If you’ve read Andy Weir’s The Martian, you know it’s a vulgar book. Mark Watney, its NASA botanist hero, doesn’t mince words when he learns that his fellow astronauts have left him for dead on the red planet. Fucked is the fourth word in the novel; it’s also the eighth. Thereafter, it—along with its various permutations—appears somewhat less frequently, but still regularly—roughly once every six pages, or 59 times in all.
By contrast, Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of The Martian has considerably fewer fucks to give. Adapting Weir’s book from a script by Drew Goddard, Scott is uncommonly faithful: Images, ideas, even entire science experiments, march onto the screen largely intact. But only two fucks emerge from the cinematic Watney (played here by Matt Damon), lonely instances of a familiar word, flying alone in the void of space.
In context, they’re both potent—and entirely reasonable—uses of the term. It first erupts from Damon at a real moment of desperation, just after emergency self-surgery, as the enormity of his situation sinks in. He slumps in his chair, and in his weakness, he speaks a word of power. The curse’s second appearance is a little less grim, but no less appropriate. Amid exhausting effort hauling bacteria friendly Martian soil into his habitat, an exhausted Watney looks up into one of the station’s cameras, defiant. “Fuck you, Mars,” he says—tired, yes, but also undefeated.
Significantly, however, these aren’t the only times the film alludes to the word. To the contrary, it’s often suggested in the way that sex might be in a different sort of all-ages movie. At one point, as Damon begins to rage about a discovery, the audio cuts away even as the camera remains on his face. Though we can’t hear what he’s saying, it’s easy enough to tell from the way his lip curls up. (Does any curse shape the mouth quite so distinctively as fuck?) Soon after, in written communication with his terrestrial colleagues, he repeatedly types the word. Though Watney clearly doesn’t censor himself, the movie obscures his baser vocabulary, letting others read (and paraphrase) his comments.
At such moments, the movie reveals the very thing it’s hiding, dramatically framing it with the ostentatious effort it puts into obscuring it. We know what Watney means to say, and that he’s unafraid to say it. Here, then, the film is pointedly nodding to its own limitations, rather than those of the character or his world. In particular, it’s making reference to one of the most bizarre guidelines of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating, the principle that a film can include only one, and in some very rare cases two, (non-sexual) uses of the word.
While the MPAA is always vague about why they rate films in the way that they do, this principle has become one of those open secrets of studio lore. As with the Wilhelm scream, an audience can feel flattered merely by noticing a PG-13 film’s selective—usually singular—fuck. On the one hand it speaks to the deeply arbitrary quality of the MPAA’s decision-making. On the other, it makes the notoriously occult opacity of that process seem just a little less formidable.
To its credit, The Martian doesn’t completely give itself over to this familiar pattern. It’s neither blindly submitting to the MPAA’s dictates nor simply calling attention to the convention through some meta-movie gag, in the manner of films like Be Cool. Instead, The Martian weaves its own obligation to censor Watney into its plot, turning it into one of the things that sets Watney apart. At one juncture, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Vincent Kapoor explains that Watney keeps telling earthbound scientists to “have sex with themselves,” though its clear that Watney’s own phrasing isn’t so delicate. Later, Kapoor and another character speculate over what Watney intends when he uses the word, trying to determine whether it indicates anger or bemusement. In each case, the point is that Watney alone gets to say the word, and when he says it, we’re therefore reminded just how isolated he is.
Fuck itself is, after all, a lonely curse, exuding a sonic force that pushes all other words away. This allows it to serve as a signifier of Watney’s condition—both of his alienation and his of individualistic ingenuity. Even when the word’s only suggested, no one—especially the audience—has any doubt about what Watney means, and he’s clearly no less heroic for meaning it. (Similarly, in a film this devoted to the body only as a machine that needs to keep running at any cost, it’s almost inevitable that the f-bombs are nonsexual, per the MPAA’s requirements; they might be the most nonsexual fucks in film history.) Indeed, Watney’s access to the one thing he’s not supposed to say—and his willingness to keep saying it—indexes his indomitability. He doesn’t curse in spite of his drive to survive, but because of it.
That The Martian thumbs its nose at the MPAA’s weirdly retrograde moralism should come as no surprise. It’s of a piece with the film’s genial elevation of science above all else. In its own way, then, The Martian turns what could have been a frustrating limitation into a productive constraint. By accepting the MPAA’s restrictions even as it pushes back against them, The Martian captures the strange weight of standing alone. This is, after all, a film about loneliness. Crass as it is, Watney’s vocabulary is a reminder that he still stands, even if he stands alone.