Teasing Threads Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Ridley Scott’s The Martian

Chris Palazzolo examines The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott (2015)

MartianWhat actually happens in Ridley Scott’s The Martian? Well in one sense a very big thing happens: an astronaut is stranded on Mars and in order to survive long enough for a rescue mission to arrive devises a way of growing potatoes thus proving that humans can live there. But if a narrative is marked by the physical and psychological changes that occur in a character, then in another sense you have to conclude that nothing happens; the astronaut loses some weight, grows a beard, hobbles a bit at the end (especially after years of comparative weightlessness on Mars) but he seems to bear no psychological scars at all, no nightmares, no visions, no existential dissociations, nothing. Neither do any of the rescue crew for that matter, or the staff at the space agencies, toiling for years on this mission. Throughout the movie all the characters express surprise, bemusement, frustration, triumph and all the emotions one would expect them to express; they express them all uniformly – no one character seems more or less stressed than any other. They all, without exception, just get on with it, no one is lazy, no one is cowardly, no one has any other agenda, apart from doing their job to the best of their abilities – everyone is the best; the best at the beginning, the best in the middle and the best at the end.

This is Hard SF. The only real character is the science; the human characters merely agents, or vectors for conveying scientific concepts in dazzling high resolution cinematography. How strange to see such a film, in an era of cinema where every hero and superhero is ‘humanised’ with some kind of backstory (even James Bond has a backstory now. How decadent is that!) And how strange that it should be from Ridley Scott, who’s other sci fi movies – Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus – explore the murderous nexus of science, corporate power and human weakness. Here we have a sci fi film who’s characters have no backstories (apart from ‘parents,’ their only backstories are their qualifications), and where the science/power nexus is flooded with the dreamy luminousness of inexhaustible Reason, inexhaustible competence of its staff and inexhaustible funds from an unmentioned taxpayer. This is a joyous and unreserved paean to Science. It’s as if Scott and his writers thought ‘stuff all this realistic character motivations, ‘cat’s cradle’ technologies, and corporate-bureaucratic totalitarianisms. We’re going to make a sci fi movie about a perfect cheerful scientific meritocracy where any human failings (pride, envy, sloth, etc) will simply not exist at all.’ Of course the danger of this kind of representation is that it is actually a scientific aristocracy, of the kind portrayed in the movie Gattaca – which of course begs the question, what does such a world do with the mass of not-so-well-favoured, not-so-gifted (that is to say the insignificant plodders who are the victims and incompetents in Scott’s other sci fi movies)?  It’s beautiful, but it’s not drama. A circus perhaps – ‘Rescue Mission’ told in a sequence of cosmic trapeze acts.

I think The Martian is a kind of Science Agit-Prop. And I think the reasoning behind it is this: the 21st century has seen the emergence of theology allied with instrumental rationality. If Reason (with a capital R) signifies the marriage of scientific knowledge with humanism (life and liberty as the arbiter of all things), instrumental rationality is the technical manipulation of the material world divorced from Reason. Consider the example of Ben Carson, one of the US Republican contenders in the current round of presidential primaries. Carson, a neuro-surgeon, asserts the literal truth of the biblical account of creation; by doing so he rejects 250 years of modern geological science, and the crucial role that branch of science played in the development of the alloys of the surgical steel from which the instruments that he uses to probe his patients’ brains are made. In the face of this terrifying denial of Science by such an intelligent man, perhaps the ecstatic emptiness of The Martian can be defended. But it’s a risky move. By flooding its narrative with the undifferentiated light of Reason, abolishing all the inner shadows of its characters, I’m reminded of Vico’s cautioning against exposing the mind to Reason’s pure light; in its ecstasy Un-Reasoning faith can take hold. Such light needs to be refracted by mirrors of representation – art, poetry, music, the reading of history – humanism in other words. Perhaps I should add comedy to this list, because that’s what saves The Martian from dehumanising faith; its the trial and error slapstick, laughably incongruous songs (70s good old good ones) and the general feel of the whole thing being a bit of a jolly holiday.

– Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

The Martian has an official Australian website http://www.themartianmovie.com.au/

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