With a focused understanding of the science fiction genre, director Ridley Scott is a master in creating narratives that speak not only the complexity of time and space but more importantly address the layers of the genre itself. With his films including Alien, Blade Runner and the most recent Prometheus, Scott’s visceral work speaks to academic John Baxter’s definition of the science fiction film. As John Baxter notes of Science Fiction cinema in his text titled Science Fiction in the Cinema “it falls generally into two categories: the loss of individuality and the threat of knowledge. Probably no line is more common to SF than ‘There are some things man is not meant to know.’ It expresses the universal fear all men have of the unknown the inexplicable, a fear science fiction rejects, but has firmly entrenched itself in the SF cinema.” It is with this assertion that Baxter like the collective works of Ridley Scott, states that science fiction (outside of the realm of cinema) does not fear the unknown – that man was depicted in narrative knows no barrier and works beyond fear and displacement. This lack of fear is evident in Ripley’s battle to survive in Alien, the question of whether Deckard is or is not an android in Blade Runner, or the complexity of creation and God in Prometheus. In each of these films the unknown is not feared but explored. It is the idea of exploration which is at the heart of Ridley’s Scott The Martian. A love letter to science, technology and math, the film is very much Scott’s Top Gun; a clear and surprisingly conservative celebration of American ingenuity and American maleness.
The narrative of The Martian is simple:
- NASA funded team is on Mars;
- Massive storm forces mission abort;
- Astronaut is left for dead; Astronaut survives and continues to fight against odds;
- NASA is to the rescue;
- Man survives Mars.
It is within the narrative of survival and the setting of space that Scott creates a portrait that celebrates the resiliency of man. Left for dead and stranded on Mars, Matt Damon’s Mark Watney, quickly climbs out of self-doubt and fear of death into a mode of cowboy like survivalist. It is within the tradition of the American Western, that Damon’s Whatney very much embraces the unknown and warmly accepts Mars as a new frontier. From his ability to endure loneliness to colonizing Mars through his plantation of potatoes, Watney openly declares that he must “science the shit” of his situation.
It is with science at the heart of the film’s narrative, that the film is both a tribute to the glory days of space exploration and the director’s late filmmaker brother Tony Scott. Like Tony Scott’s Top Gun in 1986, which celebrated hyper-masculinity attitudes as aligned with military and the US Navy, The Martian is a is a recruitment film. It celebrates maleness and “de-geeks” science and math. Top Gun sees Maverick become the “best of the best,” while in The Martian, Whatney becomes an astronaut like no other. In extension to this, like Maverick who at the end of Top Gun requests to become a naval instructor, Whatney leaves behind space for the classroom. In both cases, the male’s ability to survive makes for authority in education as lineage and tradition.
In the end, The Martian does provide for a topical discourse around gender and institutional spaces. However, coming from director Ridley Scott, the man who transcended gender in both Alien and Thelma and Louise, the film does not feel like his own. Nonetheless, the film is worth the watch and the conversation.