Maybe it sounds like a stupid question. I mean, you always want the stranded guy to survive, what with the whole triumph of the human spirit and all? But there is definitely something very unique about the audience’s emotional investment in Mark Watney that makes his survival story all the more pure. That is, there’s nothing (read: no one) waiting for him back on earth.
The archetype of the “castaway” is pretty consistent in that it not only portrays a protagonist who is thrust into a desolate survival situation by circumstances beyond their control, but it also establishes that the protagonist has an emotional connection with the outside world which serves as his motivation for overcoming obstacles. This has become a standard because a good story relies on interpersonal relationships in order to create compelling drama. In the case of a castaway story, it’s much more dramatically compelling to have a relationship at the heart of the protagonist’s desire to survive than it would be to simply have him survive because, you know, people don’t want to die.
We see this with Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) in Castaway looking at and talking to the picture of Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt). We see a version of this in 127 Hours when Aron Ralston (James Franco) has flashbacks of family and past relationships before he musters the strength to snap his arm from the boulder that’s trapping him. There’s even another great example in the 2009 film Moon, where Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is, for all intents and purposes, stranded on a mining outpost on the moon, and his ongoing motivation to make it through each day is the prospect of being reunited with his pregnant wife Tess (Dominique McElligott). Even though his memories of his wife and her communications from Earth turn out to be fabrications, Bell’s emotional connection with Tess is still one of the pivotal points of the film’s drama; the shattering of this illusion (i.e. that the communications from his wife are recordings) is the film’s dramatic climax precisely because Bell had relied on his relationship with his wife as motivation for him to keep going.
So who or what is waiting for Mark Watney? Absolutely nothing. The closest semblance to any emotional attachment that we get for Watney is his relationship with his crewmates, but that’s only really established with a few lines of snappy dialogue in the beginning and the guilt that the crew feels for having left Watney behind. And even the crew’s guilt and their emotional investment in retrieving their marooned friend isn’t really all that centered around Watney as an individual, it’s more about Watney as “the guy that got left behind.” They do for him what they would have done for anyone in his position. Not that there’s anything wrong with their reaction, this is only to say that this does not constitute a dramatic substitute for the actions of a loved one desperately trying to rescue their beloved. Furthermore, and more importantly, Watney isn’t trying to survive so that he can be reunited with his crew mates, he’s trying to survive simply for the sake of surviving.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually don’t mean to criticize The Martian or Ridley Scott for portraying such a simple character. More than anything I’m impressed at how the story makes the audience care so much about a character that is essentially an emotional island.
For starters, it makes sense that Mark Watney wouldn’t exactly be gushing with emotional or romantic sentiment given the fact that the character in the original novel was written by a software engineer. Screenwriters and authors are plugged into the archetypes of storytelling and the interpersonal character of drama that has almost always defined a cinematic narrative. Andy Weir on the other hand isn’t an author, he’s an engineer; a nerd’s nerd. He doesn’t prioritize emotion, he just wants to talk about how Hydrazine breaks down when dripped over an iridium catalyst. And even though Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard did a great job of tweaking the story to give greater emphasis to certain emotional and dramatic details (such as the crew and their concern for Watney) overall the movie still relies on the same device that Weir used in the book to make people care about Mark Watney: he’s the space Fonz!
It sounds strange but I honestly think that Watney’s coolness and sarcasm have a lot to do with the reason why we as an audience want him to succeed. Even though they are in a vastly different genre, characters like Indiana Jones or James Bond come to mind as analogues for Watney and our desire to see him win. Although Indiana Jones and James Bond are not by any means stranded or in need of a human connection with home in the same way as Watney, they nonetheless accomplish the impressive feat of being compelling characters without having much actual depth. And I use the word “compelling” here mainly to mean that we worry over their struggles and we get excited over their successes. None of these three characters goes through an arc, none of them really change from the beginning to the end of a story. They just… do things and we like it. So why is this and why is Mark Watney able to pull off the same trick?
While I’m sure there are other much better theories as to why this is, my best guess is that Watney’s (and Jones’ and Bond’s) humor and cool domeanor serves to alleviate the stress that would otherwise need to be absorbed by a relationship. Think back to the three examples that I gave above: Castaway, 127 Hours, and Moon. All of them feature characters that are desperate and who, at some point or another, break down in the face of their isolation. That’s when we need their emotional connections to someone back home to carry them back out of this low point and bring the plot back on course for an upward swing. Characters like Watney don’t experience this breakdown. His cleverness and sense of humor keep despair at bay and prevent him from needing to draw on external emotional support in order to go on.
Watney’s humor actually seems to take the place of a Mrs. Watney waiting for him back on the ranch. This allows him to string the audience along and keep them engaged throughout his perilous stay on Mars, all the while never treading into the ominous territory of “interpersonal relationships” so foreign to the writing of Watney’s nerdy creator.