The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many parts of the world, including my own (sunny southern California), to a virtual standstill. My wife and I are both home right now in self-quarantine, and many conventions we’d planned to attend, such as WonderCon and others that I’d planned to cover for this site, have been indefinitely postponed or cancelled. Unable to even visit with friends or family right now, save for Skype/FaceTime chats, my ridiculously huge library of DVDs, Blu Rays, streaming services and good, old-fashioned books have now become my super-weapons in the battle against boredom.
I’ve been reading a few online posts lately about a perfect film to watch in the age of coronavirus, and I keep seeing titles such as “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) or “Contagion” (2011) pop up. Don’t get me wrong; these are excellent films, and I own them in my own DVD/BR library, but they’re not exactly what I would find inspirational in times such as these. For me, that would be like watching “Night of the Living Dead” during a riot, or “Twister” after a devastating weather event. I prefer a movie that lifts me out of my current situation, and perhaps gives even a touch of hope.
One movie that has come to mind during this crisis is also a personal favorite of mine from the last five years; “The Martian” (2015), starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, based the equally excellent book by Andy Weir. To anyone unfamiliar with either (talk about social distancing), here are the broad strokes of the story…
*****RED PLANET-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist working to test soil samples for future cultivation as part of the Ares III crew, who have been working together for a few weeks on the surface of Mars. A powerful, violent Martian dust storm threatens to topple their vertically stacked ascent vehicle, and an abort to the mission is ordered by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain, Damon’s costar from 2014’s “Interstellar”). In reality, Mars’ thin atmosphere would make such a dust storm little more than a stiff breeze (author Weir has freely acknowledged this), but moving on…
On the way back to the craft, Watney is impaled by a wayward piece of antenna, and his bio-monitors flat-line. With the storm getting worse, near-zero visibility, and Watney presumed dead, Lewis is forced to proceed with the mission abort liftoff without him.
Watney awakens to discover his own blood congealed the breach in his pressure suit (and wound), though his oxygen level is still critically low. Struggling with the pain of his pierced abdomen, he barely makes it back to the habitat, stapling his wound together in a bit of emergency self-surgery.
Realizing he was abandoned, though not blaming his crewmates for their decision, Watney is alone on Mars…with only the remaining crew rations left behind to keep him alive for the next few years, when the next planned Ares IV mission could conceivably reach him. In order to stay alive, Watney has to “science the shit out of this thing.” Watney’s gallows wit is one of his many saving graces in the story.
Addressing the imminent food shortage first, Watney (ever the botanist) makes irrigation water by mixing O2 and hydrogen (what could go wrong with flammable hydrogen, right?) in order to grow potatoes using bits from the crew’s uneaten Thanksgiving rations, Martian soil and freeze-dried feces (pooptatoes?).
Watney also doubles his pressurized rover’s travel time by cannibalizing batteries/chargers from a second vehicle, and keeps warm during the impossibly cold Martian nights with a decaying radioactive isotope. Once again, Mark’s gallows humor comes to play as he debates the ‘safety’ of driving a vehicle with a decaying radioactive isotope in the back seat (the image of Homer Simpson casually tossing the uranium rod out of his car comes to mind...).
The lone astronaut performs many other such amazing-but-possible feats of engineering, including cannibalizing the 1997 Pathfinder landing vehicle into a crude communications device, hacking his own rover’s code for text messaging, and stripping the Ares IV ascent vehicle (which is awaiting a future crew, thousands of miles away) down to little more than a flying gas can.
Watney suffers many setbacks, including an explosive decompression of his habitat’s airlock, which ruins his indoor potato farm. Not to mention the accidental destruction of a hastily-prepared resupply rocket sent his way…
Eventually ’the Martian’ receives some much-needed hope when introverted Caltech engineer Rich Purnell (musician/comedian/actor Donald Glover) figures out an elaborate way for the Ares III mothership Hermes to use its return trajectory to Earth for both resupply and gravitational slingshot maneuvering in order to return to Mars and capture Watney in a single do-or-die rescue attempt.
Once back in Martian space, they will be able to retrieve the returning Watney, who has only one slim shot at orbital rendezvous with the rapidly approaching mothership (using the aforementioned stripped down Ares IV ascent vehicle). The plan works, barely, and after 540-odd sols/days, Mark Watney finally makes it back to the Hermes.
Why “The Martian” Is So Perfect For Right Now.
I. Inspiration In Isolation.
Aside from being a terrific movie which I once discussed in one of my earliest posts, there are many great messages in “The Martian”, all of which are very relevant at a time when so many people are being ordered to self-isolate. The character of astronaut/botanist Mark Watney is literally the sole living being on an entire planet for much of the movie. 2000’s “Cast Away” (starring current COVID-19 patient Tom Hanks) explored some of this same themes of loneliness and self-reliance, but it lacked the unabashedly inspiring climax of “The Martian.”
Having an island or planet entirely to one’s self may seem like the introvert’s dream. However, over time, even the staunchest hermit will miss hearing another human voice or an affectionate embrace. Watney’s isolation, like many humans on Earth at the moment, isn’t one he wished for; it’s not a vacation or an extended leave. The isolation was imposed on him through bad luck, just as current COVID-19 restrictions were foisted upon many of us right now.
Later on in the film, Mark Watney does eventually establish communications with both Earth and his colleagues aboard the Hermes. But for a sizable chunk of time, Watney is utterly alone. Watney endures 18 months alone on an utterly inhospitable planet with equal parts humor, intelligence and ingenuity. In fact, both the book and the extended version of the movie (well worth seeking out on Blu Ray) show Watney using his downtime to complete his original botanical experiments of the mission, sending his results to the Hermes.
Good fiction inspires, just as the tales of Greek heroes inspired people in ancient times. Yes, “The Martian” is a work of fiction, but seeing a fictional member of our species find ways to survive in isolation on a hostile planet might inspire even some of us to endure an indeterminate period of isolation in our own homes. And at least we can breathe the air outside, right?
II. Global Response.
There is also the inspiring message of a world coming together to rescue one man. It’s not just the crew of the Hermes or Mission Control wanting to retrieve their stranded astronaut; we also see the Chinese government donate two rockets for resupply missions (one of which fails, the other succeeds). Many different people come together in this rescue effort. Diversity cohering towards a common cause. Even in the Hermes crew, we have a female US Navy veteran in charge of the Ares III mission, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and her fellow US Navy veteran pilot, an Hispanic-American named Martinez (Michael Pena, who is utterly brilliant) as well as a German engineer named Vogel (played by Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie).
Both movie and book feature the brilliant, introverted Caltech grad student named Rich Purnell (Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino). Glover gives a wonderfully offbeat performance as Purnell, and it was this film that first put him on my personal radar. I’ve been a fan of both his music and films ever since (his Netflix standup special was hilarious, too).
In the book, we also had the Indian-American character of NASA Mars mission director Venkat Karpoor; changed to Vincent Kapoor for the film (played by talented British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor). There is also young flight controller Mindy Park, who was Korean-American in the book, being inexplicably played by blonde, blue-eyed Canadian actor Mackenzie Davis (“Blade Runner 2049”) in the film. That last bit of apparent whitewash casting was controversial at the time of the film’s release, and is one of the few sticking points in this otherwise sterling adaptation of Weir’s novel. That said, the film still offers enough diverse casting to make the rescue of Mark Watney truly feel like an effort of the entire human race.
As mentioned earlier, in both the film and book the Chinese government donate two of their heavy-lifting rockets towards the Mars resupply/rescue effort. Granted, their motives initially appear to be for reasons of propaganda and image rather than altruism, but that changes during the course of the story. This is also a very timely plot twist, as real-life Chinese businessman Jack Ma recently donated 500,000 coronavirus testing kits to the United States. Whatever his motives, those half-million kits can do a lot of good, and they should be accepted with grace and thanks, rather than skepticism or cynicism.
As we all hunker down in our abodes, waiting out this period of uncertainty, I get a recharge of inspiration from seeing thousands of people from all over the world, including former competitors in China, working together to help one of their fellow human beings get back to his home planet. Or to deliver medical testing kits to a competitive foreign country (now might be a great time to lift those Chinese import tariffs, I think…).
III. Science as a Candle in the Darkness.
Watney is left alone on a planet that doesn’t even have local water or a breathable atmosphere, let alone a supermarket nearby. Both his breathable and water come courtesy of technology (water/oxygen reclaimers), and his own mechanical ingenuity at keeping both devices in working order (there’s more about this in Weir’s book). Watney also has to create additional water for irrigating his potato crop, and that comes through his knowledge of chemistry (though his first attempt at using flame to burn the hydrogen and oxygen didn’t work so well... Watney is also very human). Mark needs to trust his knowledge of chemistry, physics and yes, botany, for his very survival.
What rations Watney has shortly after abandonment were meant to last a crew of five for a few months on the surface of Mars, so he has a decent supply of food for himself, but only in the short term. He has to make more…on a planet with no life, no running water and no breathable air (the atmosphere of Mars is a near-vacuum of mostly carbon dioxide, and less than a hundredth of Earth sea level pressure). He manages to make a potato farm using Martian soil, snips of potatoes from the crew rations and yes, human waste. Smelly, yes, but full of the kinds of terrestrial plants need, and which the ultraviolet-sterilized soil of Mars otherwise lacks.
Mark also has to rely on mechanical engineering and physics to keep him alive. This is a trait we see in many real-life astronauts, who aren’t just trained in one field of space science; they have multiple levels of expertise, in case they have to assume duties of a pilot, a medic, or a plumber. Mark is able to cobble together batteries from two rovers to extend the life of one. This allows him to travel far longer than previously needed in the original mission. He uses this extended rover life to reach both the 1997 Pathfinder lander (which he turns into a crude comms device) and (using portable solar panels as chargers), and later to reach the Ares IV ascent vehicle, which is thousands of miles away. The ascent vehicle, which is stripped of all excess weight for liftoff (in order to make a very narrow rendezvous window) is Mark’s ticket back to the Hermes.
By crunching numbers, cultivating crops, and rejiggering/repurposing life-supporting machinery, Watney is able to use science to stay alive.
Science isn’t a religion, nor is it a political perspective; it’s a tool used for understanding the world around us, whether that world is Earth or Mars. It provides demonstrable, repeatable results… that is how we humans can rely on it for our survival. Much of the science in the film is perfectly valid. Despite a few deliberate creative liberties taken here and there, “The Martian” is practically a love letter to science itself.
Right now, during the global pandemic, it’s important that we ignore politicians & TV pundits who are busy trying to score points, and listen primarily to scientific facts. Currently, the CDC and the World Health Organization are my leaders in this crisis, not Donald Trump. I’m listening to their advice, not his.
During this time of social distancing, there are still several ways to enjoy “The Martian.” The film is available on DVD/Blu-ray/4K formats (via social-distancing safe delivery from Amazon.com or other retailers). It can also be streamed via Hulu or AmazonPrime (rental or purchase). Andy Weir’s 2011 book, which I highly recommend, is also available in (deliverable) hardcopy through Amazon, or Barnes and Noble (barnesandnoble.com), or in two (downloadable) Audibles audiobook versions, the latest version read by actor Wil Wheaton (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”).
You might also want to check out Weir’s “Artemis” as well; it’s like “Ocean’s Eleven” on the moon. There are some great characters (you may never forget Jazz Bashara), and the caper is a lot of fun.
Summing It Up.
So, if you’re looking for some inspirational entertainment right about now? “The Martian” is a real shot in the arm. I wish my readers (and all of their loved ones) strength, perseverance and best wishes in this difficult time of self-quarantine. We don’t yet know how long this pandemic will last, but as “The Martian” teaches us, if we pool our global resources, find humor in ourselves, and learn to rely on accurate, verifiable information? We will get through this.
Let’s science the shit out of this thing…