Here is another essay from my MA in Ecology and Spirituality,
this time comparing and contrasting two movies
in which men get stuck on Mars!
One is from 1964 and the other from 2015...
a fascinating journey for me, which I hope you enjoy reading....
Compare and Contrast Assignment:
Robinson Crusoe on Mars 1964 and The Martian 2015.
Both movies Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) and The Martian (2015) involve a male astronaut who has suffered an unexpected disaster that leaves him stranded on the uninhabitable planet of Mars. He goes through many hardships, including solving the problems of breathable air, drinkable water, food shortages, dangerous terrain and fluctuations in temperature. Against all odds, both men survive and are rescued by their astronaut peers.
I will compare and contrast these two American-made movies in terms of the cultural and historical moment in which they were created. The main themes I will address are: the cultural hype of space travel; concepts of colonialism; and the significance of finding life on other planets. I will conclude that while details of these themes appear to have changed over the 51 years between these two movies being created, the underlying mentality of a world that sensationalises space travel, and in particular the potential for human habitation of Mars, remains the same.
Only twelve men have set foot on an extra-terrestrial body (the moon), so ‘popular understanding of outer space is chiefly a product of images and representations’ (Geppert 2012: 13), including these movies. I would like to explore what these representations mean about people’s mind-sets at the time they were created.
The Cultural Hype of Space Travel
Robinson Crusoe on Mars was created in 1964, the year after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy was instrumental in perpetuating the hype around Space Travel, when he announced in 1961 that America would send men to the moon and return them safely to Earth. This was realised in 1969, when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon and ‘rekindled the excitement felt in the early 1960s’ (Launius 1999).
A huge aspect of Kennedy’s (1961) speech was to ensure that people all over the world would have access to television in order to witness America’s success. Alexander Geppert (2007) describes this as a ‘carefully orchestrated, global media event’ (Geppert 2007: 594), seen by 600 million people, in 49 countries, symbolising ‘the central role of space exploration in the process of globalization’ (Geppert 2007: 594).
The two movies show the contrast between mentalities before and after the lunar landings. In 1964 Robinson Crusoe was very much alone. He had zero contact with Earth, and the viewer had no way of knowing if his peers were coming for him, as the movie was set entirely on Mars.
The Martian, on the other hand, was alone for a while, but then he was able to make contact with Earth and sustained communications until his rescue. There are scenes within NASA’s headquarters, and of mass-audiences watching a ‘global media event’ (Geppert 2007: 594), as the rescue mission was attempted. People worldwide witnessed the event, which could not have been imagined by the creators of Robinson Crusoe, who had not yet seen men on the moon or witnessed the wider implications of the Space Race on communications and technology.
Kennedy’s dream of globally televising the moon landings could be seen as a stroke of genius if we consider the long-standing desire of humanity to view the Earth from space. Cicero touches upon this theme in his Dream of Scipio (in The Republic 51 BC). Scipio is asked, when observing the earth from outside it, how he can truly seek glory among men when only scattered parts of Earth are inhabited, and between the breaks ‘no communication can pass from one set to another’ (Pearman 1883).
Scipio’s glory will not spread far, and the men who talk of him will soon cease to talk. Kennedy found a way to bridge these communication breaks, so that even the most remote regions of the Earth could witness America’s success. Everybody was talking about Kennedy’s dream-come-true, and they still are, hence the scenes in The Martian that directly mirror the moon landings.
Concepts of Colonialism
Both Robinson Crusoe and The Martian include themes of colonialism. Robinson Crusoe says he feels like Columbus going to new lands, and erects an American flag outside his cave-home, and The Martian is told that he has colonised Mars by cultivating his potatoes: ‘in your face Neil Armstrong!’ These themes are reminiscent of Kennedy’s notion of the ‘mastery of space’ (Kennedy 1961).
‘Mastery of space’ (Kennedy 1961) could be synonymous with the concept of mastery of nature, inherent in many western mind-sets since the time of Descartes, who said I think, therefore I am, creating a split between mind and matter, man and nature, man and space, and man and woman. To see space as separate from oneself is to view it with fear or indifference; to seek to master it therefore breeds colonialism.
Nicholas Campion (2015) asks: ‘how is it possible to persuade people who see space as either empty or dangerous that it needs protecting?’ (Campion 2015: 1). Both protagonists, it could be said, see Mars as empty and dangerous, and neither is concerned with protecting it or consider that they have contaminated its environment simply by being there. This view appears not to have changed at all between 1964 and 2015.
Robinson Crusoe and The Martian both see Mars just as the Europeans saw Australia: empty and unknown. It has now been acknowledged that ‘Australia, when the Europeans arrived, was neither empty nor unknown, but occupied and known. By the same token, to regard outer space as empty and unknown will always raise the risk of an ethical blunder’ (Campion 2015: 7). Just like seeing the planet as an extension of the human body, without which the human could not live, we can also see space, including Mars, as an extension of Earth: the Cartesian split has caused this illusion of separation between all things. Even ‘environmentalists and ecologists generally have nothing to say about space, confining their theories to terrestrial nature’ (Campion 2015: 7).
Within ecology, the image of Earth from Space is used widely to promote a spiritual connection, unity and wonder at our planet Earth. This is known as the Overview Effect. I found it intriguing watching Robinson Crusoe, as he casually points out to his escaped-slave alien friend, whom he names Friday, the distant star that is his home. It is a simple conversation, almost devoid of emotion. In 1964, no images have been captured of Earth from beyond it, or none that were widely circulated, and so the Overview Effect would not have been in the public consciousness.
There is no mention of this in The Martian either, suggesting that this ecologist view is still not in the mainstream mind-set. The astronaut does not look out longingly at the planet he calls home, but he does show a huge respect for earthly life, shown by the respect and tenderness with which he treats his potato plants. The further we get into space exploration, the more the images come through of blurring Earth-life with Mars. Robinson Crusoe found Martian food he could digest, whereas The Martian grew Earth food on Mars.
The Earth exists in relation to other bodies, and so boundaries disappear. Both movies portray this: in Robinson Crusoe boundaries between humans and other space-beings are fluid, for example when Friday eventually starts speaking English. In The Martian it is the technology that melts boundaries. That he can communicate by email with Earth from Mars, a distance of 140 million miles (Space Website), is testimony to how this idea of separation is an illusion.
Another aspect of colonialism is that it was generally performed by heroic, explorer, masculine men. Dario Llinares (2011) considers how historically, astronauts take on a persona of idealised masculinity, while describing an excited man at a Buzz Aldrin audience and his less than enthusiastic wife. Llinares comments: ‘This moment, for me, encapsulated the implicit gendering that underpinned the perception of space history and specifically the social construction of astronauts themselves. Space exploration was a story by and about men to which women were only peripherally connected’ (Llinares 2011: 2).
Therefore ‘Space exploration is conceptualised as another milestone in the advancement of humanity, indicative of the innate need (of men) to explore and gain knowledge about the external world’ (Llinares 2011: 3). This idea is reflected in both these movies with their male protagonists. The 1964 movie is devoid of females, excepting a photograph of one of the astronaut’s wives. In The Martian there are female astronauts, including the captain, although the protagonist is male.
Llinares sees that in the 21st Century ‘space exploration is no longer a pioneering venture into the final frontier and the moon does not represent the gateway to an inevitable colonisation of the stars’ (Llinares 2011: 196), which it was seen to be in 1964. Space is now actually a ‘functional foundation for the global communications infrastructure, home to thousands of orbiting satellites, which facilitate our highly mediated interconnectivity’ (Llinares 2011: 196), which explains why The Martian is able to communicate with Earth, while Robinson Crusoe is not. ‘The awe of utopian futurism has been sucked out of space flight, and as a result, today’s astronauts no longer symbolise the idealised masculinity of the Mercury and Apollo era’ (Llinares 2011: 196), which may somewhat explain why there are female astronauts in 2015 but not in 1964.
The Significance of Finding Life on Other Planets
In 2020, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will be sent to seek for signs of life, an aspect of space travel prominent in both movies. Robinson Crusoe has no real mission on the surface of Mars: he is there accidentally. However, whilst there he continually records what he has found to enable him to survive and any signs of life. The Martian, in contrast, already has an established base on Mars, and his task as a biologist is to collect rocks and soil samples, which is described as ‘another aspect of the Mars 2020 rover mission’ (NASA Website).
What is not mentioned by NASA, or in The Martian, is the possibility of extra-terrestrial life currently living on or visiting Mars. Long before Sputnik (1957) the Space Age was dawning, and people spoke of a ‘“multi-planetary society” peopled by… “interplanetary man”,’ (Geppert 2007: 597). Discussions of whether life on Mars had evolved to the human level were portrayed in the War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898). For Robinson Crusoe viewers it was still a possibility that other life lived on or visited Mars, hence the arrival of aliens from another planet. For The Martian no such imagination existed, but he was still searching for signs of life.
While Robinson Crusoe’s alien is very humanoid, other movies created more elaborate conceptions. Shukaitis believes that ‘the rise of science fiction films in the 1950s with their imagery of bizarre alien races functioning by some sort of incomprehensible totalitarian collectivism, in many ways reflect the recoded and redirected imagery of communism’ (Shukaitis 2009: 99). Communism appears as a UFO, which may seem quite absurd to viewers of the 2015 movie.
‘Absolute deterritorialization can easily end in death, insanity, or absurdity’ (Shukaitis 2009: 100), which is very evident in both de-territorialised men Robinson Crusoe and The Martian. Robinson Crusoe could have died many times; he hallucinates due to loneliness; and there are absurd moments, mostly concerning his monkey companion, ‘Mona’. The Martian could have died many times; he has moments of insanity, for example when trekking across the Martian desert in a rover calling himself a pirate, while people on Earth are concerned about his mental health; and moments of absurdity, including frequent allusions that the only music available is terrible 80s disco. One of the main things these movies have in common is that they are both really funny, and could even be described as comedy.
Perhaps the absurdity of humanity leaving the planet, or of finding alien life, has always been there. Perhaps deep down everyone knows that we are supposed to be fully connected to our mother planet at all times, or face death or insanity. One cannot say that either Robinson Crusoe or The Martian lived on Mars: they suffered, and they survived, against all odds.
Many of the themes of Robinson Crusoe on Mars and The Martian are similar, including the main premise of the movies; the similar character and plights of the male astronaut protagonists; the adventurous, explorer, hero, colonialist mentality of the movies; the search for life beyond Earth; and the portrayal of the comic absurdity of the situation.
The differences include the increasing globalisation of hype around Space Travel, at its peak around the 1969 lunar landings; huge improvements in global technology and communication; changing attitude to women-astronauts: astronauts are no longer seen as masculine-heroes; belief in alien life has diminished in the mainstream mindset, as has the view that the moon is a gateway to colonising the solar system.
However, the simple idea of sending people to Mars, which NASA clearly still has their hearts set on, is becoming more and more of a reality. People today watching The Martian could perhaps see how all of this could really occur, while Robinson Crusoe would seem outdated and fanciful. Kennedy’s blatant colonialist expression about ‘the mastery of space’ is perhaps expressed more subtly now, but the underlying Cartesian dualist mentality is still there in the mainstream media, expressed in many ways in The Martian.
 I will henceforth refer to the movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars simply as ‘Robinson Crusoe‘. Although this is not the name of the main character, which is Christopher Draper, played by Paul Mantee, it is a theme on which he draws during the movie. I will use ‘Robinson Crusoe’ synonymously to refer to both the movie and the lead character. I will use ‘The Martian’ synonymously to refer to both the movie and the main character Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon.
 This is an ecofeminist viewpoint. See for example Merchant (1980) and Warren (in Curry 2011).
 Archibald MacLeish describes the Overview Effect as: ‘To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know now that they are truly brothers’ (MacLeish in Launius 1999). The modern ecology movement was spurred on by this image and the new perception it creates of the need to protect planet Earth.
 Friday is the character in Daniel Defoe’s (1719) Robinson Crusoe novel, whom the protagonist Robinson Crusoe meets and cannot communicate with at first. He names the stranger Friday because they meet on that day. A similar situation occurs in this movie, and the lead character refers to the original ‘Friday’ when he gives the escaped-slave alien a name.
 Buzz Aldrin was the second man on the moon.