Alone. So alone.
Sometimes we seek solitude—shutting doors to our rooms, closing ourselves off, hiding under blankets or behind books. But sometimes that sense of loneliness comes uninvited. We long to see a friendly face. To hear a kind word. To spend precious moments with someone else, even if all we do is sit in companionable silence. We are social creatures. We need community. And when we don’t find it, it can feel as though we’ve been abandoned. Forgotten. Forsaken.
But we’ve never known the loneliness of Mark Watney.
Mark wakes up in the red dust and feels a shouting pain in his side. A metal rod sticks from his gut like a small harpoon. “Warning,” a computerized voice chirps in his helmet, “Oxygen level critical.” He shakes away the clouds in his head and remembers … a storm. They were escaping a storm—making for the launcher. A piece of debris struck. Darkness.
Mark pulls the metal rod out of his belly, covers the wound with his hand and staggers back to the base, his breath shallow and panicked. The door opens, closes, seals. Mark can breathe again.
The wound. He rips off his protective suit, cuts away his shirt and performs a bit of painful self-surgery, stapling his skin together to staunch the flow of blood.
Mark has oxygen. Water. Food. He will survive the day, most likely. Tomorrow, too.
But he is utterly alone on this cold, lifeless rock we humans call Mars. His colleagues and friends are gone, leaving him for dead as they fly home in a ship bearing one empty seat. No one knows he’s alive. And even if they did, it would take months—no, years—before anyone could get to him. The food won’t last that long, even if the water and air do.
Mark hasn’t given up hope. But if he plans to survive long enough to be rescued, he’ll have to do it alone.
The Martian, based on the bestselling book by Andy Weir, is a story about hope and heroism. It’s not about superhero-like antics (though Mark does threaten to go all Iron Man at one point), but rather human courage and ingenuity in the face of some pretty staggering challenges.
Mark’s the movie’s main focal point, naturally. “I’m not going to die here,” he says. And the fact that he doesn’t just spend the first day blubbering and screaming—like I’m pretty sure I would do—is a fine testament to his character.
He characterizes his experience as an exercise in problem-solving: “If you solve enough problems you get to come home,” he says. And in the course of this 140-minute movie, Mark solves a bunch of ’em. He figures out a way to grow potatoes. He proves, once again, that duct tape is about the most useful stuff ever. And, just as remarkably, he doesn’t go completely bonkers. His log shows him to be remarkably upbeat throughout his ordeal, never blaming his mission mates for leaving him and, when things are at their worst, even staring down death itself with courage and grace.
While Mark is indeed alone on Mars, he’s not completely on his own the whole time—not after NASA learns he’s survived. Soon, humanity’s finest minds are trying to figure out how to get the guy safely back. Scientists and engineers work long hours and concoct crazily innovative solutions, taking some huge risks in the process. And the whole world rallies around the effort, following each step and misstep the mission takes.
[Spoiler Warning] It’s Mark’s old Ares III crewmates who take the biggest risk. After NASA pushes aside a plan for the team to slingshot around Earth, go back to Mars and pick up Mark (not wanting to risk the lives of six astronauts to save the one), Ares III decides to go anyway, believing it to be Mark’s best chance. True, his crewmates disobey a direct order from NASA, and that’s not particularly positive, but they’re not trying to evade the consequences, either. They know there’ll be potential punishment once they get home. And they selflessly commit to spending another 533 days—nearly 18 months—in space, away from their own loved ones. They risk their lives for Mark. And even if we should quibble with how they do so, we can’t lose sight of their honorable intentions.
For months, I’ll also mention, NASA officials decide not to tell the Ares III crew that Mark is still alive. Their motives are also good: They don’t want self-doubt or blame to be distractions from the serious job of getting home. But when Mark learns of the deception—and the rest of Ares III is finally told the truth—they’re all seriously, and justifiably, upset. (The whole debacle forces us to grapple with the ethical angles on selective truth and the price of truth.)
Mark doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious guy. But one of his crewmates, Rodriguez, is, and the crucifix he carried into space winds up saving Mark’s life. (Mark whittles shavings off the wooden cross to fire up a chemical reaction—one that eventually creates the water needed for Mark’s crop of potatoes.)
At ground control, Mitch Henderson—the guy nominally in charge of the Ares III crew—asks NASA bigwig Venkat Kapoor whether he believes in God. “Yeah,” he answers. “My father was a Hindu, my mother was a Baptist. I believe in something.” Mitch nods in approval. “We’ll take all the help we can get.” There are references to Mars being billions of years old, and that Mark is the first person to ever be completely alone on any planet. Both the planet Mars and the Ares missions are named after the Roman/Greek god of war, and the Ares spaceship is named Hermes, after the fleet-of-foot messenger god in Grecian mythology.
Mark walks around naked, showing the camera how much skinnier he’s gotten. Beth Johanssen, Ares’ computer expert, plants a kiss on the visored helmet of one of her male teammates. “Don’t tell anyone I did that,” she says. She also brings up the 1980s computer game “The Leather Goddesses of Phobos,” which, Mark jokingly speculates, makes her the saddest, loneliest person ever. Someone jokingly makes a reference to “weird fetish emails.”
A piece of blowing debris smashes into Mark, and he suffers a bloody, painful wound as a result. Namely, a rod punctures his abdomen, and he’s forced to yank the thing out. He feels a piece of metal still in him, though, so after injecting an only half-effective numbing agent, he fishes around inside the wound with a pair of what look to be long tweezers. We get a too-close view of him holding the heavily bleeding wound shut with his fingers and stapling it shut. Later, we see more blood on his shirt when one of the staples pops out.
When trying to craft his water-maker, Mark accidentally sets off an explosion, which throws him across the room. “I blew myself up,” he says in his log, saying he’ll get back to work after his ears stop ringing. Much later in his stay, Mark examines his upper body, and he see lots of sores and/or wounds (probably more a product of poor nutrition than any obvious violence). There’s talk about death and presumed corpses. People jump on and then fall through rover roofs.
Two f-words are said. A number of others are suggested—some shown in print with censoring in place or talked about as “f-words.” Ten s-words are also heard, along with one or two each of “a–,” “h—” and “balls.” God’s name is misused 10 times, once with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Beyond that numbing agent Mark injects himself with, he also crushes up a Vicodin pill and dips a potato in it after a particularly difficult day, explaining in his log that he ran out of ketchup several days ago and, besides, no one can tell him not to.
This isn’t exactly “negative,” considering the fictional situation, but it is still scatological in nature: To grow potatoes in Mars’ dead soil, Mark uses his own excrement as fertilizer, softening it with water and stirring it while nearly gagging.
Sometimes it takes a dead planet to make us appreciate the value of a single life.
It’s easy to take life for granted here on Earth. Our planet supports and sustains more than 7 billion human lives now, and we continue to multiply by the minute. We also die astoundingly often. About 150,000 people pass from this plane of existence every day, 7,000 in the United States alone. In that period, nearly 360 Americans are killed in accidents. More than 40 are murdered. Tragedy is all around us, and we rarely even see it—a headline that we glance at, a half-ignored missive on Facebook. We ignore it. We brush it aside with wholesale ease.
But on Mars—in soil that has, assumedly, never hosted a tree or plant or even a smattering of bacteria—life is revealed as the wonder it is. When a few small leaves poke through Mars’ barren soil, it’s more than a botanical triumph: It feels a little like a miracle.
And as Mark lives his life alone on that dead, red orb, our own blue marble focuses its collective attention on that single man. Most folks don’t know him, of course. But they root for his survival anyway. Mark—this one guy—becomes the subject of unimaginable expenditures of time and treasure. He triggers international partnerships that would’ve been unheard of just weeks or months before. His well-being sparks a billion prayers. Maybe more.
When NASA head Teddy Sanders tells Mitch that Mark’s theoretical rescue is about “more than just one man,” Mitch corrects him. “No, it’s not,” he says. It is about that … one … man. And that man—that life—is priceless, well worth moving heaven and earth for.
The Martian has a few content problems; I’ve detailed them here. It is also an inspiring, entertaining and surprisingly funny adventure. It forsakes the heady metaphysical musings of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar for a straightforward, almost old-fashioned narrative that can be summed up in a sentence: A guy stranded on Mars fights to survive and get back home.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.