My husband and I are super-nerds, and by our powers combined, we can spend all night watching movies and TV shows set in space. Firefly and Serenity, the entirety of Star Trek: Voyager, along with a large helping of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Wars old and new, to name a few. When Interstellar came out last fall, we saw it over Thanksgiving weekend. With The Martian in theaters, it was only ever a matter of time before we forked over the $1,430 for tickets and popcorn.
Most of the former are, as far as science is concerned, athletic romps through the stars that refuse to linger overlong on the vast complexities of space and space travel. Every once in a while someone will do a calculation to figure out how much fuel they need to get to one place or another, or life-support will fail and it becomes abundantly obvious that space is perhaps the least supportive environment for life. But for the most part, the void of space is simply a vessel to transport philosophy, emotion, and rugged cowboy sensibilities and thus goes largely unaddressed.
The latter two, however, dwell on that void. I get the sense that the writers, directors, and producers of Interstellar and The Martian spent a lot of time sitting at the end of piers, staring out into vast oceans, dangling their feet into water that covers seventy percent of the Earth’s surface, water that humans have only explored about five percent of.
I get that sense because I spent some time in the summers of my youth at my aunt’s house in Rhode Island, a mile from the Atlantic Ocean. I would swim out as far as I could and let the waves carry me back in while I floated and tried to figure out which boat was the farthest out on the horizon.
All that swimming and floating came to an abrupt end one summer more recently when I swam out too far and got to the point where I could no longer touch the sandy bottom and see the sparkling surface above me. I got out so far that, in my routine search with my feet for the bottom of the ocean, I could not find it. When I returned to the surface, gasping and spluttering and shot through with adrenaline, I was not facing the shore, and there were no boats on the horizon.
For that split second, I was out there, in nothingness. Nothing above me but air, nothing in front of me but endless expanse, nothing below me but mystery. If that mystery had been more menacing, my life could have ended completely alone.
Watching The Martian on Saturday night with my husband, the scariest part was that nothingness. Walking out on the surface of a non-Earth planet, if an astronaut’s helmet ruptures, the absence of atmosphere will fill their suit and suffocate them: they will die choking on nothing. During a space walk, if the tether breaks, the astronauts will find themselves floating through an impossibly vast wasteland of absolute emptiness. They will be surrounded on every side by crushing darkness. They will have no sense of scale or distance for any of the objects around them, and if they cannot be saved by their crew or spaceship, their end will come in the slowest, most terrifying way it can. And they will suffer through it completely alone.
The makers of The Martian know, as their many hours of staring out into the ocean have taught them, that the truest terror in the movie is not whether Matt Damon makes it back to Earth alive. There is relatively less drama in his plight on Mars than there would be were Mars not there. If he dies on a planet, the tragedy pales in comparison to what would have been had he found himself floating aimlessly in the vacuum of space, as heartless as it is deoxygenated.
Human brains cannot wrap their minds around that concept of nothingness. We live with things all around us: air and earth, light and shadows, an obvious up and an obvious down. The most unnerving experience we can have is the absence of all those things.
All this to say that while I highly recommend both The Martian and Interstellar, I suggest you maybe not see them in 3D.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.