Inspired by Roger Ebert’s “How to Read a Movie”, I endeavored to ‘read’ the Martian. This movie reading gave me a deeper appreciative understanding of the movie and revealed subtleties, intertextuality, parallels, and morals I had never before noticed.
9 minutes into the movie, Mark Watney is pronounced dead and the Ares III crew leaves Mars. The camera focuses on his empty chair aboard the MAV. In this brief scene, Mark’s empty chair represents him, and its vacancy poignantly accentuates his absence. This synecdoche is not uncommon in literature. The song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in Les Miserables laments the passing of a group of friends by reminiscing the time they spent around a table. The vacant bunks and tables in the HAB illustrate Mark’s alienation. Chairs and tables are ever present and never noticed as they serve as platforms for human interaction.
Walter Ong writes extensively about intertextuality, the idea that all literature is based on and inspired by past works. This is especially applicable and overt in the Martian. At 1:22:50, top NASA executives are gathered for a secret project codenamed “Elrond”, a direct reference to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Although Mitch Henderson and Bruce Ng elaborate, this reference is subtle enough to be missed by casual viewers. At the end of the movie there is another obvious allusion to a different popular work – During Watney’s orbital rescue, he “flies like Iron Man” to Commander Lewis.
In 1:33:45 and 1:38:15, there are two subtle scenes in the HAB that highlight Mark’s loneliness and very human desire for social interaction. Pathfinder, personified as a pet-like companion, follows Mark around the HAB. Pathfinder’s significance as a social tool are two-fold; it is the only ‘animate’ object Mark can interact with and his only point of contact with the rest of humanity. Later in the film, he comes to terms with the innumerable ‘firsts’ of his journey. “Everywhere I go, I’m the first. It’s a strange feeling. Step outside the rover? First guy to be there. Climb that hill? First guy to do that. 4 and a half billion years, nobody here. And now, me. I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet” This is one of many moments to highlight how truly alone Mark is. This scene is augmented by high altitude camera angles that dwarf him on the vast barren Martian landscape.
The most profound part of the Martian is easily missed in a first viewing. At 1:20:00, as Mark contemplates the inevitability of his death, he realizes that he is “dying for something big and beautiful and greater than me”. The sentiment of this epiphany is later continued by Teddy Sanders: “Every time something goes wrong, the world forgets why we fly. It’s bigger than one person.” NASA’s mission statement is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery… and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind”. Their mission is the embodiment of humanity’s burning curiosity and thirst for knowledge. The Martian thus encapsulates three stories – a parallel to human history, where innovation served as a survival tactic in the face of adversity; a representation of our scientific drive, constantly urging us forward; and the altruistic power of humanity working collectively in peace. “Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.” The magnitude of these sentiments cannot be fully appreciated without careful consideration.