This post contains spoilers for the movie “The Martian”.
I saw and enjoyed The Martian yesterday, after realizing the alarming speed with which my opportunity to watch the film with zero knowledge had been vanishing. Twitter and other sources had rapidly decayed my self-imposed ignorance over the course of a single day — fatally fading, for example, my initial assumptions (and perhaps even hopes) that the plot would contain subtle fantasy elements. I had somehow built a plot-sketch which, in retrospect, I had clearly cribbed from dim high-school memories of Stranger in a Strange Land, neatly eliminating the need to examine that any further here.
Still, I can say that I had no idea how the film would end, and as the harrowing story progressed I could not help but leap from one speculation to another. Most of the endings so imagined leaned on prefabricated Hollywood tropes, but one in particular stands out as far more fun than I usually give myself credit for in this sort of endeavor. I understand this as testament less to any idea that didn’t enjoy the film’s actual ending (I did) than the fact that The Martian so effectively held my attention and exercised my mind.
I would like to share these endings with you now. First, the trivial endings:
Mark is rescued as planned, and everyone returns home safely. I note this here mainly to relate that Neil deGrasse Tyson revealed this true ending on his Twitter account during a tweet-streak of effusive praise for the film’s pro-science stance. It helped encourage me to plan a trip to the theater — and then, it seems, a cinephilic structure within my own brain threw a tarp over this learned fact such that I forgot it while watching the movie. I remembered Tyson’s tweet only during my post-cinema coffee.
All rescue attempts fail — perhaps with further loss of life, or just very nearly. Heartbroken by his colleagues’ rising despair and not wanting them to take any further risks for his sake, Mark pulls a Lawrence Oates and chooses to end his life in the Martian desert, away from earthly eyes. Per the title, he dies a true Martian’s death, albeit returning to soil that he never arose from. The film ends with a review of the significant impact his tragic adventure would have on Earth’s future scientific and cultural endeavors.
Mark rises to meet the Hermes, but must sacrifice himself to save its crew when things go horribly wrong at the last moment. Similar ending as above except with a full-circle structure of the Hermes’ crew feeling really awful about Mark’s death once again, only for real this time, and with their hand in it arguably much more direct. Nobody would make this movie, because that is a not a good ending at all.
As above, but the mission commander sacrifices herself to save Mark, who survives. This would require her to have obsessed even more about her guilt over leaving Mark behind than actually depicted, and would reward this alternate version of the character with a polished hollywood vindication-by-death. Would have felt a bit of a mismatch, though, since the trope more reliably plays out as I won’t let you die! Not like the others! and not I won’t let you die! Not like last time when I thought you did except you didn’t actually!
Film’s epilogue would have spun out much as it did in reality, except that we’d have to know that Kate Mara’s character named her new baby after the commander, and/or Mark must walk past a plaque while entering the classroom that would make clear that the building has also been named after the fallen commander.
And here is the less-trivial ending that I knitted in my head once we moved into the film’s final third:
The Hermes’ rescue plan proceeds apace right up until they approach Mars, when something goes terribly wrong and they must crash-land, rendering the ship inoperable and irreparable. Expert piloting during the terrifying descent keeps all the astronauts alive and without severe injury, and lands them miraculously close to Mark’s position — but now, six humans lie stranded on Mars, not just one.
However, the capsule of fresh supplies also survives the crash. Furthermore, thanks to Mark, they (along with the rest of humanity) know infinitely more about scraping out a subsistence life on Mars than they had prior to the initial accident. So what began as a lone, desperate castaway becomes a small, slightly less desperate camp. (Let’s allow that the astronauts can both science up the grounded Hermes into habitable structures, and also maintain radio contact with Earth.)
It may have never been in anyone’s mission plan, but it now has become undeniable to most every human in the developed world that Earthlings have learned to live on Mars. And so it comes to pass that NASA and the CNSA, with the will of the world behind them, create in dizzyingly short order a bold new joint program to establish a permanent human presence on the red planet, growing that ragged camp into an intentional settlement, and beyond.
And it all began with Mark, who alone amid all the (slow and painfully gradual) comings and goings, and with (as the real film establishes!) no family back home other than his parents, chooses to remain on Mars for the rest of his natural life — and shall be known forever as the first Martian.
Anyway, no, I didn’t read the book.