Oct 20, 2015
Editor's note: This article contains plot spoilers!
Ridley Scott's The Martian is a splendidly told tale of survival and pluck, reminiscent of the novel Robinson Crusoe and the films Life of Pi and Castaway. In this case, the hero is Mark Watney, an astronaut on a mission to Mars who is left behind by his crewmates when he is presumed dead after being lost during a devastating storm. Through sheer determination and an extraordinary application of his scientific know-how, Watney manages to survive. For example, realizing that his food supplies would run out long before a rescue mission could ever reach him, he endeavors to produce water and, through some creative fertilizing, grow an impressive crop of potatoes. At another critical juncture in the narrative, as his life hangs in the balance, Watney says, "I'll just have to science the s*** out of this!"
In time, NASA officials, through a careful observation of surveillance photos, realize that Watney is still alive and they attempt to contact him. Some of the most thrilling and emotionally moving scenes in the film have to do with these initial communications across tens of millions of miles. Eventually, the crew who left him behind discover that he is alive and they contrive, with all of their strength and intelligence, to get him back. The film ends (spoiler alert!), with the now somewhat grizzled Watney back on earth, lecturing a class of prospective astronauts on the indispensability of practical scientific intelligence: "You solve one problem and then another and then another; and if you solve enough of them, you get to come home." This summary speech communicates what appears to be the central theme of the movie: the beauty and power of the technical knowledge the sciences provide.
But I would like to explore another theme that is implicit throughout the film, namely, the inviolable dignity of the individual human being. The circumstances are certainly unique and Watney himself is undoubtedly an impressive person, but it remains nevertheless strange that people would move heaven and earth, spend millions of dollars, and in the case of the original crew, risk their lives in order to rescue this one man. If a clever, friendly, and exquisitely trained dog had been left behind on Mars, everyone would have felt bad, but no one, I think it's fair to say, would have endeavored to go back for it. Now why is this the case? Much hinges upon how one answers that question.