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Review by Joshua Gibbs
This ain’t no Sierra Club. This ain’t no National Geographic Society neither.
“Fuck you, Mars,” says Martian Mark Watney shortly after finding himself utterly alone on a foreign planet.
Man has been set against nature many times before, especially in 20th century literature and film. At times, man must battle nature. The Old Man must kill the fish or best the waves or tame the wilderness. Johnny Appleseed, Snowflake Bentley, Jane Goodall and Neil Armstrong all battled the elements, the softness of human flesh and tendency towards sloth and ease we feel when matched with our cold, irrational Mother. At the same time, in the struggles of such naturalists and adventurers, we also find wonder, respect, and fear. Sci-fi pictures about space travel frequently use the cold vistas of Copernicus to alienate man from society, to reduce him to Rousseau’s state of nature, and find out what really makes a man tick. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey recognize intuitively that Earth is as far from the Empyrean as a man can get, and that as a man departs the Earth he enters a profound, supernatural mystery which transcends reason, flesh, Cronos.
The Martian, however, has little interest in what makes a man tick and less interest in the mysteries beyond the moon. The Martian is a film of profound atheism, of staggering materialism— Ridley Scott’s disinterest in the spirit, the numinous, in wonder and personhood is so pronounced here, the film’s nearest analogue is pornography.
After Mark Watney is accidentally left for dead on Mars by his crew, he wakes to find his side pierced, however, nothing has come out of him. No Eve, no blood and water. He rises from the dust of Mars, deftly stitches up his wound, quickly deduces he will die on Mars, then suddenly and for no apparent reason decides he will not die.
Says Mark: “If the oxygenator breaks, I'm going to suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of... implode. And if by some miracle none of that happens, eventually I'm going to run out of food. So. Yeah. Yeah. [Beat] I'm not going to die here.”
And let’s be frank, that’s quite the beat. In a single moment, after reasonably assessing the utter desolation of his situation, Mark Watney spontaneously finds within himself the courage of spirit and strength of intellect to carry on. Director Ridley Scott does not permit Watney a moment of reflection, of contemplation. Watney is not allowed to weep for the unexpected absence of his companions. Watney has no moment of turning, no time to question himself. At first, it is only natural the audience wonder where Watney’s inner strength comes from, what hidden spiritual resource he draws his resolve from. As the film carries on, though, Watney is never given a moment of self-doubt. He is a spiritless and soulless creature who is never so much as tempted to bitterness against his friends for leaving him for dead. Watney is a man without inner demons, without psychic struggle. He does not totter between sanity and insanity, between hope and despair. Watney always has a joke, a jape, or a jest to sail him through a setback for which any real man would need a prayer and a moment. The ethos of his character is perpetually stuck in that moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy glibly fires a pistol into the gut of the scimitar acrobat.
While the film quickly gained the reputation of a crowd pleaser, I was baffled by the film’s utter spiritual silence. Mark Watney finds nothing delightful on Mars, nothing overwhelming. He is undone by neither its austerity nor its beauty. Man shows up far from home in an inhospitable place for which he was never intended, and man roundly curses that place for its failure to accommodate him. Mark passes time on his cursed planet by working and posting status updates about his day which no one will read. He carries on through every success and every setback with facile aplomb, depending on nothing but himself for strength, prudence, meaning, satisfaction. He is intrigued by nothing and no one; he seems to have sprung fully formed from the forehead of the Earth. No family back on Earth mourns his loss or prays for his return. He has no father, mother, brother, wife or children to speak of. When he returns to earth, he will be no less alone than he was on Mars. Mark Watney is a sack of meat, an object to be moved from point A to point B, and despite the film’s fine visuals and the powerful screen presence of the actors, the story all plays out as a rather expensive story problem. The typically agile Matt Damon is given nothing to work with, no moral or spiritual progress to convey. The thudding, lonely, empty mood is occasionally lightened with a disco song or a crack about solitary life, and when Mark finally makes it back to Earth, there is no joyous reunion of any kind. We find Mark in a lecture hall, surrounded by strangers, lightening the film’s weightless mood. His final speech to a class of cadets is telling:
“Now pay attention, because this could save your life. Trust me. I know what I'm talking about. Alright. Let me get a few things out of the way, right off the bat. Yes, I did in fact survive on a deserted planet by farming in my own shit. Yes, it's actually worse than it sounds. So, let's not talk about that ever again. The other question I get most frequently is. When I was up there stranded by myself, Did I think I was going to die? Yes, absolutely.
And that's when you need to know going in, because it's going to happen to you. This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point, everything's going to go south on you. Everything's going to go south and you're going to say "This is it." That is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work.”
The two most common questions Mark gets are about whether he grew food in his own shit and whether he thought he was going to die. What kind of gutless, uninquisitive universe does this man inhabit? Do people not ask, “How did you keep from going mad?” Or, “Is God up there?” Or, “How did it all change you?” Or, “Were you lonely? Were you scared? What did you do with your fear? How did you overcome that inner struggle?” An atheistic cosmos is so deeply assumed by the makers of the film, the truly human concerns of radical alienation are simply unapproachable and inconceivable. If there is no God, then man is fundamentally alone and there is simply nothing to get over.
While other films born of atheist prejudice might appear more militant or more combative by mocking religion or faith, the Martian drinks its prejudices down so deep there is no room for argument. The Martian is not atheist propaganda, but atheist art. The conviction runs all the way down into black oblivion.