It’s quite appropriate that my family and I re-watched The Martian this weekend, since NASA’s latest exploratory machine, InSight, landed on Mars on November 26th! I’m really excited about InSight, especially since it sent back some absolutely gorgeous pictures of the Martian landscape. (And yes, I do try to keep up with space exploration stuff. Apparently NASA is planning moon landings in the near future, and I can’t wait!)
The Martian is fictional, but if we do get around to sending astronauts to Mars (which is highly likely), it does present us with an eerily plausible scenario: Mark Watney, American astronaut, is accidentally left behind on the Red Planet when he and his fellow explorers make an emergency evacuation from their NASA base. For the next year and a half he fights to survive, using only the tools and shelters left behind by his crew, as well as his own expertise and positive attitude. Eventually he’s able to make contact with Earth, confirming that he didn’t die in the horrific storm that separated him from his crew mates–but getting him off Mars is easier said than done, and will require all the ingenuity for which NASA has always been famous.
It’s been a while since I first saw The Martian, but this time I really noticed the way Watney guards his thoughts. He could’ve easily given up as soon as he realized that he wasn’t just alone on Mars, but that he had been impaled by debris. Bleeding and panicking, he could’ve lain down and died right then and there. Instead, he keeps his cool, performing an agonizing surgery on himself before having a rest and assessing the situation. That done, he promptly declares: “I’m not gonna die here.”
True, he has the advantage of enough NASA rations for six people, plus a fully-functioning base. But he doesn’t rely solely on those short-term solutions. He starts thinking long-term, working on the confident hope that he can and will survive until NASA sends their next manned mission to Mars. Utilizing his skills as a botanist, he finds a way to grow a crop of potatoes. Then he ventures out into the barren landscape and locates one of the old Rovers so he can contact Earth. He even keeps a video diary, talking to himself and making jokes and entertaining himself with his commander’s old disco music.
Watney does struggle–hard–when a tragic accident obliterates one of his biggest victories. We also see him dealing with the utter desolation of being the only person on the planet, and the possibility that he may not see his parents again. He is aware, even in his finest moments, that even after all his hard work he still might not make it home. But even then, he fights–hard!–for hope. And he lets himself process his sorrows and frustrations in healthy outbursts before getting right back to work.
In my opinion, that’s so important in stories about survival. It wouldn’t be realistic if we didn’t see Watney floundering, weeping, and even raging as the weight of his situation bears down on him. But it wouldn’t be nearly as inspiring, either, if we didn’t also see him fighting back the dark despair with both a great sense of humor, a keen awareness of the beauty around him, and a solid, relentless work ethic. All three of those things–humor, gratitude, and work–have helped me whenever I’ve been fighting what Winston Churchill called “The Black Dog.” It was really encouraging to see Watney using the same tools to keep his own spirits high!
There are several instances of bad language in The Martian and a brief scene of rear nudity, so I wouldn’t recommend this one for younger viewers unless you have a good filter. But for older viewers interested in some really good (and fairly realistic) science fiction, an inspiring (often humorous!) survival story, and the depiction of a close-knit team who’d do anything to get their friend back home safe and sound–The Martian is a very good choice.