The Martian vs. The Revenant: Lessons for Existence

The Revenant vs The Martian

This article will discuss some specific plot points of the two films. If you haven’t seen one or t’other, you may want to consider stopping here. This article also represents a departure from the practical focus of this blog as a whole. I will return to the more conventional documentation of events around the property with the next entry.

Early 2016 saw the full release of “The Revenant” in theaters in Canada, alongside continued showing of another film about survival against all odds: “The Martian.” Though the settings of the two films differ, they do follow a very similar plot. A man is left for dead in an inhospitable environment. Dealing with injury and hardship, he gets himself to a point where he can function; he solves problems with the resources he has on hand; he connects with other people and improves his position further; he re-connects with the civilization of his time, achieving his end goal.

This is not to say that the films are identical. Though there are enough similarities to make for an apt comparison, it is the disparate approaches to survival displayed by the two protagonists that make the comparison informative. Although the approaches could be considered only within the context of surviving a crisis situation, the strategies employed can be generalized to apply not only to the extreme struggles portrayed in the films but also to the broader struggle for existence in which we all participate. In “The Martian” we may very well see the keys to a sustainable path forward for the human species as a whole whereas “The Revenant” shows us what is often necessary for the individual.

The Landscape

Beyond the plot, there are some factors that allow us to tie the movies not only to each other but to the world in which we now live. Crucially, both films take place in our world. “The Martian” is set in the future, sure, but a near-future that is entirely conceivable given our current technological trajectory. It is not a fanciful science fiction universe filled with space aliens, artificial intelligence or dystopian societies. It does not require a major shift of the conditions in which we now exist or a revolutionary technological breakthrough to arrive at this world. The paraphernalia of space exploration looks like something that NASA might put out tomorrow and the structures of the bureaucracies and the larger society back on Earth are contemporaneous in feel.

“The Revenant” takes place in a past which is historically accurate by Hollywood standards. There are some elements of spirituality in places and some of the muzzle loading firearms appear to be semi-automatic, but the core story is what one would expect from a film based on a book based on reportedly real, albeit now mythologized, events.

It is also important to note that neither film falls too far into the realm of fantasy or wish fulfillment. There are no “loser becomes king stud of the apocalypse” tropes, no Mary Sue, no departures from the physics of our world. “The Revenant” is replete with symbolism from multiple theistic traditions and there is plenty of opportunity to explore and interpret the film as layered metaphor, but these elements are not necessary to the reality depicted and thus can be discarded without impeding the functional elements of the film. Similarly, while both films may necessarily be a little light at times in portraying the psychological and physiological costs of adversity, neither fails completely to address these issues or factor them into the protagonist’s journey. As such, the films both maintain their air of realism.

Lastly, in what seems like a rare move these days, neither protagonist is portrayed as having super-powers. In “The Martian”, Watney is shown not only to be the planet’s best botanist but also to have a competent handle on physics, chemistry, medicine and engineering. In “The Revenant”, Glass is a scout hired for his extensive knowledge of the local geography, environment and people. They both have grit and determination and demonstrate physical endurance beyond what one might expect. None of this is supernatural, however, and it is their knowledge and psychological fortitude that ultimately leads to their success. With both characters being given plenty of opportunities to lay down and die, it is fitting that one of the most substantive differences between the protagonists is the psychological tact they employ to deal with their predicaments.

Attitude

In “The Martian”, Watney maintains a positivity and good humour throughout the film — a feat arguably more impressive than his technical solutions to the problems he faces. While there are months at a time that aren’t shown, the impression one is given by what is shown is that of an exceptional individual filled with optimism and humour in the face of nearly insurmountable challenges. Frustration is met with humour, re-calibration and a revised approach to the problem at hand. This is confirmed in the epilogue as he explains his situation and how he did despair but simply got on with the job at hand.

Given the premise of “The Revenant”, it would be tempting to contrast this with Glass simply as a man driven by anger and revenge. While this was an important aspect of the film, the driving force behind Glass often seems much more foundational than that. Through the modification to his voice, the adoption of the bear fur cloak, and through his moving constantly forward despite what would be unbearable pain, he becomes what we human animals might call “animal” in nature. He often seems driven to carry on not by a higher purpose or his desire to avenge his son, but by the same basic drive to survive that pushes forward all animals unburdened by existential ennui. Glass is not calculating or enthusiastic. He is primal. He operates on a level to which Watney notably never descends.

While these differences set apart the protagonists, this disparity is also mirrored in the societies that surround the two men. There is a point in “The Martian” when the first discussions at NASA suggest that the film is going to include the theme of conspiratorial bureaucracy. It does not. There are discussions of resource allocation and the control of information, but these discussions and their resulting actions are without malice and ultimately all hands are on deck to implement the plan to recover Watney. Even the populace is shown to be behind the efforts. One knows that there would have had to have have been radio talk show hosts railing against the waste of taxpayer dollars, but these voices were not heard from in the film and it maintained its tone of supportive optimism, of hope and civility, throughout.

By contrast, the world in which Glass lives is one of small gestures of kindness in a landscape of utter barbarism. It could be easily argued that the most civilized part of the film is when Hikuc encourages Glass to eat raw bison liver, which is not an image that most would considered the essence of civilization. At its heart, though, it is a very human moment — both in its acknowledgment of our fundamental biology as animals as well as its recognition of our sense of community that can, at times, transcend the boundaries of tribalism we otherwise spend so much effort erecting.[1] This moment in the film leads to a brief respite of large fires, a sunny day, and a shedding of layers. In addition to removing his bear fur cloak for a time, Glass also gives up the bear claws, casting off his animal identity and reclaiming some connection to other humans. This is all transient, of course, as infection sets in, the cold returns, and the brutality of their world catches up to Hikuc.

Resources

The second instructional aspect of the films is the nature of, and relationship to, the resources that both men need to survive their predicaments. Watney lives in a world of explicitly finite resources. Although he has an infinite oxygen supply if the machinery keeps working, he has a finite supply of food, a supply of water which he needs to extend in order to produce food, and a shelter that is precarious at best. His is a world where he needs materials and he needs energy. Though waste disposal isn’t necessarily a problem for him, the scarcity of useable resources means that he cannot afford to be wasteful. Everything needs to be optimized. Everything needs to be recycled. Fortunately, while his resources are limited, Watney’s technical sophistication, backed by centuries of science and engineering, is such that he can squeeze out every last drop of what he has. He can bend the world to meet his needs through ingenuity … and math!

Watney’s space suit is a metaphorical encapsulation of his situation. He exists in a relatively comfortable world, separated from an absolutely fatal climate by an incredibly thin but technically sophisticated barrier. It is an impressive feat; a high wire act — astonishing but far from robust. We see this as his bubble is punctured and he is forced to patch first his mask and then his habitat using duct tape and plastic sheathing. Even here, however, we see a level of advancement far beyond anything that Glass would recognize. As backup plans go, duct tape is a pretty good and ultimately fairly technical.

Glass’ existence, by contrast, is far from sophisticated. It is a world in which cold is dealt with not through the clever engineering of specialized materials but by layer after layer of simple materials. His system isn’t sophisticated, but it is robust and the barrier to entry is low. Fur, in particular, is incredibly effective for survival in the cold and wet – even as compared to modern synthetics. While humans have the capacity for sophisticated engineering, nature has had billions of years of trial and error to develop some very workable solutions to the problems of existence. We humans have evolved on this planet and, absent extenuating factors, all that we need for base survival can be found in the natural world.[2] In the film, Glass travels through a land replete with firewood, material for shelter and clothing, potable water, and food.

For Glass, the challenge is not in a lack of resources or their efficient use, but in the difficulties in extracting them and putting them to use. This is demonstrated when he draws a rifle-shaped stick on some swimming elk. The food to sustain him for a year swims within fifty yards and yet, without his flintlock, he may as well have been looking at another planet. This abundance of animals is made even clearer later in the film, as he encounters the herd of bison. With the wolves taking care of the kill and Hikuc taking care of the wolves, Glass manages to bypass the issue of extraction and finally gets to feast – albeit at the expense of the wolves. In a matter of a few moments he goes from having nothing to eat to having an abundance of food. In fact, from the perspective of a single man, that carcass, as well as the larger herd, are as vast a resource as they seem. For Glass they are a sustainable, infinitely renewable resource. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we know that faced with societies whose way of life exceeded the basic requirements of survival, the vast herd were not infinitely renewable and were destined to be hunted to near extinction. [3]

“The Martian” and the greater society

Too often, our societies still treat the world as infinite. Though we have externalized the visible face of resource exploitation to the point where we no longer need to contemplate our own culpability, there is no doubt that to continue as we are is unsustainable. Through sheer numbers, we have rendered a simple existence untenable. If we intend to continue to exist as a species, we are going to need to find new ways of converting resources that are abundant or renewable into that which we need to survive. We are also going to need to learn to be more efficient with what we do have and repurpose, rather than simply discard as waste, those resources that we have already extracted. In short, we are going to need to learn from Watney and do a lot more with a lot less.

Fortunately, we are actively pursuing a lot of technologies aimed at digging ourselves out of the hole into which we have fallen. Programs looking to send humans to Mars are already working on more efficient, self-contained, food production systems. Water and air reclamation and production are also hot topics for science and engineering. On the more fanciful end, people are considering the technologies required for long term colonization or even terraforming – technologies which may have significant implications back here on Earth for restoring land that has undergone desertification, for example. We are seeing work on the development of thermal cracking technologies to turn plastics back into oil, which would cut down on our solid waste and reclaim some of a finite resource. Photovoltaic technology is progressing at a rapid pace, increasing the efficiency with which we can capture the incredible power of the sun that hits the earth every day. More efficient and environmentally friendly ways of storing power are also being developed.[4]

It is no accident, however, that these advancements in our current technology are taking place within a world that looks more like that of Watney than that of Glass. Science, like the arts, can exist only when a portion of the population is freed from the requirements of tending to their basic needs. If everyone must eke out a subsistence living then progress is notoriously slow. Watney may have been alone on Mars, but he was supported by an incredibly resource-intensive undertaking back on Earth. Beyond the technical challenge of having sent the Mars mission in the first place, the support given to Watney later in the film shows how thoroughly that segment of society back on Earth has been freed from the constraints of life-or-death pragmatism.

The film would have ended very differently for Watney had his initial survival been buried for reasons of political expediency, career advancement or lack of resources. At the risk of detracting from the optimism of the film, it is also important to consider how many people on Earth could have been saved with the resources sent to recover just one man and how high in the social hierarchy that one man has to be for everyone around to have enthusiastically shouldered the burden. While “The Martian” is a tale of immense positivity and hope, it is not a tale that applies to most of us in the privileged segments of the rich Western world, much less those in the majority of the world for whom existence is a very different affair.

“The Revenant” and the rest of us

For most of us, “The Revenant” provides a more familiar model of existence, though it is not immediately recognizable. We have made substantial progress since the early 19th century here in the first world, with all but the poorest or most abused among us living a life which is unprecedented historically and is still rare globally. We exist in a world of abundance that, from the perspective of the individual, seems infinite. The grocery store shelves are always well stocked and so the challenge is not one of the use and re-use of a limited resource but rather we must work to earn money to gain access to the resources, usually in competition with others. In the process of creating this system of abundance and comfort, however, we so often seem to lose the plot.

Like Fitzgerald, we become focused on monetary wealth and conflate that with the necessities of our existence. We always want more. We see our houses as inadequate palaces rather than ostentatious tents. We see our vehicles as poor renditions of limousines rather than as the chariots that casually extend our range to levels that were previously considered expeditionary. We look at produce as pedestrian fare rather than a miracles of modern agriculture. We are picky. We are soft. We are wasteful.

Our perception of necessity is so skewed by convention and we see many things as essential that are only that way because of conditions which we, ourselves, have created. The cell phone is essential because we have created the condition that we be consistently reachable. The car is essential because we have created a geography where the various aspects of our existence are separated by great distance. Fast food and convenience food is required because we have so fractured our time and specialized our skills that we are no longer willing or able to cook for ourselves.

If divorced from Fitzgeraldian concerns, however, the essentials of life become clear. In the first act of “The Revenant,” Glass argues with his party over the best route to take and whether or not to abandon the furs. Economic concerns are set against danger and a risk assessment must be made. After being left for dead, however, life becomes much more difficult and yet in some ways much simpler. The only goal becomes to live long enough to kill Fitzgerald. Each step forward is a victory.

Although physical wars over resources are now reserved for the very poorest and very richest among us, the world of Fitzgerald and Glass, of competition for trinkets with which we may purchase the permissions for our daily bread, must be familiar to us all on some level. Must it be so? At the scale of the individual, the world is still full of resources which may be directly accessed once freed from the constraints of convention and expectation. Food that is not uniform, preprocessed and shrinkwrapped is shunned or not even recognized as being food. Materials are discarded regularly and without consideration beyond financial viability. The crumbs falling from the tables of the average Westerner must seem boulder sized to the mice in the skirting boards. [5]

Not that it is necessarily easy to harvest these crumbs. In a world obsessed with appearance, liability and, whether we admit it or not, caste, we constantly erect barriers for those who would do more. Dumpsters exist behind locked gates, our waste facilities are deposit only, and there are even barriers, both legislative and societal, to the more effective distribution of food. [6] Legislation across the board seems designed by those with little imagination for other paradigms of existence and remain clumsy in separating out instances of legitimate deprivation from those of primitive splendor.

Still, if you can evade the local legislators, hop the fence around the dumpster and don’t mind occasionally catching your hands between a hammer and a board, it isn’t necessary to be plunged into a life-or-death situation in order to strive for the essentials of life directly and with a degree of autonomy. The barrier to entry remains low for this type of existence and the risks can often be managed simply by living within the borders of an affluent state. We are afforded the luxury of half-way measures. We can satisfy one or more of our needs fully or in part through more direct means and still connect with, or at least use, society for the provision of the rest. In Canada, for example, taxation-funded healthcare ensures that many medical issues – particularly those related to acute physical injury – are not the detriment to long-term survivability that they still represent in many countries.

There is also the advantages brought by technology. The cutting edge of science may be off-limits to the average individual, but the products of the centuries of scientific and technological advancement are available to us and, thanks to the exploitation of the faceless masses overseas, at quite an attractive price. All of which pales in insignificance to the benefits brought by the internet, which will happily pipe to all but the most off-grid the wisdom of the ages all nicely assembled with pretty pictures and some hateful commentary at the bottom. There may be no time in human civilization that it is easier to turn ones back on civilization. Which is not to suggest that this comes without cost.

Influence and Change

It is not insignificant that the suggested path here is to avoid the legislators and hop the fence rather than change the law and have the fence removed. As soon as one begins to drift away from the conventional life, you also necessarily drift away from society and any illusions of influence within. The fine print of the social contract contains a lot about the natural social order and, oddly, lawn maintenance standards. There are, of course, examples of those living with one foot outside of social convention, propped up by uncommon finances. There are also communities which have stepped away with varying degrees of success and they too have given up their voice. Where projects do exist to generate a model of a simpler existence for public consumption they almost inevitably seem more works of performance art than anything of substance.[7]

While Glass’ journey sees him occasionally interact with the world around him, he does not influence it. He may intercede on behalf of Powaqa but he was never in a position to change the attitudes of society as a whole nor lend a hand to the construction of system of laws to prevent the most brutal manifestations of those attitudes. It is actually in Andrew Henry that we see the beginnings of what would become our modern implementation of law and order, our enforced civility. In the flashbacks to the death of Glass’ wife, we see the limitations of the individual intervention against the juggernaut that is society. In Henry we see the potential of society to enforce a more ethical standard and arrive at the world in which Watney exists.

Attitude revisited

It is in that future world that Watney holds a position of great influence once he rejoins society. His story is known and he is in a position to teach others and make great positive changes to the world. If one imagines a world full of Watneys, it is easy to picture an almost utopian future. Watney exemplifies a form of genuine civility – not good manners laid atop an otherwise hostile system, but rather a considered, honest and enthusiastic approach to life. He is dedicated to his chosen path and is willing to make sacrifices to meet its ultimate goals. Matched with his degree of competence, that sort of attitude would undoubtedly see solutions to many of the world’s current problems arrive by way of a benevolent, co-ordinated effort.

Had Glass shared Watney’s disposition, however, we would be excused for viewing him as a grinning idiot. Faced with such a predicament in such a world, it is possible that the only feasible way forward for Glass was to revert to a more primal state of mind and literally crawl forward inch by inch.

Given the cost of such an approach, the only motivation capable of justifying the pain and hardship for Glass may even have been vengeance and hate. If humans are, indeed, the only animals aware of the confines of our own existence and capable of contemplating our own mortality then we are also the only animals capable of making considered and rational calculations regarding the burdens of continued existence. Considering the severity of his injuries, the death of his family and his apparent lack of kinship with those around him, the calculus for Glass may very well have pointed to expiring in his shallow grave as the most reasonable option available to him.[8] Instead, Glass crawls his way out of the grave and then hand-over-hand and later step-by-step through misery and conflict and death and killing until meeting his end goal.[9]

More broadly, anger and hate are powerful motivating forces for society as well. An incredible amount of human technological progress has been made while trying to figure out how to better kill each other. People who are hesitant to get off their couches can be mobilized to perform great feats – at least “great” in scale, if not in content – as long as there is a “them” to hate. One doesn’t need to look far, however, to see the consequences of this approach. The nightly news is replete with examples of people moved to action by their hatred and quests for vengeance.[10] An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind and all that …

As with resources, the issue of attitude seems to be one where there is tension between what is best for the whole and what may be necessary or workable for the individual. Just as the revolutionary new technologies which may prove our salvation as a whole are generally beyond the grasp of the inidividual, the positivity and hope of Watney’s society may be beyond the grasp of the individual – at least while our world, at its core, continues to resemble more closely that of Glass than that of Watney. The paradox exists that the best way to survive the modern world, at least for those who haven’t the status of Watney, may be to opt out of the very existence which holds the most promise for improving it. After that, it is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and doing what needs doing if you are to survive.


Footnotes

  1. At this point it pays to be particularly careful not to fall into the trap of seeing a “primitive” existence as somehow more reflective of the true nature of humans. It is a tempting narrative for those interested in survivalism, primitivism or even just the paleo diet. It is important to remember, however, that the trappings of modern Western civilization is no less (or more) an expression of human endeavour than were the loincloths and pointed sticks of the past. ^
  2. Not, however, at our current numbers. The mere existence of this many humans on earth is predicated and dependent on our technological achievements. Certainly the lifespan and comfort we now generally enjoy in the first world would be unthinkable without the bubble of modern civilization and technology. ^
  3. The MeatEater podcast, episode 012 provides some very interesting and non-typical insight into this era. Well worth a listen. ^
  4. In fact, power generation and storage may be the single most important area of technological innovation. As a thought experiment, it is useful to consider the sudden development of a free, infinite, and clean power source and the problems that it would enable us to solve. With sufficient power, material manipulation becomes relatively easy. Clean, affordable transportation on a massive scale becomes feasible. Agriculture opens up as well. Imagine a high-rise building filled with high density plant matter from the lobby to the top floor,all growing around artificial lighting and using water endlessly recirculated, providing for the needs of those in the city without requiring for human incursion beyond the city boundaries. ^
  5. Tragedy of the scrapper: As soon as any particular waste stream develops some value, people will start to make some money by reclaiming the waste. Once technologies existed to reclaim or repurpose used motor oil and cooking oil, for example, industries sprang up around the collection and processing of these commodities. In general, this is to be seen as a positive step. Not only is waste reclaimed and the burden on new resources eased but it provides economic opportunities to those willing to do the work.

    One of these businesses that has always been around but has seemingly become more common with improved recycling technologies as well as a general economic downturn is that of scrapping metal. As times get tough, more and more turn to breaking apart and transporting to a recycling facility people’s discarded appliances, patio furniture, bicycles and anything else metal. Once again, this could be seen as a good thing in general. Better the metal be reclaimed than discarded. Less space taken up in landfill and less mining operations to extract new metals are both positive outcomes.

    The business, unfortunately, is a high-volume type of business. Trucks and trailers full of discarded items must be collected, processed as quickly as possible, and then sold as scrap. Often no time is taken to evaluate the items or repair those that could be repaired or repurposed. I have even contacted a scrapper who lives near me and requested he divert specific items for which I would pay more than scrap prices. In the interests of time, however, he prefers to just scrap it all. Appliances which might provide years more service with the replacement of a switch are routinely torn up. Bicycles which could be repaired or whose parts might be of use for any number of projects are simply tossed away.

    Granted, manufacturers are making it tougher and tougher to repair items and replacing items often ends up being the only viable solution if viewed from a money-only standpoint. In a tragic twist, if the scrapper wants to get enough cash to be able to afford his own new, unrepairable, appliances, he must be sure to turn in all of his items for the few dollars he gets.

    This isn’t the only approach to existence, however. If faced with an artificial scarcity of raw goods, it suddenly seems to become feasible to create and use all sorts of reclaimed items. Consider the case in Cuba. None of this, of course, even addresses the issue with demand in the first place. In school we were taught the three ‘R’s – reduce, re-use, recycle. Sadly, only the last appears to remain. ^

  6. The National Post: Wild Game Meat Not Welcome at Ontario Food Banks ^
  7. .. said this piece of social commentary — bordering on the fetishizaiton of existence and almost certainly a post-hoc response to an incorrectly wired brain masquerading as a film comparison of the type you might be asked to do for a grade school paper. ^
  8. With the dealing of death being a recurring part of my existence now, as well as my struggles with justifying my own existence, I have spent a great deal of time considering what meaning might be found in life and what can be said of the transition to death and its significance. I tend towards the practical use of the conclusion that our significance can be measured largely by our influence on the world around us, though this isn’t quite right. If a hermit commits suicide and nobody is or ever becomes aware of it, does his death have significance? Death itself has the somewhat unique quality that its occurrence brings for the dying an automatic indifference. This may represent another approach to answering the questions posed by Tyler Doggett — a task which I undertook on the now defunct Kill Chair blog using some more conventional ethical tallying. ^
  9. Granted, his success at the end comes in a more passive form than one might have expected, pointing to ideas of surrender and higher powers. This brings us back to the “spiritual” aspects of the film. If one can entrust outside forces to have a vested interest in our goals then allowing these forces to control all of our fates is tempting. With there being no apparent outside force with a vested interest in us, however, this sort of approach is stochastic at best, folly at worst. ^
  10. Even election coverage, sadly. ^

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *