In July 1969 Richard Nixon didn’t give a speech. It would have gone, in part, like this:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
The precaution of writing the speech for the president to give was sensible; Neil Armstrong himself thought that there was only a fifty per cent chance of landing safely on the Moon. Still there’d have been a consolation for him and Buzz – “For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
Ridley Scott has made a movie, based on a novel of the same name, that poses the question ‘what if’. But instead of it being whitey on the moon ,as Gil Scott Heron would have it, this is (Astronaut Mark) Whatney on the Mars, as played by Matt Damon, previously rescued at great expense in Saving Private Ryan and…oh see this
“The Martian” is a palpable middle-brow hit, and it’s been quite a while since you can say that about a Scott film, after the disappointments of Prometheus, Exodus:Gods and Kings etc and other ones we’ve all wilfully forgotten. You have to go back to Gladiator for a proper crowd-pleaser, and Thelma and Louise for something to think about. As with those films, it has exquisite photography, pacing, performances, score and dialogue; a treat for the eyes and ears.
There is a (white) optimism here – a sense that humans are still in charge of their (galactic) destiny, and that London and New York, the Atlantic dumbbell, are still the places from which you can show crowds of people watching big screens and have it pass as a synecdoche for global attention (there are some Chinese folks thrown in for ‘balance’.)
The gleaming Hermes that the astronauts travel to and from Mars (aka Wadi Rum) in, with its well-equipped gym and living quarters, is not the grungy not-out-of-place-in-Middlesbrough spaceship the ‘Nostromo’ , from Scott’s 1979 hit Alien. The corporate control comes later in Scott’s universe, though of course, The Martian must be set later than the tech-noir decay of Blade Runner, explicitly dated as 2019. It’s a big universe.
The state we are in
That means that states still matter. It means that there is no competitive bidding process to send Whatney some new potatoes a la Space X. (There’s at least an undergraduate thesis to be written on potatoes in fiction – originally brought from the ‘new World’ by Raleigh, and now to the new New World by Whatney.) And, touchingly, it means that when things fuck up (and they do) then there is a clear line of blame (though the head of Nasa, Teddy Sanders played by Jeff Daniels is at turns both a buccaneer and career bureaucrat, a responsible innovator who needs an occasional nudge. And, touchingly, when he gambles and loses, he seems not to suffer carer-wise). We are a long way from the grubby and fatal reality of 1986 NASA , when they chose under perceived congressional pressure they chose to launch Challenger even as engineers working for Morton –Thiokol were begging them not to. Somewhere along the way, somehow, lessons have been learnt. Or so we like to tell ourselves.
While the larger real-politik is gone, we are left with helpful Chinese and references to money and need for congressional approval, to keep the space programme going (the need to spread Federal largesse was what meant the booster rockets for the Space Shuttle needed to be built in different US states, and then be held together by fateful O-rings. Such are our articfacts. This was not new, even then; crtiiques of NASA’s funding date back to the 1965 book “Moondoggle”.
As Tom Lehrer put it
“What is it that put America in the forefront of the nuclear nations? And what is it that will make it possible to spend twenty billion dollars of your money to put some clown on the moon? Well, it was good old American know how, that’s what, as provided by good old Americans like Dr. Wernher von Braun!”
Basically there was a tacit agreement between scientists and the money-men about JFK’s Man on the Moon bid – “we will take your money, knowing that manned missions are scientifically barren, but politically essential. So we will shut up about that, and the money will keep flowing.”
But I really have digressed, haven’t I!? This is essentially a ‘no man left behind’ tale of (uncommon) valour and redemption, a tale where, to hell with the cost, Americans are not left to die in foreign hell-holes, (see also Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’) combined with the good old American know-how and toughness of Robert Heinlein’s Space Cadet
The advantage of this is it allows us all, producers and consumers alike, to sidestep all the awkward questions about the military motives of space exploration – dominance of the high frontier, rods from god, networks of panspectropic surveillance.
The ‘ethics’ of space exploration get a glancing reference with the notion that planting crops somewhere makes that land yours (really?). They missed a trick by not naming one of the characters Bradbury, for the author of the brilliant “the Martian Chronicles.” One chapter of that “Way in the Middle of the Air“, which deals with the racism of the South, “was eliminated from the 2006 William Morrow/Harper Collins, and the 2001 DoubleDay Science Fiction reprinting of The Martian Chronicles.” [source]
The new saviours
In the forgotten 1969 Marooned (a guilty pleasure) and the forgettable 1998 Armageddon the necessary help-meets to American supremacy are the Russians. But the times they are a changing, and on this occasion it’s the Chinese who come through with the goods and, it is implied, are rewarded with a seat at the table on the next Mars mission. It’s a new world.
There are various ‘cheeky’ references to both fact and fiction within what is a witty script. Teddy gets all meta/self-referential when exhorting his engineers to cut time horizons a la ‘the difficult we can do straight away, the impossible takes a little longer’. There’s the requisite science geek who saves the day with his cray-zee idea that Just Might Work (somehow didn’t get arrested by the cliche police). There is an impossible reference to Apollo 9 (no-one who worked on that would still be around, would they?) in the film, but nothing to the entirely predictable fire that killed three Astronauts in Apollo 1, the Challenger or the death-by-powerpoint of the Columbia in 2003. Personally I was waiting for the whole thing to have been filmed on an Arizona sound-stage by Stanley Kubrick, a la Capricorn One, but that would have been a level of meta too far perhaps.
Verdict: See this film, it’s (red) bubble-gum for the mind. Probably no more intellectually fertile than un-shat-upon Martian soil, but so what. Climate change is coming (even if it isn’t in the film). And we need to dance and drink and see dumb movies….