Food for Thought — The Martian
By Andrea Brucculeri
The Martian (2015) challenges the value of one human life against time, resources, and other lives. When astronaut Mark Watney is mistakenly left on Mars by his fellow space travelers, he is forced to put his botany knowledge to work and spends months growing potatoes with human feces as fertilizer. Meanwhile, NASA and space organizations around the world tackle the various complications and risks of bringing Mark back to Earth before he runs out of food. In The Martian, food is used to represent intelligence and moments of genius as the characters struggle through the trials and trade-offs of saving Mark’s life.
For Mark, every important breakthrough is accompanied by food. He eats while thinking out loud about how to grow potatoes in space, and his solution is to use digested food (human waste) to grow more food. This is significant because Mark’s “clock” is based on how much food he has, since he already has machines continuously producing water and oxygen. Mark is always eating something small and crunchy, perhaps peanuts, while he brainstorms solutions to his food problem. Using the waste of his companions to nourish potential plant life is a flag of brilliance and irony, and highlights the importance of decomposition and breaking down organic matter. This is juxtaposed against Mark’s body on Mars. As pointed out at about 00:31:01 by a NASA employee, Mark’s body cannot decompose on Mars and will only eventually disappear because it will be covered by sand. Something that can’t decompose is unnatural (much like a human on Mars), while somewhat that can is a sign of life and the cycle of growth and dying.
At NASA, Rich Purnell figures out how to retrieve Mark from Mars months faster than the current plan. The moment the idea strikes, Rich starts vigorously eating some sort of food that might have been the same peanuts or snack that Mark was eating while having his own stroke of genius. Rich’s plan ends up being the life-saving procedure for Mark, just like Mark’s potato growing plan ended up being a vital part of his survival on Mars. By the pace and almost mindless enthusiasm with which these characters eat, it is suggested that these snacks are fueling their thoughts. Therefore, even food 50 million miles away is contributing to Mark’s survival.
The screen capture provided is from 00:28:37, the moment that Mark sees that his potato-growing plan is working, as a seedling has sprouted on Mars. The lighting makes the plant appear holy, like an angel, his saving grace. The focus on the tones of the dirt and the single drop of water resting on the top of the leaf emphasizes the life and growth in this picture, as these are things that are closely tied to plants being healthy and thriving on Earth. The way Mark caresses the plant is also reminiscent of the “Creation of Adam” painting in the Sistine Chapel. It is almost as if Mark is a divinely intelligent creature before making this miracle happen, as he has brought life to Mars and has produced food where food has never been produced before.
The screen capture moment is especially significant because an extremely similar shot is shown at the end of the film when Mark is back on Earth and he says the same “hey there,” to a seedling on the ground (2:11:35). This scene brings the story full circle because it shows how life can be simultaneously simple and complex. On Earth, it takes very little thought to plant a seed, but on Mars, it takes great intelligence, ambition, struggle, and faith.