The film’s inciting incident involves a dust storm on Mars in which astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by space equipment (the technical term) and left for dead by his crew, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Of course, Watney is not dead, and the remainder of the film follows him as well as NASA, China’s space agency, Watney’s crew, and a slew of scientists as each solves problem after problem in order to sustain Watney on Mars until he can get back safely to Earth.
The Martian has been praised for doing a lot of things very well: Ridley Scott’s direction, Matt Damon’s performance as the most charming botanist ever to grace the screen, Drew Goddard’s screenplay, and Harry Gregson Williams’ score. But as a quick scan of past week’s headlines indicates, the film’s celebration of science is garnering the most attention:
- The Martian: Science, the Human Spirit and Disco
- Ridley Scott Puts the science back in sci-fi
- What the The Martian Gets right (and wrong) About Science
- In The Martian, science itself becomes an action hero
- The Martian Thrills With Science and Duct Tape
Of course, astrophysicist and resident science-in-pop-culture critic Neil deGrasse Tyson also weighed in with a series of tweets praising the film:
I’m not going to argue that science isn’t extremely important, not only to The Martian but to life in general. It is. Science is great. However, the ebullient praise the science in the film has received echoes the growing chorus of cries over the necessity of promoting STEM as the most worthy fields of study, investment, and funding.
As a student and instructor of popular culture, I have become numb to the rage that fills my being every time I read an article about how tax payer dollars are being wasted on media courses, or every time I make the mistake of reading the comments on a feature about popular-culture studies.
This brings me back to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s assertion that “science, not human emotion” drives every part of The Martian. He’s wrong, of course. Mark Watney relies on his adept scientific problem-solving skills to survive, but he also relies on his sense of humor, his confidence, his grit, and his emotional connection to Earth and everyone on it. Science devoid of humanity is nothing but abstract numbers.
While The Martian’s music, which includes disco as a recurring theme, has received deserved attention, less attention has been paid to the overall role that the media and pop culture play in the film. For example, Watney keeps himself sane during his nearly two years by performing for his video journal, listening to the disco music that he claims to hate, and watching the television show Happy Days.
Science keeps Mark alive, but communication and culture remind him why he’s staying alive. Consuming and creating culture give him a necessary connection to home.
During our debriefing of the film, I asked my friend, “Would NASA really spend billions of dollars to save one person?” She answered, “If they didn’t, it would be a PR nightmare.”
Throughout The Martian, PR and communicating with others about the mission are treated as another pesky problem to solve. But the world’s interest in Watney’s rescue as a media narrative is likely what allows NASA to keep going with the project without significant blowback. If Watney’s story weren’t so compelling, China probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to offer its technology to NASA in its hour of need.
As an audience member, I clung to my seat in anticipation not only of Watney’s reunion with his crew, but also of the thunderous cheering of those watching at NASA and around the world. As an audience, we not only watched Watney being rescued, we also watched the world watch him being rescued. The film took time to linger on the crowds gathered around giant screens in recognizable landmarks across the globe, highlighting the rescue as a media spectacle and uniting us as a theater audience with the global audiences in the film.
These scenes are indicative of how important culture and the media is to programs like NASA. I would wager a guess that little boys and girls want to be astronauts when they grow up not necessarily because they love mathematical problem solving, but because they’ve seen astronauts on TV and in history books. People love space because we, as a culture, value space exploration. Space is cool.
In the final scene of the film, Watney is back on Earth lecturing a class of wannabe astronauts. The lecture hall is filled with students, rapturously taking in everything this now world-famous space explorer has to say. These young astronauts-to-be are enthralled to be in the same room as Watney not only because he’s a brilliant scientist, but also because they watched Watney’s space-rescue play out dramatically on their televisions, computers, tablets, phones, newspapers, and magazines. He’s not just a scientist, he’s a celebrity.
The fact that The Martian is being celebrated as a love letter to science shows that scientists depend on communications, the media, and culture to disseminate and represent their ideas. If the STEM fields didn’t need culture or the humanities, scientists wouldn’t praise blockbuster films for putting science center stage. If pop culture didn’t matter, critics wouldn’t spend time detailing all the things movies get wrong and right in their representations of scientific principles.
Science is important. Culture is important. I selfishly would like the humanities to be treated with the respect it deserves, but we’ll all be better off the sciences and the humanities communicate and work together. After all, it took NASA and its PR team to get Mark Watney home safely.
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