planet earth, find out that he is still alive and, under the democratic leadership of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), turn their craft around to try to reach their comrade before his food runs out.
These events provide the most intense drama of the film. However, between Scott’s two previous films about exploration, The Martian channels Prometheus more than it does Alien. The film is based less around conflict and tension than it is about both the dualistic nature of discovery, at once both horrible and wonderful. While Watney climbs one ridge after another, looking out upon a landscape that appears pretty much the same everywhere, one sees with him a world which is sublime without having even a hint of beauty.
This is not inevitable. Despite Edmund Burke’s noble efforts to set the two concepts against one another, beauty and sublimity can exist in the same space; Niagara Falls and the Swiss Alps have been pulling that act for years. Beauty and sublimity have their own characteristics which are distinct, but not contradictory. But the further we have ventured from the surly bonds of earth, the more we have found worlds which are more attuned to sublimity than beauty. Science, Poe complained, diminishes this project with its test tubes and measurements, but he was wrong, for science is driven not just by the motive to understand but also, paradoxically, to discover more that is not understood. Perhaps that is why there has been so much interest, of late, in the possibility of inhabiting such a desolate climate; the world simply does not have enough misery for us. And it is only by going out and searching for this misery that we come to realize that we are not really at home on this planet or anywhere.