Why you should be rooting for The Martian come Oscar Sunday

The Martian, starring Matt Damon
The Martian, starring Matt Damon

I remember walking out of The Martian with my friends thrilled at the experience. Here was that rare warm, scientific film, one that trumpets the positive human characteristics of the actual doing of science. The central character Mark Watney deals with the inescapable fact that, to survive on Mars by himself, he needed to “science the shit out of this.” And that he does, by experimentation, teamwork, and creativity. His scientific training becomes a superpower that enables him to engineer solutions that keep him alive. The practice of science for him is not a robotic process, but rather an entertaining trip to the limits of his knowledge and capabilities. He no doubt had to think very deeply about plants when he pursued his graduate degree in botany, but the movie is more of a showcase of the lateral thinking that develops after having taken the time to try to get to the bottom of a question or an unexplained observation.

Like any other creative process, Watney’s scientific problem-solving requires that his human needs be met. He has to dance (ideally to something other than disco), crack jokes, and talk to others on his team so can he meet the challenges ahead of him. Mark Watney the man and Mark Watney the scientist are indeed the same, and that The Martian emphasizes this is but one example of how the film shows the potential of fiction to communicate and humanize the scientific process. Rather than simply providing an incidental “human story” that involves science but has little to do with the doing of it, this movie proves that when someone does science, a human story unfolds.

In the following weeks, it was clear that that message had fallen on mostly deaf ears. In a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Wesley Morris called The Martian “a really entertaining movie…that’s about all it is,” before comparing it Gravity. A friend of mine, a professor at Wisconsin, mentioned that some of his friends had compared The Martian unfavorably with Interstellar. Presumably these comparisons were made because…all three movies take place in space? Otherwise, these movies have very different goals. Interstellar was about unity in the universe, while Gravity was rather purely about the human spirit, as personified by Sandra Bullock. Being in space was merely a dramatic way of accentuating these themes—in Interstellar‘s case to bring together emotion and the fundamental physical laws of the universe, and, in Gravity‘s, to provide a grand canvas for sheer isolation. A brief scan of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and googling confirmed my suspicion: that few people, aside from the makers of the film, saw the positive practice of science as a main theme of The Martian, though it is writ large on every aspect of the film.

Before explaining how the lack of appreciation of the deeper aspects of The Martian is directly related to the fact that we may elect a lying asshole as president, I want to explore why people perhaps do not recognize that The Martian is an exemplary scientific movie. Going through the history of the portrayal of science in the movies, it is unsurprising that the public perception of how science is done and why it might be fun is skewed.

Historically, the movies has portrayed solitary geniuses groping at forbidden knowledge through opaque means. This stereotype can be traced back to Frankenstein, where Mary Shelley depicted the hubristic Dr. Frankenstein attempting to create life through the new science of galvanism. What we now favorably call “synthetic biology” was then called the “unhallowed arts” by Shelley. It is the suspension of Frankenstein’s Romantic virtues that leads to his creating a “hideous…wretch” through the “dangerous…acquirement of knowledge.” Somehow, “[he] alone…discover[ed] so astonishing a secret.” Shelley is such an emotionally compelling writer, that, though science developed from this time to become a mature field of study, its depiction remained tied to Frankenstein. As film and science grew up together in the 20th century, movies looked at science and thought: bo-ring. So they created many of the stereotypes that you know and may (tsk!) love, by grasping at the lurid, the horrific, the humorous. Examples include: the sinister villain (Spiderman), blind followers of corporate bigwigs (AvatarJurassic Park), eccentric anti-social geek (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), and the hero. What’s memorable about these types of characters is that they are all drivers of plot in movies that have nothing to do with science as a practice—instead, they are stories where science serves as a plot device. Audiences, however, make the connection, and, as a result, society’s opinion of science suffers.

In fact, doing science requires character, is done by a variety of types of people, and often result in small but compelling eureka moments. Mark Watney is confronted with the hardest scientific problem he has ever faced: surviving on Mars without anyone else on the planet. He does not panic. He knows his solution will require action that is informed by his scientific training. He faces difficult problems (figuring out how to survive with limited food supplies and how to communicate with NASA with limited means) with determination, humor, and equanimity. His relationships with other astronauts of variety of personalities, races, religions help him keep hope. His rewards are sublime and make tangible the rewards of doing scientific research: he sees beautiful vistas no one else has previously seen. The Martian proves that science can be a driver for an emotionally compelling story.

Correctly portraying science in movies and in culture matters because it reflects how much we value science and objective thinking. And we should value it because the basic tenets it teaches affect how people act. For example, demagogues like Trump and Cruz are able to curry favor on purely emotional arguments. Trump’s supporters mainly consist of misinformed voters who hold their views even when presented with factsScience enables people to get out of their heads and think of ‘objectivity’ or ’truth’ as real things. Wouldn’t we want a leader who confronts problems not with self-aggrandizing bluster, but rather with a willingness to be a team player who can solve tough problems? Right. So, why should you root for The Martian? Because it stands for a truly scientific perspective on the world (and might prevent Donald Trump (and future Donald Trumps) from becoming president).

Acknowledgments: 

The author would like to thank Stephen Thurman for helpful discussions on the portrayal of science in film and for editing.

Kapil Amarnath is a post-doctoral fellow at the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University.

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