Future Tense

The Martian and the Cult of Science

The movie shows how Americans fundamentally misunderstand science—and that’s OK.

The Martian.
Matt Damon in The Martian.

Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Ridley Scott’s The Martian opens with an unsolvable problem: It’s 2030, and the crew of NASA’s Mars spaceship the Hermes has just left astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars. Watney’s situation is not good. Utterly alone, wounded by spaceship debris, and equipped with enough food to last about 400 days, he comes to an inevitable conclusion: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”*

Americans love us some science. A recent Pew report found that 79 percent of adults think science has made life easier for most people; 61 percent believe government investment is essential for scientific progress; and a majority agree that science has positively affected the quality of health care, food, and the environment. Plus, we love scientists: Recent National Science Foundation statistics suggest that Americans have a “great deal of confidence” in our scientific and medical leaders and consider them to be “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity.”

To Americans, scientists represent a formidable form of authority, wielding the natural laws of the universe to answer the most pressing questions of the day: From whence does man originate? How far does the universe extend? Should I bring my umbrella tomorrow? But The Martian, an adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel by the same name, doesn’t just love science: It worships it. In doing so, the film risks painting science as a kind of magic—and scientists, by extension, as wizards.

Let’s start with Watney. He isn’t a Navy SEAL or otherwise a traditional tough guy—he’s a botanist. He uses this unusual superpower to his utmost advantage, as when he realizes in a stroke of botany-related genius that he can grow his own food using the real potatoes NASA had spent precious cargo space on for the crew’s Thanksgiving dinners. Later, this paragon of rationality uses his knowledge of chemistry to distill water and oxygen using hydrolysis; comes up with a way to communicate with NASA back on Earth; and figures out how to jerry-rig a makeshift heater for his Mars rover out of a buried plutonium power source. No matter what problem Mars throws at Watney, he can solve it—armed with his trusty sidekick, science.

“He is very logical and practical and methodical in how he goes about surviving,” as Damon put it in an interview with Ars Technica. “He says, essentially, ‘I need air, water, and food, and what do I need to do to ensure I have those things?’ And then kind of lets the science bring you there.”

The film has been lauded for the great pains it takes to accurately depict the science of Mars and space travel, from terminology and how scientists talk to the way NASA deals with PR snafus. Jim Green, head of planetary science at NASA and a consultant on the film, recalls the first consultation he had with Scott: “It was a one-and-a-half hour conversation,” he told me. “His detailed questions—from how do ion engines work to how do you create artificial gravity in space to how do you create a radioactive power system—were great. Once I realized he was going to paint as accurate a picture as possible about Mars, I was all in.”

Those efforts are admirable and grand. But when it comes to how science and scientists actually work, the film falls short. In the grand cinematic tradition, it elides the process of science, distilling it into a series of “aha” moments and “Eurekas!” In reality, of course, science is a long, stepwise process that rarely comes up with clear solutions; when it does, they’re almost always riddled with caveats and qualifications. Moreover, it presents scientists as superhuman, whereas the vast majority of actual scientists are specialists in specific fields. (In the film’s defense, Green points out, astronauts are selected for their broad knowledge.)

Screenwriter Drew Goddard has called the film a “spiritual movie,” in which the religion being worshipped just happens to be science. So it makes sense that its scientists are practically deities. They are problem-solvers, survivors, doers; they grow gardens, create codes, make bombs. Consider a key scene in the movie, when a plan to rescue Watney fails. But hark! Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a disheveled NASA astrophysicist, swiftly comes up with another plan—one involving a slingshot maneuver and some complex equations. The film doesn’t explain how Purnell came to this conclusion. It doesn’t explain why anybody should believe him. He just downs a carafe of coffee and it comes to him in a stroke of divine inspiration.

The film expects us to accept the plan because of our basic faith and trust in science—just as the crew of the Hermes does. “I’ve done the math,” Purnell tells an incredulous NASA director. “Checks out.”

By portraying science as magic, the film misleads viewers into expecting more from science than they should. Worse, it encourages a blind faith in scientists as masters of the universe. “The narrative reflects a really significant problem in the interactions between the public and science at present,” says Heidi Lawrence, an assistant professor in George Mason University’s English department who studies the rhetoric of science and technology. (Lawrence had not seen the film.) “It sets an expectation that the public will or should automatically accept scientific solutions to problems because people think scientists are heroes. The scientist comes up with a solution, and the protagonist accepts it. That’s the power of the narrative from the perspective of the scientist—that someone could be persuaded to act based on a heroic scientific finding or instinct only.”

Sci-fi films don’t always represent technology and science as such definitive forces of good and progress. In Alien, an android decides Ripley must die because she has endangered the mission of bringing back an alien life form; in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sentient computer HAL decides to kill the ship’s entire crew to alleviate a conflict in his orders; in I, Robot, murderous robots turn against humanity just as we have become completely dependent on them for our survival. In all these films, science becomes the enemy.

In The Martian, science isn’t our nemesis, but our trusty companion, our secret weapon, a force for good. It is the hatchet (and The Martian is the Hatchet) of the 21st century—an emblem of human ingenuity, progress, and resourcefulness. “The implication here is that it’s comforting to think that, in a crisis, a scientist will sweep in and save the day—whether that crisis results from a real problem like climate change or a deadly pandemic, or a fictional one, like being stranded on Mars,” says Lawrence. “It shows how persuasive the promise of science can be.” Is it completely accurate? Maybe not. But I’ll take that attitude over technophobia any day.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

*Correction, Oct. 5, 2015: This article originally misstated that astronaut Mark Watney only had enough food to last him 30 days. He could have lasted 400 days. (Return.)