The Martian is a work movie set on Mars


CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS. Some of my friends who saw The Martian voiced the complaint that there was not enough emotional connection between characters in the film. Mark Watney is single. His parents are never shown. There are no flashbacks scenes to Mark’s life on earth, no love interest, nothing to help the audience see what Mark is missing back home and who is missing him. When the action moves from Mark on Mars it is focused on his crew mates and what is happening among NASA personnel scrambling to work the problem back on earth. Gravity already came at the “lost in space” scenario from the emotional/spiritual perspective, so I found this practical approach a refreshing counterweight. For me, The Martian is a work movie about decision-making and problem-solving. 

The Martian is basically about a guy at work. Stuff goes wrong. He figures out how to fix it. The guy happens to work on Mars. I think part of the reason I liked The Martian is that it vindicates those of us who talk to ourselves while we work. It wouldn’t have been much of a movie if Mark didn’t talk to himself and have a good sense of humor. The Martian is no Office Space in space, though. As a movie that explores a professional work environment it offers a more generous perspective.

Matt Damon’s Mark is mostly concerned with problem-solving and remaining calm, patient, and focused. He looks at his situation and states “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” The science is explained clearly but is not insultingly dumbed down. “If I want water I’ll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn.” This article is a good framework for understanding some of the real NASA technologies that appear in the film. Mark uses the technology available to him to survive. He also uses duct tape. Lots and lots of duct tape. Mark’s innovative use of the technology available and his attitude are what make him a great film hero.

Mark’s co-workers  leave Mars quickly due to a storm, but there’s some disagreement as to whether this is the best course of action. Commander Lewis calls it. When Mark goes down they don’t have a chance to physically confirm his death but trust the monitor readings and take off. This is one of many executive decisions the film explores. I suspect people in charge second-guess themselves more than most of us non-executive types know. Certainly Commander Lewis struggles with her decision once she discovers Mark is alive. When the crew discovers that they may be Mark’s only hope, they respond quickly and unanimously.

The conflict among the NASA bosses is more complicated. Nick, played by Sean Bean, and Vincent, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, are each concerned with specific aspects of the mission that is within his charge. Nick, who is in charge of the mission and supervises the astronauts, advocates for making the attempt to save Mark. Vincent, who is a scientist, is concerned about the probabilities of success and the possible effect failure might have on future missions, and thinks that the risk of rescue is too high. Teddy, played by Jeff Daniels, as final decision maker has to consider what is best for the organization in terms of politics, costs and publicity. Disagreement does not require a villain. Vincent and Teddy are not cast as true villains although neither comes off as particularly compassionate. They do care what happens to Mark. They are torn by their responsibilities and loyalties to NASA as a program and to Mark as a human being. Nick is clear in his position to place human life over other concerns and is willing to stick his professional neck out to see Mark rescued. What nobody knows is whether Nick would feel the same way were he in Teddy’s position or what Teddy might do if he had Nick’s job. This conflict provides the relationship drama, but in a professional setting the emotions are more subtly expressed.

We all have to depend on other people. Mark would not have been rescued had Nick not made his decision and the crew not made theirs. Sometimes those decisions cost something, Mark expresses the belief that human beings who will help when there is trouble outnumber the ones who don’t care. His trust in this idea motivates him to keep working each problem instead of giving up and letting himself die. Mark expressed understanding about why his crew left. Objectively, he even recognized what the guys at NASA had to consider in making decisions and understood his rescue in the grand scheme of the organization. Under extreme circumstances Mark retained optimism and trust.

The music was fine but I did keep hearing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” in my head the whole time and really think it should have been the credits song. I also sort of wish Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver) had been somewhere in the cast because how many characters have names that become adjectives synonymous with on-the-fly innovation. Mark and company MacGyvered that mission.

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