Astronaut Mark Watney is the 18th man on Mars. He’s a member of the manned Mars mission Ares 3. Or he was, when the mission was aborted on Sol 6. After an accident during the crew’s unplanned departure, Watney is presumed dead and left alone on the desert planet. Many ordinary astronauts would have given up; the situation certainly seems hopeless. But Mark finds the will and resourcefulness he needs to keep fighting for survival.
I don’t feel bad if I spoil this for you. It’s a Matt Damon movie, and a damn good one. It also nearly follows the book to a T. Many of Watney’s clever one-liners even make it into the movie. If you haven’t seen it or read the book, you’re honestly missing out. 10/10 would recommend this story, in book or movie form.
Mark Watney’s voice is full of dry humor and life. He manages to maintain hope in a hopeless and dark situation. Like the psychology on staff in Weir’s NASA said, Mark’s response to extreme stress is to make light of the situation. Any time it feels like our hero is a goner, he cracks a joke, lightens the mood and then solves the problem. Watney is a protagonist in the most definitive sense of the word; he is the human we all want to be; kind, compassionate, intelligent. He’s forgiving and believes the best in humanity as whole. Even so, he’s not naive. He knows life isn’t fair, and he’s quick to point it out, usually involving some kind of humor, and moves on. My friends consider me to be one of the most cynical people they know, and I’d love to be a little more like Mark.
It’s initially very difficult to relate to the characters on the ground. Their voice isn’t as strong as Mark’s, so his story drowns theirs out. It’s not until they’re sure that Watney is alive and kicking that any of them develop any personality. Placed in contrast with Mark, some of these mere mortals come off as cowardly or selfish. They make questionable decisions and they fuck things up.
Finding Pathfinder was such an important step in this journey for a few reasons. 1) It established communication with NASA. This is very practical (now he can talk to the smarted people in the world. They might help him get out of this mess), but it’s also incredibly symbolic. Mark thought he was the only one who knew he was alive on Mars. Now he’s not alone. 2) It established just how resourceful Mark Watney is. Even the folks at NASA didn’t consider him finding Pathfinder until Watney figured it out. It’s the first time it makes you think, this man might make it out alive.
Sure, this is a survival story. I could draw many parallels between The Martian and Life of Pi, or any other castaway story, really. But like Mark says at the end; he was never alone. His success and survival in this story hinged on the human tendency to help other people. Without thousands of people back on Earth working around the clock to save him, Mark would’ve never made it home. Without their unswerving determination that Mark Watney would not die alone on Mars, he would have. So yeah, this is an epic survival story. But the success belongs to the collective rather than one man whose life should’ve ended in a dust storm on a distant planet.