How 'The Martian' feeds our obsession

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Pop culture abuzz about Mars, a planet growing in importance, popularity in scientific community and beyond
  • Seymour: Mars' week in the spotlight could make us wonder what life would be like on the red planet

Editor's Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)Mars has had its moments in the half-century or so since the Mariner 4 satellite began sending the first photos from its surface. It's now having something far bigger and brighter than a moment. It is having a very hot week.

Gene Seymour
And by "hot," we don't mean anything to do with surface temperature or scientific stuff like that. We mean "hot" in the popular culture sense.
The Red Planet, putting it plainly, is a big star. (Baby!)
    Mars' big week began Monday with confirmation from NASA that there is evidence of what its scientists characterized as "liquid water" activity on Mars. To be clear, as Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science, reminded an audience at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute Wednesday, what scientists found wasn't actual flowing water so much as traces of "precipitate salt" that would be left behind by water after it evaporates.
    And on Friday came the nationwide premiere of "The Martian," a Hollywood feature adapted from the best-selling Andy Weir novel and directed by Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Prometheus," "Blade Runner").
    NASA's Green, whose knowledge of the planet is vast enough to have earned him the nickname, "Doctor Mars," served as consultant on the film and appeared at the Franklin Institute at an event on the movie's behalf. He says he is as pleased with the results as, apparently, are most critics who've seen the movie already. Slate.com's Dana Stevens calls it "a wry tribute to the qualities that got our species into space in the first place."
    Meanwhile, Matt Damon is already getting Oscar buzz for the starring role of Mark Watney, an astronaut marooned on Mars and somehow making a life for himself there while waiting many, many moons for rescue.
    Speaking of moons, NASA's announcement coincided with Monday's "blood moon" -- a partially eclipsed full moon whose red tincture is so rare that it won't be seen again for another 18 years .
    Was it coincidence that the moon was impersonating Mars at about the time all this stuff was happening? Likely it was. But this being an age that likes to poke holes in collective astonishment, there are spoilsports everywhere looking for signs of conspiracy.
    Rush Limbaugh weighed in with suspicions that the scientists finding water on Mars were part of an Obama administration plan to "advance the leftist agenda." Still others wondered if the space agency's disclosures were somehow timed to intersect as close as possible with "The Martian's" premiere.
    To prove that degree of collusion, one would have to believe that Martian author Weir, a computer programmer who digitally self-published his original novel in 2011, would have known far enough in advance of NASA's disclosures to make them useful to Mark Watney, who never mentions either in the novel or the movie that there might be traces of water residue on the planet's surface.
    'The Martian' and NASA's technology have some things in common
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    One's imagination would be better spent pondering the possibilities that such ongoing discoveries about Mars' past and present might pry open in the future. Indeed, one of the best aspects of Mars' emergence in this week's spotlight is how it could reawaken dreams people entertained long ago about the Red Planet.
    For example, there are still living earthlings able to remember the night before Halloween in 1938, when wunderkind showman Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater repertory company staged a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1897 classic, "The War of the Worlds," with such convincing authenticity that mass hysteria erupted throughout the nation over the prospect of Martian invaders bent on conquest and annihilation.
    After all, the biggest thing widely known about Mars back in Welles' time (or, for that matter, in Wells') was that it had on its surface what looked to be -- from the available telescopic evidence -- canals. Since Mars was the closest planet to Earth, even the more educated speculators were justified in wondering whether those "canals" harbored civilized beings, either in the past or present, capable of anything from building Romanesque coliseums to launching interplanetary spaceships that could destroy cities.
    But Mariner 4 started showing us in the mid-1960s, as would other NASA satellites that followed, that the planet's surface was more like a larger version of our own moon.
    NASA's Curiosity Mars rover snapped this new selfie in August. Dozens of images taken by Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager were combined to create the photo.
    Some of H.G. Wells' successors in the science fiction field have come up with dreamscapes in which humans from Earth become the most interesting, or dangerous, species on Mars.
    Ray Bradbury led the way in 1950 with "The Martian Chronicles," a collection of stories that revolved around the migration of humans from a future Earth ravaged by war and decay and taking both their knowledge and their conflicts with them.
    Weir's novel is itself part of a trend of plausible "hard science fiction" novels, published within the last couple of decades, that are less concerned with finding life on Mars than with living there. The most notable of these were the three books published in the 1990s by Kim Stanley Robinson -- "Red Mars," "Green Mars" and "Blue Mars" -- that show how a society of human immigrants would develop as, through terraforming, they reinvent Mars as a near-duplicate of Earth, complete with oceans, trees and breathable skies.
    To be sure, we're still very far from the point where a real-life Mark Watney could be accidentally left behind on Mars (or anywhere else in space).
    Still, from the evidence of this very special week, Mars is starting to make us wonder not so much what's alive up there, but what our lives could be like up there -- and, maybe, down here.