I was intending to use breaks between work on a long flight to New Zeland to have a proper listen to George the Poet (whose monologue on the Benin Bronzes is a YouTube must-watch), and to read The Interpretation of Dreams as background towards a blog about the Freud Museum, which I visited just before leaving London. But, after what should have been a day-long journey turned into 40 hours of queueing and cramp thanks to fog over Dubai and a poor show from Emirates, my time-zone challenged brain needed a Plan B. Thus while the pilot is indulging in a spot of star-gazing* as we zoom over thousands of miles of Australian desert, markontour is preparing to blog about The Martian, while listening to Taylor Swift, and helping the flight crew deal with their after-dinner mint mountain.
To be fair, I’m not sure anything could have been more entertaining than Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic, even if my synapses were fully functional. First off, it has a sharp script and is frequently bloody funny. In particular, Matt Damon, the Tigger-ish astronaut left for dead on Mars has a series of great one-liners as he comes to terms with his fate as humanity’s first extra-terrestrial hermit. “I’m gonna die up here if I have to listen to any more of this god-awful disco music”, he mutters at one point while enduring the ’70s playlist his erstwhile commander left behind.
I imagine I’m one of the last people on Planet Earth to have seen the film, so I’m not giving anything away to reveal that Damon’s character, Mark Watney, got knocked out in a Martian storm while he and five colleagues were legging it to the escape-pod home. Facing the prospect of four years until the next scheduled Mars mission, Watney realises he will have to “science the shit out of this” if he is to survive.
I’m the kind of sci-fi geek who doesn’t actually know anything about science. So I am perfectly prepared to believe that you could grow potatoes on a cold, arid planet using freeze dried human excrement and water distilled from doing something dangerous with hydrozene. Equally, I kind of liked the bit where Watney seeks NASA’s advice on how to modify his urban run-around Mars Rover into a long-distance rally car: “I’ve got the greatest minds on Earth helping me and so far all they’ve come up with is ‘Why don’t you drill a hole in the roof and hit it as hard as you can with a rock.'”
There’s a bit of cod political philosohpy thrown in too, as Watney jokingly contemplates his ‘ownership’ of Mars by dredging up the nineteenth century morals of the conquest of the American west: “Once you’ve grown crops, you’ve colonised it. In your face, Neil Armstrong”. Although later he styles himself as a space pirate, rather than a space cowboy (which might have made for a good excuse for a tune). Atheists enjoy a nice moment when Watney appears to be contemplating Christ on a cross, only for his video diary to reveal that, every practical, he is about to shave it up for firewood.
A bit like watching Lovejoy and thinking you’ve learned about antiques, I’m not sure we gain that much genuine insight into what it will take for humans to set up home beyond the Earth’s (currently) forgiving atmosphere, other than that David Bowie was right and it will be mostly lonely and cold for the first explorers. That said, even Matt Damon’s abandoned astronaut still derives daily pleasure from viewing the galaxy from an alien landscape devoid of light pollution, along with the thrill of being the first to visit just about everywhere he goes. There’s a fantastic shot where he slouches exhausted, but exhilerated, outside his Rover, solar panels spread on the ground to recharge the batteries, as a red Martian sunset comes to its climax. The viewer is encouraged to feel jealous, despite his desperate plight.
My present altitude of 35,000 feet is almost certainly as close as I am going to get to our nearest celestial neighbour, however, as Ms. Markontour has ruled out our applying for places on a future Mars mission. While The Martian makes me want to revisit that discussion, the fictional Mark Watney has a name close enough to my own to suggest the portents are not good. Anyway, it’s something to dream about – what did I do with that copy of Freud..
* Confirmed by a chat with the very affable flight captain. Sadly there’s always too much light pollution in the passenger cabins to indulge in star-gazing