Note: I will be discussing the film version of The Martian in this post. I’ve yet to do fiction book reviews on the blog, but should that change I’d happily cover The Martian again, especially in comparison to the film.
Possible SPOILERS from here forward (though after five months, this is probably not necessary).
The Martian concerns the plight of a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, as he figures out how to survive on Mars long enough for astronauts to come and bring him home. After showing how Watney was separated, lost and presumed dead, action intercuts between Watney, various engineers and officials at NASA, and Watney’s crewmates on their way back home. It’s a solid adventure film, with our hero using his wits and scientific training to overcome obstacles and adapt to new circumstances. While there are other cast members, the film rises and falls on Matt Damon’s performance as Watney. The rest of the cast is asked to do little besides advance the plot, which is too bad as they are capable of much more (see Jessica Chastain’s work here compared with what her character does in Interstellar).
The Martian was heavily promoted by NASA, in part presumably to help advance the agency’s cause in the public eye and with Congressional and administration officials. So I noted with interest the near absence of the public and non-NASA government officials in the film. Aside from a brief scene of people anxiously waiting on word of Watney’s final rescue, there’s no sense in this film of what people think of the space exploration or NASA. No sense of what has changed from the current day to support the massive human spaceflight missions that seem routine in this film.
Please, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think such an explanation is necessary to make for an entertaining film. But, if works like The Martian are intended to help make the case for continued human spaceflight, I don’t consider it sufficient to show the desired future without some sense of the path taken to get there.
So do we need to have a movie about how we get a public behind paying for more human travel to other planets? I’m not sure. I think it’s a hard sell as a movie, but it could be a useful part of a broader strategy for encouraging such things. There was a multimedia campaign of sorts in the 1950s to build the case for human space exploration. Wehrner von Braun was part of a series of symposiums and magazine articles (remember, this was the 50s when magazines were a major source of popular culture) outlining the steps for mankind to venture into space not some time in the future, but right then. Coupled with the work of space artists like Chesley Bonestell,
Could something like that campaign happen today? Maybe. Google has just released a documentary series, Moon Shot, focused on the teams seeking to win the Google Lunar X Prize. It deals with what people are doing right now to further space exploration.
While it may not (yet) have footage from the moon (a condition for earning the Prize), the film does have the backing of J.J. Abrams’ production company. Given Abrams’ penchant for retelling epic science fiction stories from the past (Star Trek and Star Wars), I think he has the tools to make Moon Shot the 21st century attempt at something like what Colliers did over sixty years ago.