Often, the idea of living without ties to a centralized, law creating and enforcing body can be portrayed as ideal. However, in the film The Martian, audiences are presented with an entirely different construct of jurisdiction from the perspective of those on Earth and one person living outside of it.
At the beginning of the film, the audience is introduced to the crew of a NASA research and information gathering mission to Mars. The crew has clearly worked together and formed a deep bond that is tested when a sudden storm compromises the safety of an active information gathering session and threatens the lives of all crew members. While the crew members race to escape the planet one crew member, Mark Watney, is struck by a piece of flying debris. From his lack of responsiveness and the severity of the blow, it appears that he is dead, and the mission commander and crew struggle with the desperate decision to leave his body behind in order to save everyone else. Though anguished, the crew ultimately leaves Mars and Watney behind.
Unbeknownst to the crew, Watney regains consciousness after the storm clears. The audience is the only witness to Watney’s painful realization that he is indeed alone on Mars and without a functioning communications system to reach NASA, although he is able to access the mission basecamp for shelter and basic resources. Watney does not resent his crewmates for leaving him behind – quite the opposite, he is glad that they seem to have escaped the storm unscathed.
These scenes are juxtaposed with scenes from Earth, where there are two reactions to Watney’s apparent death: personal and political. Personally, many who worked on the mission are quite upset by Watney’s apparent death and the decision not to send any form of rescue mission to retrieve his body or confirm his death. Politically, agency heads appear concerned about the potential impact of the fallout from Watney’s death on the future of the entire agency. As a result, there is a desire to move on from Watney as quickly as possible in order to deflect attention from any allegations of agency failures. Despite this, there is a core group that believes it is the agency’s obligation not to consign Watney’s body to Mars.
On Mars, Watney would likely agree with that sentiment and yet there is no overarching sense of panic. There is of course a natural sense of desperation and frustration that strikes him in waves. However, the audience also sees Watney as functioning and maintaining the basic laws and morals that he brought with him from Earth. He is forced to open his crewmates’ personal bins in search of food and other survival items but does this in a way that evinces remorse (although this remorse is tempered with a good degree of humor that demonstrates his continuing humanity throughout the ordeal). He maintains program protocols such as daily check-ins via video recordings (though no one else can access them), recycling procedures and even uses the essential unwritten laws of society – such as table manners – during his quotidian activities. Throughout, there is a sense that Watney is aware of his stark freedom from earthly law and morality on Mars and yet does not believe that he is in fact unbound from these simply because he is outside of earthly territorial jurisdiction. When he is required to travel a distance on Mars in order to eventually be rescued, Watney jokes about being a “space pirate” and at the same time reinforces his understanding of the applications of earthly international law. In this way, holding onto legal tenets can be seen as a way of preserving Watney’s identity and humanity.
Watney realizes that he must try to re-establish communications with NASA. At the same time, a dedicated team from NASA remains convinced of the potential to find his body – living or not. Both Watney and the NASA team members are stunned when they are eventually able to reconnect. This provides Watney with a much-needed sense of connection to the outside world and hope for his potential survival. At the same time, the discovery that Watney is still alive shifts the burden to NASA to determine the appropriate course of action. Again, there is a split between those wishing to preserve the agency by not risking another mission and rather consigning Watney to Mars for years and those who believe they must retrieve him because anything less would be immoral and illegal. This includes the commander of the mission to Mars and Watney’s crewmates, who ultimately decide to retrieve him in accordance with a plan that involves the use of Chinese resources as well as American resources. To the commander and crew this is a basic question of their duty to a crewmate and particularly of the commander’s legal and moral responsibility to her subordinate. Those on the ground, who spend months of their lives obsessing about ways to bring Watney home, also see it as a moral duty and are not above asking another country for assistance when the issue is life. The deepest objection is seen as coming from quarters who attempt to politicize the law by arguing that the agency’s duties to Watney ceased, however even these views are ultimately changed by public pressure that is based on morality.
The Martian is consistently oriented around the morality of saving Watney. The plan to save him is technically difficult, involving great personal risk and uncertainty for a number of people. They undertake this risk willingly, however there is a strain on them and on Watney, who questions whether he is worth the risk. Throughout this, he continues to recognize being bound by legal tenets from Earth – even those relating to outer space. In the end, Watney is safely brought home after several very close calls during the rescue.
The Martian is in itself a fascinating film that forces audiences to look inward and question how they might react in circumstances such as Watney’s. A subtle thread throughout the film is not only the immediate reaction but how far the audience would believe itself to be bound by law and morality in a situation such as Watney’s, where there is no one else to judge or even observe. This is balanced against another theme – that of how far one believes one is bound by these same laws and moral tenets when everyone is looking and seeking to find fault. This leads to the essential issue of how far one is required to go when the future of something larger than oneself is at stake. Although in the immediate these questions are answered to a certain degree by the overall plot, The Martian challenges audiences with these larger questions and presses the question of how far law is grounded.