Saving Astronaut Damon (with Disco): 'The Martian' as War Movie

By Todd Decker
Associate Professor of Music


Bring Him Home.

Leave No Man Behind.

The Mission Is a Man.

Three movie taglines, each promising the same plot.

The first belongs to the current hit film The Martian, the tale of an American astronaut stranded on Mars, his heroic effort to survive and NASA’s no-cost-sparred effort to rescue him. The Martian stars Matt Damon and was directed by Ridley Scott.

The tagline “Leave No Man Behind” comes from the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, also directed by Ridley Scott. Black Hawk Down tells the true story of the 1993 U.S. military presence in Somalia, which came to grief on the streets of Mogadishu in a mission gone wrong that left 18 elite American soldiers dead. The film’s plot turns on getting all the American soldiers back to the safety of their base. Not leaving anyone behind — living or dead — serves as the film’s driving concern.

The poster tagline “The Mission Is a Man” hails from the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. After a harrowing 23-minute sequence depicting the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach, director Steven Spielberg’s combat film follows a small group of soldiers sent to find and remove from danger the last surviving brother of an Iowa farm family with four sons in the military. As in The Martian, the man who needs to be brought home is played by Matt Damon.

"Bring Him Home." "Leave No Man Behind." "The Mission Is a Man." Three similar taglines; three similar plotlines.
In this context,
The Martian can be seen as a war movie, set in the (frigid Martian) desert where the enemy — the absence of breathable atmosphere — is all around. Elite, supremely competent scientists working for a nonmilitary government agency — many in uniform — play the role of soldiers. The Martian presents the projection of benign American scientific power into a genuinely empty space, a realm with no human history, just waiting to be subdued by American ingenuity and technology. A more comforting tale of imperial adventure and national purpose is hard to imagine. The ostensibly realistic The Martian is a case of non-reality-based movie-making offered to the Hollywood audience at a moment of national exhaustion with overseas adventure — when actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both supposedly concluded, linger on as intractable messes.

The fundamental story values of The Martian rely on a notion by this time lodged deeply in American military culture and easily capitalized on by blockbuster Hollywood filmmakers: the dictum that no soldier will be left behind on the battlefield. In a 2005 article for the military journal Armed Forces and Society, scholar Leonard Wong locates the origins of the U.S. policy “leave no one behind” in the Vietnam War, when, as a helicopter pilot Wong interviews notes, if a man was lost the official attitude was, “Okay, we’re going to stop the war and get this guy back, and then we’ll resume.” These words nicely sum up The Martian. The scientific goals of the Mars mission are put on hold to get Damon back. After he’s saved, the film’s end credits show how NASA’s planned manned missions to Mars continue. Wong rightly questions the “rational sense” of a military ethic that demands soldiers’ bodies always be recovered. Effectively speaking, Wong argues, the mission of the U.S. military becomes, at such times, “a man.” Hollywood loves this story — see, as well, the 2013 film Lone Survivor, which recreates a failed Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan — which allows for the easy sidestepping of the “what are we doing here in the first place?” question, a question as easily applied to space exploration as to military adventures overseas on this planet.

Matt Damon's astronaut character, mistakenly left behind on Mars, survives on ingenuity and disco.

So, one way to read The Martian is as a triumphant imperial adventure — a manned mission to Mars by an interracial crew commanded by a woman! — which comes to grief (briefly) but concludes with an exhilarating rescue that only drives on future investment in exploration. Emotional investment in Damon’s rescue stands in the way of intellectual resistance to the film’s representation of Mars (which appears to have Earth’s gravity, but, in fact, it’s 62% lower) and the thrill of manned scientific journeys to other celestial bodies (something the U.S. hasn’t funded for over 40 years). And all of this in a narrative ostensibly set in the present or near future.

How does The Martian finesse this fantasy of the U.S. and, indeed, Mars?

In part, disco saves the day. Damon finds himself alone on Mars with nothing to listen to but a playlist of 1970s dance tunes brought on the trip by mission commander Jessica Chastain, who, we are asked to believe, is a huge fan of Donna Summer, Thelma Houston and ABBA. That this music fits neither Chastain’s character nor her star persona is hardly of interest to the film. Nor are we asked to wonder why Damon didn’t bring along his own iPod. Most Americans don’t leave the house, much less travel to another planet, without hundreds of tunes in hand.

The Martian needs disco as a means of misdirection, to keep the overall tone of the film light — for example, Damon dances a bit to “Hot Stuff” after digging up a radioactive fuel source — and to point the audience away from the military resonances of the story. The musical genres of choice for 21st-century American soldiers are heavy metal, rap and country. The Martian would be a very different film if these harder, more stereotypically masculine musics replaced the score’s eight disco tracks. In the process, The Martian hijacks the utopian energy of disco to reimagine the nation as a place where scientific problems — standing in for political and military problems — are solved by tireless hard work, brilliant improvisation, amazing technology and cooperation with supposed enemies in the interest of humanitarian values (enemy-of-the-future China even helps out).

In its time, disco was a music of liberation — specifically, gay liberation as acted out in a newly open public sphere for gay men, who through the end of the 1960s could be arrested for dancing together in public. Disco music originated as the soundtrack for men dancing with men. The first place to find this utopian world where sexual freedom was in the very air was on the dance floor, which must have felt like another planet for some and sometimes, as at Studio 54 with its “Man-in-the-moon with a Spoon,” even evoked celestial metaphors. Even a sole disco ball creates a swirling starry night.

The Martian borrows disco’s liberating, optimistic beat to imagine the U.S. beyond the present general quagmire, finding an all-too-easy renewal of a shared national project to reach for the stars (or just bring home a stranded soldier of science) in the voice of Gloria Gaynor, whose “I Will Survive” plays — hopefully if nonsensically — over the end titles.