The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - opening scene

The Martian
2015, directed by Ridley Scott

Like Casablanca, the plot of The Martian revolves around the problem of transporting a man to safety. Victor Laszlo is as much endangered in French Morocco as Mark Watney is on Mars. Otherwise the two movies may not seem much alike, but their places in history could yet prove comparable. In retrospect Casablanca is probably the most important film of World War II, not because of how much it says about the war, but because Rick’s transformation into a man of action was such a powerful call to action for the United States, rallying the nation when isolationism was still a topic, and girding viewers with a spirit of sacrifice. It may be hard to see this now, but future decades may look back at The Martian as the most important film to rally the world against climate change.

That conclusion may sound as odd as the comparison to Casablanca, but The Martian points again and again to the problems of climate change on Earth. Almost every topic that appears perennially in conversations about climate change – extreme weather events, solar power, nuclear energy, sustainable agriculture, water shortages, transportation, overpopulation, deforestation, and international cooperation – has a correlative in The Martian. More importantly, the movie offers us a useful roadmap for addressing the problem.

The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - Mars - tornadoes - storm

To start with, the opening scene hangs on a scientific error so blatant that any amateur astronomer should catch it. The tempest that separates Mark Watney from his crewmates is impossible in Mars’ thin atmosphere. The movie could have found any number of other ways to leave Watney stranded. There must be a reason, besides raw spectacle, for so gross an error in a movie otherwise faithful to science. In fact the storm resembles the kind of weather anomalies we can expect on Earth as our atmosphere heats up. A second hurricane-like storm passes around Sol 20, and later as Mark heads for Schiaparelli Crater a pair of tornadoes rises behind him.

Throughout his stay on Mars, Mark’s actions mirror the steps humans must take to minimize climate change. He utilizes carbon-neutral energy sources, relying on solar power and heating the rover with nuclear energy. He practices sustainable agriculture, growing a vegetarian diet with recycled waste matter. He rations his food to limit resource consumption. He weatherproofs his habitation, and he strips his launch vehicle to make it as light and fuel-efficient as possible.

The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - Mars - solar panels - solar energy
The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - Mars - radioactive - sign
The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - potato crop - Mars
The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - food rationing - Mars
The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - weatherproofing - Mars
The Martian - Ridley Scott - rocket - tipping point - screen

Some of the allusions to climate change are more conceptual. The “tipping point” metaphor, used so often for atmospheric carbon, is literalized in the opening scene when the wind almost tilts the rocket past its limit of stability. The way the NASA engineers keep adjusting deadlines for Mark’s rescue reflects the ways climate scientists keep warning us that our time for action is running out. And the movie’s climax occurs in the upper atmosphere of Mars, just as the upper atmosphere of Earth is where any solution to global warming must happen.

The movie makes no direct reference to overpopulation, but Mark’s utter solitude on a whole planet, where anywhere he goes he’s the first to be there, draws a suggestive contrast to our own overcrowded planet where mounting billions of humans accelerate a dangerous ecological imbalance. There’s no allusion to deforestation either, except that the arid expanses of Mars are vivid reminders of how inhospitable a planet stripped of trees and plant life would be.

The Martian - Ridley Scott - Mars - horizon - planet
The Martian - Ridley Scott - Earth - ending - last shot - final shot - horizon - arc

The Martian is bracketed by two contrasting images: the red arc of Mars in the opening shot, and the blue-green arc of Earth in the final shot. One is a barren landscape, the apocalyptic fate of Earth if we maintain our destructive course; the other is the hopeful fate of a healthy planet if we roll up our sleeves and get to work. Between these two pictures lies an arc of hope, bridging our bleak present to a possible and better future. The first shot of Mark Watney back on Earth implies a similar contrast – he’s surrounded by foliage, highlighting the difference between the barren planet he might have died on and a garden-like planet conducive to survival.

The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - Earth - foliage - trees - leaves

Whether or not all of this is evidence for a statement about climate change, no one can doubt that The Martian aims to make us feel the preciousness of life. The sheer effort expended to save one person shows a total reverence for life, as do the two occasions when Watney stoops to marvel at a tiny, newly-sprouted plant: first a potato plant on Mars, then a similar sprout poking through the gravel on Earth. Even if all the signs pointing to climate change were coincidental, a movie about the irreplaceable value of life would still speak to our most pressing global threat.

The Martian - Ridley Scott - sprout - potato - hand - Matt Damon - Mark Watney
The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - plant shoot - Earth - gravel - hand

In any case, the name of the Ares III mother ship hints that we should be alert to a hidden message. It’s named after Hermes, the Greek messenger god, who unlike Ares (the Greek name for Mars) has no special connection to the red planet. If the movie is indeed carrying a message about the greatest practical problem of our time, that would justify the allusion to Hermes. But the movie does far more than remind us of the dangers of climate change – it also aims to help us solve those problems by modeling an entire ethos capable of effecting the needed change.

The first line of dialogue comes from Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain): “All right, team, stay in sight of each other.” Her injunction might as well be directed at us – we urgently need the world’s countries, political factions, and individuals to keep each other “in sight”, to work as a team, in the next few decades. In fact the entire film is a template for the kind of behavior that might save the planet: Mark Watney’s vigorous approach to problem solving (“I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this”); the JPL team’s tireless sacrifices to meet deadlines; the Hermes crew’s unselfishness; Rich Purnell’s creative thinking; the friendly cooperation of the China National Space Administration; and even Mitch Henderson’s carefully considered rule-breaking. Everyone perseveres in the face of setbacks – when the airlock blows up on Mars, when the supply rocket fails, when the Ares IV launch vehicle falls short of the rendezvous.

The Martian - Ridley Scott - Donald Glover - Chiwetel Ejiofor - Mackenzie Davis - Benedict Wong - Rich Purnell - Vincent Kapoor - Mindy Park - Bruce Ng - NASA - JPL

Notwithstanding its special effects, most viewers probably sense that The Martian is fundamentally old-fashioned. The disco soundtrack (including songs relevant to global warming like “Hot Stuff” and “I Will Survive”) is retro, and the gung-ho spirit of cheerful cooperation plays like an ode to the John F. Kennedy era of space exploration. Going even further back, the movie’s faith in its capacity to inspire people to do better recalls Hollywood films of the Depression and World War II.

But The Martian is more than an old-fashioned celebration of the common-sense virtues we’ll need to fix our planet. Central to its message is an idea found with variations throughout Ridley Scott’s work, but most neatly expressed in G.I. Jane when Urgayle quotes “Self-Pity” by D.H. Lawrence:

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

The same idea is expressed with more levity in The Martian, right after Vincent Kapoor wrings his hands about how desperate Watney must be: “Can you imagine what he’s going through up there? I mean he’s 50 million miles away from home, he thinks he’s totally alone, he thinks we gave up on him. What does that do to a man psychologically? What the hell is he thinking right now?” Here the movie cuts to Watney on Mars, jamming to “Turn the Beat Around” by Vicki Sue Robinson: “I’m definitely gonna die up here if I have to listen to any more godawful disco music.”

The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Mark Watney - Mars

Mark’s defining trait, the quality that keeps him alive, is a lack of self-pity. Kapoor is a sympathetic character, but he tends to project self-pity onto others, and luckily he’s wrong both times. In the second instance he argues against telling the Hermes crew about Mark: “They’d be devastated to find out they left him there alive.” Ridley Scott’s films argue for an ethos that synthesizes compassion and hard-edged realism – bringing Mark home alive is an act of compassion, but fretting about his or his crewmates’ feelings is counterproductive.

Scott’s earlier movies Hannibal and The Counselor likewise place practical courage over wishful thinking in their arguments for neutralizing psychopaths. Those two movies argue that we must refuse to enable psychopaths’ crimes, and rather meet them with the same courage they possess. In The Martian we hear how the Jet Propulsion Laboratory began when five Caltech students nearly blew up a dorm in an experiment, and instead of expelling them the school banished them to a farm to continue their work – the idea being that society will always have destructive outliers, and the smart thing is to harness their talents in a compassionate and practical way.

The Martian - Ridley Scott - NASA - meeting - Mackenzie Davis - Sean Bean - Kristen Wiig - Jeff Daniels - Mindy Park - Mitch Henderson - Annie Montrose - Teddy Sanders

Like self-pity, worrying too is a failure of courage that interferes with needed action. Instead of bothering with religious scruples, Mark chips the wood from Martinez’s cross to burn hydrazine and make water. Christ himself espoused the same ethic when he said “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” – an idea Mark reiterates in his last lines of dialogue:

“This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you. Everything’s gonna go south, and you’re gonna say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, then you solve the next one. And then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Why should the movie forgo a dramatic homecoming scene for this speech if it weren’t single-mindedly trying to express a practical approach to problem solving, and for the most urgent possible reason? Putting the Earth’s atmosphere back in balance will take sustained collective courage, and self-pity is a powerful enemy of courage.

The Martian - Ridley Scott - Matt Damon - Jessica Chastain - Melissa Lewis - Captain Lewis - Mark Watney - Mars - orange ribbon

Critics who call The Martian an empty crowd-pleaser, or too upbeat (citing its good vibes and lack of conflict), miss the film entirely. Behind all the high spirits and corny humor is a fierce argument for a practical, compassionate, and fearless worldview that might save us from destroying each other. Some people might look at the movie’s Kennedy-era positivity and see an alternate reality – to some degree we’ve lost that spirit. But whether or not we believe it can be brought back is irrelevant. We have no choice.


Midnight – Recipe for living well, even in adverse circumstances

Casablanca – Rallying cry for pressing global challenge; plot hinges on bringing a man to safety

A Man Escaped – Plot about a man’s escape; practical guide for living combined with a message of higher importance

2001: A Space Odyssey – Man alone in space; choreographed spaceships with weightless passengers; mention of astronaut’s child’s birthday on Earth; protecting people from sensitive knowledge

G.I. Jane – Self-pity as an enemy of courage

The Counselor – Solution to the social problem of psychopathic or destructive outliers

Arrival – Importance of international cooperation; partnership between China and the United States