Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Meat and Potatoes

Ridley Scott's The Martian is essentially a corporate video for NASA, which has ambitions to put a human on the Red Planet sometime in the next twenty years or so. Since the Challenger disaster in 1986, films about feasible space exploration (as opposed to fantasies based on wormholes, like Contact or Interstellar) have struggled with the dilemma that chucking meat into space is costly and dangerous, compared to the use of probes and unmanned vehicles, but that without human interest there is unlikely to be sufficient political support to ensure adequate funding. This has given rise to a guilty fascination with jeopardy and sacrifice, from Apollo 13 to Gravity, where the focus is on safe recovery rather than exploration. This new film follows the same outline, but it presents a more gung-ho attitude, arguing that human ingenuity will overcome most problems so let's take the risk. Given that by 2030 we will have even better explorer-bots, The Martian is a plea for the flexibility and endurance of the hardworking meat-based astronaut. Jeremy Hunt would be impressed, and not just because of the Chinese angle.

The film opens with a prologue in which the Ares III mission members confirm their humanity through workplace sarcasm (you wouldn't get that with a robot), before a sudden, violent storm obliges them to abandon the planet. Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is hit by debris and presumed lost, probably dead. Commander Lewis, played by Jessica Chastain, is obliged to abandon him to save the rest of the crew. Once Watney awakes to find himself injured and marooned, we move to one of Scott's favourite SF tropes: the violent opening of the stomach. Following the "chestburster" of Alien, and the self-administered Caesarian of Prometheus, Watney has to surgically remove shrapnel from his own belly, having been punctured by a detached antenna. This heralds the Robinson Crusoe section of the film in which our lonely Martian improvises survival while vlogging his endeavours "for the record". After taking stock of his supplies and realising he cannot hold out till the next scheduled mission arrives, he decides to grow his own food by creating an indoor greenhouse. He then turns his attention to communication, recovering the handily-proximate 1997 Pathfinder from the sand and using it to beam back a mayday to Earth.

The central section of the film transfers the themes of utilitarian calculation and improvisation back to Earth, where NASA must decide what to do (and publicly say) and nerds must use their ingenuity to solve problems against the clock, which rather obviously echoes Apollo 13. Watney's "science the shit out of it" strategy is actually more about technology than science, as is made clear by the heavy use of power tools both on Mars and back at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Some of Watney's key technology is surprisingly antique, such as his fondness for inventories with paper and pen and his reliance on a written table to translate hexadecimal values (they sent a mission to Mars without calculators?) His skills range from shit-stirring to code-hacking. Though the technological improvisations are credible, there are some scientific implausibilities: the Martian storm would be far less destructive due to the lower atmospheric pressure (it wouldn't be able to topple a heavy rocket); the gravity appears to be little different to Earth (it's actually about 0.4g); and much of the surface of Mars is permafrost so extracting water would be trivial (just put dirt in a microwave and strain the results).

The third section sees the rest of the Ares III mission crew - now on their way back to Earth on board the spaceship Hermes and recently informed that Watney is alive - take control after their boss (Sean Bean) ignores the big boss (Jeff Daniels) and reveals a way that their buddy can be saved at risk to them and thus the mission as a whole. This powers through a series of can-do scenes that echo 2001: A Space Odyssey (including temporarily cutting communications to privately discuss their plan - one of a number of nerd in-jokes) and Gravity (playing tag in space, flirting etc). As is now traditional, the ship includes a rotating torus that allows for the simulation of Earth-like gravity, though as per the stately waltz convention established by Stanley Kubrick, it rotates at a much slower rpm than would be required to simulate 1g given it's modest diameter (and that's without worrying about dizziness, deep-vein thrombosis and other problems). The advantage of this conceit is that the crew can lounge around a big white table and have a "count me in" meeting.

The characters are two-dimensional, which is not necessarily a problem given a plot centred on situational puzzles. Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and even Sean Bean try to invest them with some nuance, but the exposition-heavy dialogue (which bizarrely includes deleting expletives in text transmissions) gives them little to work with. Michael Pena reprises his driver role from Fury, which had me mentally substituting Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf's characters from that film (that would have been a great mashup). Matt Damon's Watney is both relentless and chirpy: Jason Bourne with a sense of humour. There is no dark night of the soul, and emotional tensions are limited to the conflicting loyalties of immediate team and wider organisation. Society is just a media-coordinated chorus. The "folks back home" interludes are perfunctory, as if NASA were downplaying the ramifications of a possible personal tragedy, with Watney's non-existent beyond a verbal reference to his parents. This is a highly institutionalised story.

The choice of the Massachusetts-born Damon in the role of the stranded astronaut, and his character's English name, had me thinking of the seventeenth century settlers of New England. This is reinforced by Watney's salvation through potatoes, that iconic New World vegetable, which were part of the special Thanksgiving dinner included in the mission's supplies. I thought I might be reading too much into this until Watney started to talk of colonial theory in the language of John Locke: it is only by growing crops that you can lay claim to (and thus colonise) the land. Locke believed that native Americans did not "mix their labour" with the soil, hence they had no claim to it, unlike industrious white settlers (I presume this argument comes from the original book by Andy Weir, who is on record as cleaving to the Bay Area mix of social liberalism and fiscal conservativism). The use of Martian soil and its mixing with the crew's dried shit is emblematic of this territorial claim. It's also redundant: you'd think a botanist like Watney would be familiar with hydroponics, particularly as it's already been tried for real on the International Space Station.

Watney goes out of his way to justify appropriating the personal property left behind by the other crew members, from audio tapes to a crucifix that he uses for kindling (religious belief gets a couple of polite nods). He even expounds on international law in respect of piracy when planning to commandeer the rocket ship handily left in anticipation of the future Ares IV mission many miles distant (no, that didn't make sense to me either). During the trek to the ship, Mars looks like a roseate Monument Valley, all sand and heat (the average temperature is actually well below freezing), while Watney's rover vehicle looks like a covered wagon and he takes on the look of a Protestant patriarch with his now unkempt beard. This echo of the Old West reminds us that the one danger Watney knew he would not have to face would be "hostiles", which makes the obsession with the legality of dispossession all the more striking. This is not the inhabited planet of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, or Philp K Dick's Martian Time-Slip, so the proprietorial concerns must be directed elsewhere.

The Martian is a film nostalgic for the New Frontier of the 70s, after the first lunar landing but before the Challenger disaster, when NASA was at the height of its influence, hence not only the Kubrickian stylings but a soundtrack featuring disco, ABBA and David Bowie's Starman. As a PR exercise, it understandably skips the Space Shuttle years, though it can't help suggesting that cutting corners on safety is the result of budget constraints and unreasonable media pressure rather than institutional hubris and groupthink. Though NASA is obliged to seek the assistance of the Chinese, and one of the Hermes' crew is a German, the agency always asserts its primacy, at one point putting the Chinese in their place by telling them: "we haven't done that since Apollo". Ouch. If anyone is going to Mars, NASA intends to be in the lead. As a piece of bid-candy it is impressive, but I can't help thinking that it's focus on meat and potatoes - astronauts and territorial claims - is already history.

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