The Martian does a really interesting thing, something that I can’t remember a recent movie trying.
“What’s that, Chris?” you might be asking yourself. But let me ask you: Did Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, have a love interest?
It’s easy to forget that Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) had a husband, that she wasn’t eager to rescue Watney because they had some romance going on. She wanted to save him because she’s a dedicated, badass leader. But, really, Lewis is really intense about rescuing Watney. I’m sure there’s going to be some The Martian fan-fiction that’s all about Watney and Lewis being a couple. If you want to try and find it, or write it yourself, here’s a collection of fan fiction.
It’s pretty clear that Watney and Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) aren’t an item, as we see Beth kiss Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and then have a baby with Beck.
I don’t think Kristen Wiig’s character is programmed to understand the concepts of romance, love, sex, etc.
Maybe the closest thing there was to a romantic subplot has to do with Mindy Park, (Mackenzie Davis) the NASA girl who discovered Watney and was assigned to follow him. We see her throughout The Martian. If you’re like me, you were probably expecting her to meet him at the end. Maybe not for a romance to start, but to at least see her have the satisfaction of meeting Watney. I’m sort of sad that never happened though.
Watney’s relationship with Rick Martinez (Michael Pena) seems plutonic, with Martinez married and a dad and there being no hints at anything between them.
So, yeah, The Martian has a main character who goes the entire movie without once having a human love interest. I say human love interest because you know what I’m going to say next, don’t you?
Mark Watney loves science. That’s the true romance of this film. We see him, time and again, enjoying his situation. I mean, obviously he doesn’t want to be stuck on Mars. But he’s also having a lot of fun with it, and taking a lot of pride in problem solving through the application of high-level scientific methodology—from growing potatoes, to solving the rover heating issues, to fixing the Pathfinder, etc. etc. These things don’t destroy his spirit because science is the very thing that fuels his spirit. To that end, Watney is sort of like an older version of The Sandlot’s Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez. No matter the situation, Benny was happy playing baseball. And he was the only one of the kids from the movie to go on to play in the majors.
The function of Benny in The Sandlot is to be an ideal, to represent that kid who just loves the game more than anything else, the character that real kids can admire and aspire to be like: a role model.
This is the same function Watney serves. His love of science is manipulative in, I’d argue, the best of ways. Really, The Martian is a love letter to intelligence, teamwork, and, most importantly, science. No one embodies that more than Watney. He makes being smart fun and funny. I’m sure most viewers want him rescued as much as the people in the movie want him rescued. During the rescue sequence the entire planet is watching, cheering him on—for any kid or adult who secretly adores or outright adores science: they will probably see Mark Watney as a hero, someone they admire and, yup, aspire to be like.
This is why Watney doesn’t have a love interest. If he did, it would detract from his role as “the hero of science”. Because as much as The Martian is a movie about trying to bring Matt Damon back to Earth, it’s a movie about reclaiming the idea of science from this faraway, imaginative thing to something very real, to something applicable. For the last decade there have been people asking how we can get American children passionate about science and engineering: The Martian does just that. Because Mark Watney is cool and loves science, he’s a kind of fictional Neil deGrasse Tyson. And like with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the effect of someone cool who loves science is that people will care more about science. Which is awesome! If you want to read more about that phenomenon it’s called, fittingly: ignition.*
*If you don’t want to read more about it, “ignition” is a concept that refers to someone being inspired, or a group of people. So Yao Ming was the first Chinese superstar in the NBA. This was such a big deal that it inspired tons and tons and tons of Chinese kids to play basketball. Rex Reed was my ignition as a film critic; his film criticism was so egregious that it convinced me I could do better.