Mark A. Carter

THE MARTIAN: why it works.

World famous Canadian Science Fiction writer Mark A. Carter writes a literary movie Review of the film: The Martian.

The 2015 film The Martian directed by Ridley Scott, based on the novel by Andy Weir, is an admixture of romance, irony, tragedy, and comedy that works. It is a Science Fiction survival story set in a hostile alien environment. The film is an emotional, intimate, and thought provoking journey from abandonment to salvation. Bring tissues.

Calla Cofield, in her positive review of the film for, entitled 'The Martian' Might Be the Most Realistic Space Movie Ever Made suggests precisely what her title says. Although her enthusiasm is commendable, it displays a lack of broader film knowledge. We need only look to Ron Howard's 1995 historical docudrama Apollo 13, that dramatizes the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission, to see a realistic depiction of a very real space incident. Remember Calla, The Martian is only fiction. It asks the question what if? That is the realm of Science Fiction and has predictive value, which we will get to later. But is it the most realistic film? How does one judge that objectively. Duh? It isn't even an issue?

The Martian contains many of same elements that we saw in the 2000 adventure drama film Cast Away directed by Robert Zemeckis. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays a FedEx employee who is stranded on an uninhabited island after his plane crashes in the South Pacific. The film depicts his four year struggle to survive on the island. And eventually it involves his perilous journey aboard a ramshackle raft out into the treacherous realm of the major shipping lanes in a last ditch attempt to be retrieved. The Martian takes the same format of isolated survivor, this time of a violent storm on Mars that forces the Ares III crew to depart prematurely and leave Mark Watney, thought dead, behind.

The Martian depicts a greater challenge to survival than Cast Away because Mars is a more inhospitable place than a warm tropical island. First things first, Mark Watney had to breathe bottled air and wear a space suit to survive the thin Martian atmosphere and the extreme cold, except when he was inside the Ares III habitat; whereas, Chuck Noland in Cast Away could bask in the warm sun, swim in a heated lagoon, breathe the sweet tropical air, and otherwise go native on the island in bare feet and loincloth with fishing spear in hand.

The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott.

© 2015 20th Century Fox

If I was to speculate, if Mark Watney had been marooned on the island, he would have had a plantation going, had constructed a beach resort, and been taking reservations on-line in the time that Chuck Noland was there. And if Chuck Noland had been the astronaut left for dead on Mars, being a time-obsessed systems engineer, he would have crunched the numbers, done a cost versus benefit analysis, calculated that he was a goner, given up, bought the biscuit, and perhaps been discovered years later when a future expedition journeyed back to the original Ares III site or maybe never at all. He never would have found a way to grow potatoes on Mars. And he never would have found a way to communicate. Oops. Not all heroes are created equal or are mentally stable. Sure, it was funny in Cast Away when Chuck talked to the frayed soccer ball he called by the unimaginative manufacturer's name Wilson. But would that kind of psychological instability allow him to survive on Mars? I think not.

The Martian follows a High Romance format although it is Science Fiction. For those who don't know, literary Romance has nothing to do with the average boy-girl relationship. It is not about kissy-kissy, huggy-huggy. High Romance is more commonly known as Fantasy or more properly Faerie. It is a story about a chaste, honest, and modest hero, in a secondary world, who is forced, reluctantly, by a group of travelers, into an unexpected journey, voyage, or quest for ritual fulfillment or to obtain the horde of gold or to free the damsel in distress or to slay the dragon. The hero is tested along the way. And if he survives these lesser tests, he must face a final challenge where either he or the supreme evil he fights or both may die. And if he survives that final test, he gets the gold or frees the girl or slays the dragon and returns home to write his memoirs.

J. R. R. Tolkien sets the definition for Fantasy in his small 1964 book of literary theory entitled Tree and Leaf. But he illustrated it years earlier in his 1937 High Romance novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Just so you know, The Hobbit and the three books of its sequel known collectively as Lord of the Rings, themselves written in stages between 1937 and 1949, were all based on the 16th century Middle High German text entitled Das Nibelungenlied.

So, how does The Martian follow a High Romance format? The hero, Mark Watney, satisfies the requirements for a Fantasy hero. He is forced into his lone quest for survival after his friends think him dead and are forced by the weather to abandon the Ares III mission and urgently depart from Mars. Mars fills in for a secondary world with its own natural laws. The environment itself personifies the evil that tests the reluctant hero at every turn. By the way, the forces that a Fantasy hero encounters in the secondary world come in three flavors. The benevolent forces aid him. They are the forces of good. But there are no elves in The Martian. The closest things to elves are the people at NASA who work behind the scenes to resupply Mark Watney, until another Ares mission launches. But when that fails, the Chinese Space Agency steps up to resupply the returning Ares III ship as it swings around Earth on a return journey directly back to Mars to save Mark. The malevolent forces are evil and seek to destroy the Fantasy hero. But there are no goblins or trolls in The Martian. But what the film does have are the ambivalent forces of nature. In Fantasy they may appear as a giant spider like Shelob in The Hobbit. But in The Martian, there are two ambivalent forces that seek to kill our hero. The first is the inhospitable nature of the planet Mars itself: the wind, the sand, the cold, and the lack of breathable air. And the second ambivalent force that seeks to kill him is man-made: a lack of food, water, heat, communication, time, and transportation. That's a fact ... Jack. Mark is tested repeatedly. He does not give up. His devoted Ares III teammates and friends, once they are informed that he is still alive, return to Mars at great peril to themselves to retrieve him. He survives everything that is thrown before him. And with the help of his friends, he succeeds in his quest to survive. And the High Romance goal of the horde of gold, or to slay the dragon, or to save the girl is all wrapped up in actually saving the hero and reuniting him with his crew and his home world. In The Martian, Mark Watney's goal is literally to save himself. He is simultaneously the hero and the girl in distress held at bay by the evil dragon, which is personified by Mars itself. And like the typical hero of High Romance, when all is said and done, he returns home and writes his memoirs. But in Mark Watney's case, he returns to NASA to teach a course on survival to astronaut candidates, based on his experience on the red planet.

The Martian is also an Irony. For your edification, Irony is the opposite of Romance as visualized in Northrop Frye's dramatic circle. Whereas Romance is about an imaginary secondary world with its on natural laws, Irony is about the real world. Although the format of the story follows a Romance template, it is real world oriented and relies on the rules of science. And that all occurs in the real world. The Physics on Mars is the same as the Physics on Earth. The environment is just more extreme and far away. And that is the challenge.

In and of itself, the film is also set up to be a Tragedy although Mark Watney is not a tragic hero. He is not a high mimetic character with a tragic flaw who falls from grace. In lieu of that, he is the next best thing. He is a hero who is abandoned by his crew because of circumstances beyond their control. The Martian does though invoke the pity and fear that Aristotle writes about in The Poetics as the hallmark of a Tragedy. And indeed, because Mark Watney makes a video log talking directly to the audience as he does so, penetrating the third wall, we have an intimate relationship with him. We feel every one of his successes. We enjoy his sense of humor in the face of adversity. And we suffer his losses and setbacks at an emotional level. And consequently, we experience many small moments of catharsis, another attribute of Tragedy. If you had a frog in your throat several times while watching the film, that's catharsis, baby.

But The Martian also has elements of Comedy particularly the separation that occurs at the outset and the reunion, celebration, or marriage that occurs at the end. See Aristophanes to read more about Comedy. And indeed, Mark Watney is separated from his crew, but is ultimately saved by them and others back on Earth, and is eventually reunited. And that spells happy ending.

But what is the real world takeaway from this film? What is the Science Fiction value? Ursula K. Le Guin once insisted: "Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive." But I have always disagreed. As I wrote in 1981, Science Fiction indeed is utterly predictive. It sets up scenarios and plays them out. It thereby warns us of situations that we may well encounter given similar circumstances. But it is up to us to see the value of these played out dramas and to make changes in our approach to the world in order to avert potential calamity or they will indeed occur as imagined. The other real world takeaway from the film is the tenacity of the human spirit, the altruism of others to save one single human being so far away, and an overwhelming sense of kindness amid a world that is sometimes portrayed, particularly on the nightly network news, as fomenting with hatred and violence.

But one last observation from this anatomy of The Martian is that Ridley Scott created a film that had no guns in it. It's hard nowadays to find an action film that doesn't have guns. Science Fiction films, in fact, are full of guns. And that is disappointing. As H. G. Wells says to Amy Robbins in Time After Time: "The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas." And that is why there are no guns in Ridley's latest film. The Martian is all about ideas. It's all about science winning the day. As Mark Watney says in his video log: "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this." And he does. It's all about science subsuming fear and ignorance, order defeating chaos, and good winning over evil. It's all about Mark Watney's ideas, the ideas of NASA, the Chinese Space Agency, and the ideas of his crewmates, that keep him alive and lead to his recovery and return to Earth. Kudos on an emotional, intelligent, and sensitive production.

Yikes, that's a lot of stuff built into one complex film about not showering for over a year and growing potatoes in your own poop.

To learn more about Fairy, read Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien.
To learn more about Romance, Irony, Tragedy and Comedy, read Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye.
To learn more about Tragedy, read The Poetics by Aristotle.

Read Calla Cofield's review at:

Read: Cry havoc and let slip the cans of apocalypse
Ex Machina
Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending - Revisited
Artificial Super-Intelligence
Can a machine think?
Conceptual Breakthrough
Doomsday Revisited
Future War
IBM Builds Brain
Killer Robots
Robot Takeover
We May Exist in a Simulation

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - writer

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