We’ll Always Have Mars

The title of “The Martian,” a movie that’s been playing in local theaters, is a bit of a joke. The protagonist is not actually a Martian in the sense of a native of our neighboring planet. He’s an Earthling, one of us, but (most likely) as much of a Martian as the Red Planet has ever had in its billions of years of existence. He’s there as part of what may turn out to be an early effort to colonize Mars.

This movie is a breath of fresh air in a cultural atmosphere otherwise polluted with zombie movies and other dystopian sci fi. The optimism is supplied, as so often is the case, by science and technology. Always our best foot forward.

Matt Damon is cast as Mark Watney, a cheerful pragmatist, the movie’s message seeming to be that all things are possible, given time and the right attitude (the “right stuff” from an earlier movie about astronauts).

The movie provides no reason to doubt that optimism. We will colonize Mars and by, in Watney’s wonderful thinking-man-as-regular-guy phrase, “sciencing the s–t” out of any obstacles—he figures out how to grow potatoes on Mars—eventually domesticate the entire universe.

That’s quite a change from director Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic “Alien,” which suggests inherent limits to our yearning to make ourselves at home in space. There’s something out there untameably alien (and really horrible) that will resist and defeat our hankering to see ourselves mirrored in the great beyond.

There are in the movie numerous space ship liftoffs, first the one from Mars to escape a sand storm, leaving Watney stranded, and then from Earth in various efforts to save him. Liftoff (all the faces upturned in hope) has become a great image for our time of transcendence, of possibility, of a better future. In a sense the movie’s optimism itself is a liftoff from the actual state of the world (now, if not the 2030s when the movie is set): war, hunger, inequality, cancer, the seeming insoluble tangle of the Middle East, climate change. (Is the movie suggesting that by 15 to 20 years from now we will have managed to turn all those things around?)

Steven Hawking’s take on Mars (a remark made during NASA’s rock-collecting foray a couple of years back) is: good thing we’re learning to make a home on Mars, because we’re rapidly making our own planet uninhabitable with the likes of climate change.

Hawking’s perspective may be more a comment on how we are treating our own planet than a serious recommendation for the human future. The most dire climate change predictions don’t suggest that the earth will become remotely close to as hostile for human life as Mars will always be. (With average temperatures in the minus 80 range, harsh to say the least. Of course the good news is that Mars has so little atmosphere we wouldn’t have to worry about polluting it with carbon or anything else.)

If we can’t, as seems to be the situation, keep from fouling our nest through climate change,(or nuclear waste) it will still probably be a lot easier to grow potatoes here than on Mars.

As for domesticating other planets, we could start by domesticating our own.

With apologies to “Casablanca,” another movie that ends with a liftoff from a messy situation: “We’ll always have Mars.”


“Bridge of Spies,” the popular and critically well-received movie that’s been playing locally, is an entertaining true story, comforting in a way we have come to expect of Spielberg. Tom Hanks is always enough to restore your faith in the species. Decency, honor, stubbornness in the service of virtue seem built into his very physiognomy. […]

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