Saturday, October 3, 2015

Project Elrond: The Martian

In a way, this is a truly brilliant poster: it's his face, the face of a singular individual, and we all know that face. Knowing an individual, as opposed to an American astronaut, or a Chinese explorer, a British physicist, etc., touches the intensely human within us all. Why make this film? I think there are at least three reasons. First, the Obama administration has castrated NASA and the American space exploration initiative, intentionally, because he doesn't want us achieving great things, working out problems that bring us closer together (no where in the film is the president called upon to make a statement or express "grave concern" over the situation, it's just Teddy, the head of NASA, who invokes President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt who was a champion of the American spirit). A film such as The Martian draws attention to what we are NOT doing as a country that we have always done in the past: explore and break boundaries. Secondly, the film demonstrates the intense resiliency of a single person, who has no help, but only his wits, and manages to survive without a government welfare check or a FEMA tent. Granted, he had the Aries III equipment, but he's the one who figures out how to find the Pathfinder satellite so he can reach NASA and get further instructions, no one does that for him, he did that himself, just like pulling out that antenna from his stomach (an important symbol we will discuss below). Thirdly, when socialist political theory is still trying to dominant the world, Scott produces a film which demonstrates how special, unique and utterly important the individual human being is, all concepts totally alien to socialists who believe humans are merely animals with no soul nor singularity. The world rallying to the ultimate fate of Watney demonstrates that we all believe in one another and are, on our deepest levels within our souls, for one another, even when politics and history says otherwise. Now, on an entirely different note, let's discuss an important question: why Matt Damon? Plenty of actors could have played this role, and Damon really hasn't had a hit in many years (in spite of being labeled Hollywood's "Best Value" for return investment). One, we just saw Damon and Chastain in another space film, Interstellar by Chris Nolan, in which Damon portrayed a scientist who was the exact opposite of Watney: ready to give up and just die, as well as sacrifice others for his own survival. Scott, in his film, wants us to be mindful of that so we can compare and contrast Damon's two characters. Secondly, Damon is an active and vocal liberal,who hasn't been quite so liberal as of late, and seems to be finding a more center stance for himself on political issues, and seeing a liberal in such a dire atmosphere of self-sufficiency and survival sends conservative audiences a message about the real subtext of the film (and we shouldn't be surprised by this because both of Scott's last films, Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings, contain important political messages as well). 
Another massive achievement for Ridley Scott. The Martian enters a public debate in cinema that sides with films such as Interstellar and Star Trek Into Darkness, while taking issue with a film like Gravity and it's anti-exploration theme.  If you haven't seen the film, any spoilers contained in this post aren't really going to give anything away, because this is a film about pacing, the human spirit, acting, bringing the world together, cinematography and our deepest inner resources that we can call upon which, not only lift up ourselves, but all of humanity with us when we face epic odds and impossible obstacles.
There are lots of "little things" that go into making this a great film: for example, in the opening scene, when they are all out doing what they are supposed to be doing, and making fun of each other for doing it, the sense of what a team is establishes the sense of duty, dependability and friendship; it's great to be a part of a team where you get to do what you are great at, and others are doing what they are great at. When the storm comes, and this is still in the first 10 minutes of the film, it's a massive storm and Lewis (Jessica Chastain) who is the commander in charge, has to make the decision of whether to abort their station or stay; Mark Watney (Matt Damon) suggests they ride the storm out but she opts for aborting the plan to keep them all safe. There are two important elements of their names we should take into consideration briefly.
Jeff Daniels' "Teddy" isn't a particularly likable character in the film,  he is the one making the tough decisions and, as an audience member, we agree with Sean Bean's character Mitch Henderson when he calls Teddy a "coward." We can't really say that Teddy IS Teddy Roosevelt because the types of decisions that Teddy makes, Roosevelt would NOT have made, but we can say that the name "Teddy," meant to invoke the president, is also meant to invoke the standard of how Teddy, as the head of NASA, should be acting, and isn't. 
"Lewis" is likely a reference to the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition: it's not so much comparing her and her decisions to the actual Expedition across America, rather, an invocation of the American spirit. Mark Watney's name yields two important clues about him: first, he will leave his "mark" on Mars, not only in the note he leaves behind in the Rover that saved his life, but as well, that he was the first to cultivate crops on the planet and, therefore, colonized it, according to textbook definitions. Secondly, the "watts" of bright ideas Watney has in overcoming countless problems and obstacles is a part of his being, his identity that shows in his name. There is also Rich Purnell, the astrophysicist who has the "rich" ingenuity to create the gravity assist plan that will jettison the Hermes space craft back to Mars to pick up Watney (for Teddy's name, please see caption above). What about this little, seemingly unimportant detail of the film: disco music?
Why do bad things happen in the world? God has promised us that He will never allow us to go through something bad without Him bringing a greater good from it, and in this film, that "greater good" is Rich Purnell. In the image above, when we first meet Rich, he's asleep, and we should take that metaphorically because Rich hasn't had the great challenge presented to him in life that will "wake him up" from the slumber of his laziness to rise and meet the challenge of doing something for a greater good; Watney being stranded on Mars does that. In this image, we can see Rich's mind just like the black board above his couch where he's sleeping: full of numbers and ideas that haven't expressed themselves yet because there hasn't been an opportunity to do so (imagine the black board to be like the dialogue bubble for characters in comic strips). When one of the other physicists enters and wakes him up, Rich is literally woken up when he absently mentions, "They would have a better chance of,..." and Rich realizes that he's right, they would have a better chance of doing a gravity assist rather than another launch. Everyone, including Watney himself, is rising to the challenge and re-defining what is possible because of the tragedy of Watney being stranded and, while none of us wants this kind of thing to happen to anyone, the good which comes from such circumstances positively benefits the entire world as well as the individuals directly involved. 
After Watney's alone, he goes through everything the crew left behind (rather like Tom Hanks' character going through FedEx packages in Cast Away) and the only music Watney can find is Lewis' disco music; why?
There are at least two reasons.
This is one of the most difficult moments in the film (from my perspective, anyway) and it's one we recently saw in Prometheus: a character has to perform a surgery on themselves. With Watney, the antenna from the communications satellite lodged in his stomach, so he had to break the rod while he was still outside, because the rod was connected to the satellite by a cord; this "cord" should symbolically be interpreted as a "umbilical cord," rather like the one we saw holding Spock in the volcano in Star Trek Into Darkness. For Watney, and for the general audience, our need to communicate with others is a kind of "umbilical cord" which feeds and sustains us, but it also stunts us. Watney has to "break" himself loose of the cord, i.e, his umbilical cord making him (like us all) dependent upon others for interaction and companionship, and then he has to remove the antenna lodged within his stomach. The stomach is the place of the appetites, but it's also the place where we "digest" what has happened to us and make it a part of ourselves. When Watney pulls out the antenna, he is establishing himself as a truly independent human being (we will go over this in more details below in the image of Watney setting up his greenhouse). Being "free" of the need to interact with humans is not an end of itself; it's being able to not need interacting with others, being able to retreat from the world and into your deepest self that is the goal, and then being able to "re-connect" with humans on a deeper, more authentic level, which is why Lewis is hooked up to another umbilical cord towards the end when she goes out to "grab" Watney. The tether is an umbilical cord to the "mother ship" that has what Watney needs to survive, but because he has been through the struggles of isolation, he is now willing to take a great risk and chance on 1). traveling through space "in a convertible" (after he has to largely take the shuttle apart so it will be light enough to reach orbit) and 2). be willing to puncture his suit to use as a thruster to reach Lewis in space so she can intercept him and bring him on board. As Soren Kirkegaard suggested, we have to go through purgation so we can re-experience anew the things which we were originally cut off from and have a deeper experience of them; this is true of Watney and his communication with others. We can compare, for example, the way Watney communicates with his team mates at the start of the film (and his radio is turned off) and Watney communicating with the future astronauts he's put in charge of at the end of the film. where they are hanging on his every word. Another detail of this is the staple he uses to seal the wound. When Rich is explaining his plan to Teddy to use the gravity assist, Rich uses a stapler to demonstrate his proposed plan for the Hermes shuttle; why? Of all the things he could have used, Rich grabbed a stapler (which probably would not have been in the NASA conference room they were in, rather, on the desks in private offices) but the stapler Watney uses to stitch up his stomach (and later comes out while he's working so he starts bleeding) is being directly related to the scene of Rich and Teddy. We have, in these two scenes, a dramatic comparison of polar opposites: the most basic need to survive and not bleed to death (Watney stapling his stomach) and the highest technological advances by humanity with the Hermes inter-planetary space ship on the other (Rich using the stapler in his metaphor). This is what great film makers do: give the audience clues to tracing similarities between two-seemingly non-similar scenes so the vocabulary of the film can be enriched and the engagement level of the viewer enhanced. 
First, the disco genre was a largely minority art form: women, homosexuals Latinos and blacks were the ones predominantly patronizing disco music and clubs (until the release of the John Travolta film, Saturday Night Live, during which time it spread in influence). Mark Watney is a white male, who would normally not be associated with disco, however, as he goes on, day-to-day, more of the music begins to illustrate his battles and what he is going through; in other words, the musical art form creates a public platform where there is a meeting of the majority (Watney as a white male and dominant power holder in America) and the minority (Lewis as a female in command and a minority and a first time female commander of a planetary mission), where they can both discuss their problems and find that common ground politicians would like to deny (in today's world) exists. By the end of the film when I Will Survive plays, we know that even though the song is about a woman letting a man back into her life, we can understand more about the dangers she is facing in this situation, and even though Watney is a white male who seemingly has all the power and privilege in the world, he, too, has suffered greatly, and both retain psychological scars and victories. Then, there is the second reason,...
Mindy, the blonde, and Vincent on the right, present an interesting situation for the viewer. To begin with, Mindy is the very first one to realize Watney is still alive; how? By interpreting the photographs. She examines photos of the solar panels and the rover and realize the panels have been cleaned and the rover moved, meaning, to Mindy, that someone had to have done that, in spite of Teddy throwing out other suggestions. This brings us to a later scene between Vincent and Watney, when Vincent tells Watney he's going to have to be launched into space in a seriously stripped-down shuttle and Watney responds via email, "What the f---?" and Vincent and Mindy talk to each other, trying to interpret the way in which Watney means that statement. These two scenes, of interpreting the photographs and Watney's emotions in the email, are the invitation to the viewers that we, too, should be interpreting what we are seeing and hearing. Two other important scenes in the film are when Watney's first making contact with Mars--the signs he has created--and the "noise" distorts the images; "Are you receiving my message?" but that message isn't just to NASA, it's also to us, the viewers, because Ridley Scott is sending us a message as do every film maker/artist when they produce a work. What is Scott's message? We can make it, and regardless of the odds against us, we will make it and thrive. Another important scene is when Watney receives and email and one second, the camera is in the rover with him, and the next second the camera is outside the rover, watching him; we can't hear anything, but we see him mouth the word "F---!" and some other choice words; in this case, silence is acting as the "noise" because we hear the silence, but know that more is being said "beneath" the silence Scott is giving us in this scene, and we have to interpret what is happening rather than just passively accepting what we see on the screen.
The 1970s were a turbulent time in American history, and several films have commented upon them as of late, from American Hustle ("Hustle" being a term frequently employed in disco circles) and X-Men Days Of Future Past when Wolverine goes back in time to the 1970s. Bringing in an art form, in this case, disco, that was particular to a certain time-frame, the late 1960's-the mid 1970s, adds the political, social and cultural commentary of that era to the margins of the present. In other words, it's like director Ridley Scott is saying through the incorporation of the disco music that, in spite of the trauma the  country suffered with the Watergate Scandals and the riots, "apocalyptic" by many people's standards at the time, a type of storm like the storm on Mars in the film, we the people didn't abandon the country; we made it work, just like Watney on Mars, and even though it looks as if we're never going to get to see our home the way it was before 2008 again, we are going to keep fighting because that is what we do and that is who we are, which brings us to an imperative point of the film: who are Watney's parents?
This is a great scene because it shows how we, the viewer, should also be viewing the film: not in a static, one-dimensional manner, but really turning it around and trying to understand what is going on. Camera angles like these aren't common, they aren't the angles film makers automatically think of when they are trying to decide what to film and how to film it in order to make the greatest amount of communication possible so the viewer has access to the greatest amount of information in the scene--the characters, the situation, the plot, etc--possible. Like the noise and silence incorporated by Scott in other scenes, unusual camera angles also serve to expand the audience's ability to interact and engage with the deeper sub-text of the film. In this particular scene, we are supposed to put ourselves in the crew's unusual position of having their ship come so close to home, and then not go home, but go back to Mars and the crew mate they were certain was dead, now be still alive.
Watney isn't married nor does he have kids, and we see the very public funeral for him before NASA realizes he is still alive, but Watney's parents are suspiciously absent; there is no tear-jerker scene of Teddy or Vincent calling his parents and delivering the news that they made a mistake and their son is actually alive, or of the mother and father pleading Teddy to bring their son home; Watney does ask Lewis, at one point, to go talk to his parents and tell them that Watney said he died doing what he loved and for something greater than himself. So, who are these people that are never seen in the film? His mother is the "motherland," America, and his father, the "Founding Fathers." Americans have the same parents that Watney does, meaning, we come from the same great spirit of adventure and resourcefulness that we are watching on the screen in the guise of Mark Watney, and this is an image of an important part of our character and purpose in the world. There are three last topics I would like to address in the film: the Christian theme, the Chinese and Project Elrond.
This is one of the last scenes of Watney on Mars as he travels to the destination point. When he gets there, he looks at himself in a mirror: he examines the sores on his body from not being able to shower for a year, the emaciated body he has and he shaves his beard and starts cutting his hair; why? On a superficial level, we could make one of two deductions: first, that he wants to look good for the crew that "abandoned" him on Mars, so they will think that he must not have suffered too much since he looks so good when they finally meet up with him again; the exact opposite, however, would be for Watney to meet the crew with uncut hair and beard, so they would know how much he did suffer and feel sorry and admiration for his incredible feat of will power and stamina. I think, though, that neither of these options, while possible, aren't really probable, because of one gesture Watney makes: he looks in the mirror. Mirrors and glass symbolize deep inner-reflection and meditation; Watney sees "himself" in the mirror and realizes everything he has done to survive up to this point. Why cut his hair? Hair, as we know, symbolizes our thoughts, because our thoughts originate in our heads and our hair is closest to our thoughts; cutting his hair, then, demonstrates that, while he has had to think "long term" on Mars (his longer hair, deeper thoughts) now, if he thinks too much on what NASA and his crew mates are asking of him to accomplish, he will realize that it's all going to "go south on him" and he probably won't make it off Mars alive, which leads us to Watney cutting his beard. Facial hair symbolizes the appetites, because it was the uncivilized barbarians who didn't cut off their beards, and so the appetites Watney has are being cut-off; no, not the appetites for food other than potatoes, or to take a shower again, rather, the appetite to get home. He cuts his beard because he realizes now that he might not make it after all and he has to face that possible scenario as a real fact. He has done everything he can do, he has fought and suffered, but now, there are too many elements and factors beyond his control and it might just not work out, so he is disciplining himself interiorly to accept what may come in the next twenty-four hours. We wouldn't know that Watney was going through this without the subtle gestures of him looking in the mirror, cutting his hair and beard, but this is what great film makers know and use to communicate to their audiences. 
After scavenging the abandoned personal effects of his crew members, we see Watney lying in his bunk holding a Crucifix; we discover that, because NASA doesn't like flames, everything left behind is flame retardant so he can't burn anything to make water for his greenhouse; taking a knife, Watney shaves away the bottom of the Crucifix to make wood chips to produce fire to produce water. Looking at Jesus upon the Cross, Watney says to Him, "I'm counting on you to get me out of this"; when NASA attempts to launch the IRIS rocket, Mitch asks Vincent if he believes in God and Vincent replies affirmatively; why is this important? For at least two reasons. First, Ridley Scott is (publicly) an atheist, even though his last film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, was a deeply pro-Christian film and even the lead character of Prometheus, played by Naoomi Rapace, was a Christian. In the midst of all this incredibly advanced science, God still has a place, which is a completely counter-cultural position to take, especially for someone who claims not to believe in God. This leads us to the role of the Chinese in the film.
Watney spends about two days healing and recovering from the shock of what has happened to him; after two days, he announces to himself that he isn't going to die, and he begins taking steps and working towards his future there, figuring how what it's going to take to keep him alive and fed. When Watney goes outside to begin his plan, that is the first time in the film that we see the American flag, hanging on a wall behind him as he works; why? Because at that moment, that intention to survive and overcome the dire straits he is in, is when Watney expresses what is American about Americans: determination and stubborn courage. What Watney does in this scene is take what is uniquely him--that he is a botanist--and figures out how to create a food source for himself. There was another recent film with a botanist, Savages, where the botanist figured out how to engineer a purer strand of marijuana for his monetary gain. Comparing the two scientists, we can say that one does for himself while the other does for his country (and in planting crops on Mars, Watney is doing for America and, indeed, all of humanity). 
So, they invoke God, send the IRIS missile into space as a supply ship for Watney but because of the protein cubes loaded in the missile, it exploded; how can we see this being the Hand of God or a miracle? IRIS exploding was the prompt needed for the Chinese to offer to help. When the Chinese helped with their booster rocket, that brought people together who are otherwise not on particularly friendly terms (we saw this being discussed with why sports are so important in Trainwreck, it brings people together). This is a major reason to continue with the space program: it unites humanity. When Watney discusses Mars being subjected to "international waters" treaties, he reveals that it doesn't matter if the advances are Chinese, Indian, Russian or British, but human, for all of us, and we all benefit when a brave group of individuals go "where no man has gone before." This is a dramatically different thesis than what we saw in Gravity, when Bullock's character finally lands back on earth, and she walks to a Chinese village that obviously has no technology of any kind (read: technology and space exploration are bad, we need to stay primitive and on the ground). This brings us to our last point: The Lord of the Rings and Iron Man.
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts, can be counted," said Albert Einstein, and that is certainly true of the human spirit. In this image, we see all the computer power and engineering genius that has gone into making NASA and the Aries Mars exploration program. What we don't see is the determination, the creativity and ingenuity of each of these people and those in space. The creative solutions offered in the film, like Rich's solution of the gravity assist, and Watney using his space suit like Iron Man, introduce an important value in the film which (most) Americans hold dear: play. "Game" is defined by a set of rules which helps one team to develop strategies in order to win (like how to make a basket in basketball, and the team with the tallest players closet to the basket will "likely" win). "Play" takes a more creative approach and figures out ways in which the underdog--the basketball team with the shorter players--can manage to win the game, like taking advantage of fouls to increase their free-throw percentage. Throughout The Martian, we see the amassing of scientific data and crunching of numbers, but in the end, it's creativity that defies the science and the numbers that gets Watney home (remember all the math they did to make sure the Hermes would be able to intercept Watney's shuttle, and then it didn't work out after all?). Why is this important? For at least two reasons. First, it demonstrates the singularity of the individual and of humanity: our intelligence is greater than any machine and it can't be replicated, it is unique to each of us and we are able to understand greater forces than just those that can be measured by numbers. Secondly, it espouses chaos theory, that--in spite of what the numbers say--things can still go wrong and they most likely will. Chaos theory, while not necessarily advocating the existence of God, also doesn't preclude the existence of God the way Darwin's evolution does (or more modern evolutionary theories insist upon also).
When Rich gets Vincent to set a meeting with Teddy, they call it Project Elrond, and discuss that it's from The Lord Of the Rings and that was the council held deciding what to do with the One Ring and who would do it. What does this have to do with anything? It actually has everything to do with everything. In TLOR, Frodo Baggins is a hobbit, basically like a kid, but he has been chosen to carry the most powerful weapon in all of Middle Earth and to take it to the most perilous place in the whole universe and he will have to do most of it with no one by Sam who is basically a kid, too. Like The Martian, we see people not equipped to do an impossible task, but doing it anyway, taking on an incredible burden and defying all the odds which have been set against them and defining themselves in ways no one thought possible: in a word, fulfilling their destiny, and creating new standards of courage, sacrifice and brilliance. So, how does Tony Stark fit into this?
In this clip, Watney has an idea and goes out to find The Pathfinder satellite he knows landed on Mars in hopes that he can use the satellite to transmit a message to NASA. The "Pathfinder" is a part of the human spirit, that where there is a need, a way will be found. We should also understand this as a metaphor of Watney himself: what was buried in the sand (within Watney), is now being unburied and he will use it whereas it would have remained buried within him if not for him being in such a terrible state. The argument, "Who cares? I would much rather go through life not being stranded on Mars and being happy then to find something buried within me that I didn't know I had" is really not a valid argument--I know because I make that same argument every single day, wishing instead for a simple, no-stressing existence. Humanity is interwoven together, every single one of us, tied to every single other person; the good one does, all benefit from; if we fail to develop our abilities to the utmost, we not only fail ourselves, but all humanity as well. 
Towards the end, when Mark's shuttle hasn't reached a high enough altitude for the Hermes to intercept him, he gets the idea of puncturing his suit so the released oxygen will create a engine in his hand that he can "control" and somewhat direct, "Like Iron Man." If you will recall the first Iron Man film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) had been captured and was held hostage; because of that, he built Iron Man to escape and that changed the world and changed Tony Stark; likewise, Watney has done the same and so have the countless engineers and experts who have "done the numbers" but, more importantly, they have seen the situation with their heart: knowledge is important, but the heart is more important. Watney doesn't survive because of what he knows, he survives because he's determined to.
Towards the end, when Watney eats his last meal on Mars, he is writing down a note on a piece of paper which begins, "To Whom It May Concern," and my first thought was a final will or note to his parents; then he keeps writing and we see, "Take good care of this rover, she saved my life. Mark Watney." This note tells us three important things. First, even though Watney had prepared himself for the possibility of dying (shaving his beard and cutting his hair) we know he plans on living because he didn't write a note to his parents or a last will. Secondly, Watney knows there will be future missions to Mars, that the US isn't going to stop space exploration and others will come after him because only cowards shy away from challenge. Thirdly, the rover is a vehicle. This might not seem important, but at a time when our ability to invent and dream has been seriously discouraged by the Obama administration, and we are under a constant threat of him imposing martial law and restricting our ability to freely move and travel, that a rover saved Watney's life is an important political statement about the necessity of personal vehicles in our lives: the features of the rover come from advances made in the car industry (they could not have come up with a design like this in the 1960s, for example, this rover is a result of the free market meeting increasing demands from consumers). Watney never would have been able to make the trip to the launch site without the rover and NASA might not have even realized he was still alive except for the rover being parked in a different spot in photographs of the station. Far from being just a sign of material consumption, endangerment to the environment and unnecessary signs of social status socialists would like to brainwash us into thinking cars and vehicles are, like we have seen in Fast and Furious 7, cars are important and versatile machines that can actually save our lives and even our country. On an entirely different note, what are we to make of Watney talking about himself being a pirate? I have a feeling this is a pre-emptive argument regarding Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales. We saw X-Men Days Of Future Past supporting the film Whiplash before it was released, and Iron Man 3 making an early argument against The Lone Ranger and the Sand Creek Massacre which is acted out in The Lone Ranger (and, of course, Watney references Iron Man when he's in space). Film makers talk to other film makers and know what is going on behind-the-scenes long before we do, and I am confident that we will understand what is really meant by "Captain Blonde Beard" when the film is released in July 2017.
In conclusion, The Martian will go down in cinematic history as one of the great films released when so many other great films have been released as well: it is not only teaching us, but inspiring us in our daily lives, giving us courage and hope, reminding us who we are and the greatness that lies just ahead of us. Nothing can overcome us, if we don't overcome ourselves.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner