Space travel has had a roller coaster of a history in the United States. The race to the moon that defined the late-’60s was one of the most fruitful periods of advancement we’ve ever seen, and yet today our manned missions have ground to a halt. Pushing the frontiers of space is a cause the entire planet is united under, uncorrupted by things like greed or petty feuds. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson has noted in the past, exploring the outer reaches of the cosmos has humanity thinking of “Earth as a whole, not as a place where nations war.” Nowhere in Hollywood today do we see that embodied better than in Ridley Scott’s most recent project, The Martian.
The movie itself is stunning. Matt Damon delivers an A+ performance, Drew Goddard turned in an Oscar-worthy adaptation of the novel by the same name, and we see a series of stunning special effects enhanced by both IMAX and 3D. Deeper than that though, we see an emphasize on international cooperation in the realm of space travel. When Damon’s character, Astronaut Mark Watney, gets stranded on Mars, the world comes together. China lends support in the form of a supply rocket they were under no obligation to give. From London to New York, city streets are filled with onlookers eagerly watching the rescue mission unfold.
These are the tenets that the Moon Landing of 1969 inspired in us. The race to space was more than simply a competition with Russia, it was a unifying banner that us dreaming of “The World of Tomorrow.” If we could put a man on the Moon, what was going to stop us here on Earth? In the years following, Tyson aptly points out the following advancements:
- 1970: Earth Day was created
- 1970: The Environmental Protection Agency was founded
- 1971: The Comprehensive Clean Air Act was passed
- 1971: Doctors Without Borders was founded
- 1971: The Clean Water act passes
The list is endless, and by no means a coincidence that all this directly followed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the surface of the Moon in 1969.
Where does The Martian fit into this equation? One needs only to look back on the history of other space movies to understand. If there’s one message that Gravity, Interstellar, and Apollo 13 sends us, it’s that space is a treacherous place. The Martian takes this idea and turns it on its head.
Yes, Astronaut Watney gets stranded on a barren planet for more than four years. But through all this, we see the beauty of a world united in his rescue. Jeff Daniels, as the fictional head of NASA, notes the “war” his organization fights against bad publicity. One misstep, and Congress pulls their funding, effectively ending all manned missions for the foreseeable future. Get it right, and the whole world puts aside their petty, Earthly squabbles and looks skyward. Here in the real world, we’ve seen NASA fighting (and losing) a similar war. They’re vastly underfunded and undermanned, hurt by the uninformed notion that traveling to space is a distraction from our problems down on Earth.
The Martian marks a clear opposing voice to this notion. As Watney notes, space qualifies as international waters. There are no borders once we leave Earth’s atmosphere, and the movie makes sure to emphasize this point. It may show us a fictional reality where the Chinese and American space programs work together to save one man 140 million miles away, but it’s a picture of a cooperative world that pushing the frontiers of space makes possible. Movies like this are integral toward tipping the war of perception back in NASA’s favor. Having led the weekend with a $55 million box office take, the message is getting out. Now it’s time to act on that.
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