Waste to Potatoes

by Emma Riemer

The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard, retells the classic tale of survival in a desolate environment that forges a connection between humanity and materiality. When Mark Watney, a botanist and NASA astronaut, is stranded on Mars, he must use the materials he has to survive until he can be rescued. In one notable scene, Watney uses human waste, solar panels, Martian soil, potatoes, and pieces of a crucifix to create enough water and a suitable plant environment for potato crops. This scene in particular establishes a unique relationship between humans and the material world by showing the audience that as human beings, we are so deeply rooted in materiality and material processes that even something as depreciated as waste plays a powerful role in the sustenance of human life. However, Watney’s occasionally domineering attitude in this scene, left unchecked by the film, also highlights a tension between humans’ connection to the material world and humans’ desire to conquer and surpass it; this tension remains in the movie’s larger message, and calls into question the true nature of humans’ relationship with materiality.

The potato-growing scene in The Martian emphasizes that material processes are deeply interconnected with human life by highlighting a material cycle. Watney uses human excrement to fertilize the Martian soil he collected so that his potato plants will grow. Human waste is created through the digestion of food; thus, what was food becomes waste and, in this scene, what was waste supports the creation of food again. Not only is this a remarkable example of the material world’s ability to regenerate and sustain itself, but it is also a prime example of humans’ binding relationship with the material world. As this scene shows, waste and plant life not only sustain human life, but, in a cyclical manner, waste and plants are sustained by human life. Without the potato plants and the microbes in the waste, Watney would have died; without Watney’s digestion processes and carbon dioxide emissions, the plants would not have existed on Mars. Mars as a setting works particularly well to highlight the human relationship with the material world, since in a desolate planet like Mars, nothing resembling life on Earth could exist if the material cooperation between Watney, his waste, and his plants did not exist. Martian soil does host many of the key macronutrients and micronutrients needed to grow plants, including oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and phosphorus, as well as the water-absorbing salt perchlorate (Jordan). However, the insoluble fertilizing nutrients found in human waste, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and magnesium (Dring), would still be necessary to foster plant growth on Mars (Jordan). The fact that our human materials contribute to the continuation and growth of material beings indicates that we not only share in material processes but also are integrated members of the material world.

With the strong bonds that this scene creates between human beings and the material world, even something as depreciated as waste becomes an important agent. According to customary hierarchical or “vertical” thinking, humans tend to think of waste as less important than ourselves—an attitude which extends towards plants. However, if the material world not only contributes to our sustenance but also incorporates human materiality into its own sustenance, we should reconsider the relative positions of materials. Waste in this scene catalyzes and fosters the growth of Watney’s life-giving plants, which asserts the unseen agency of the waste itself. If lowly waste can have agency, then the hierarchical structure of our chain of being crumbles. Thus, in highlighting the capacity of waste to enact a lifesaving material cycle, this scene indirectly challenges traditional hierarchical thinking and proposes a more equal relationship between human beings and the material world to which we belong.

The scene also grants significance to material beings by directing its audience to share in Watney’s awe when the first plant arrives. When Watney pauses and runs back to the crop enclosure, throwing back the surrounding plastic tarp in anticipation, a certain reverence is endowed on the arrival of the first potato plant. Watney’s anticipation is translated to the audience through his role as the movie’s sympathetic, often charming protagonist and through the mood of the scene as relayed primarily by music. The music swells as Watney gingerly steps toward the plant, which is seen not from Watney’s viewpoint but from its own ground-level perspective. Capturing the scene from the plant’s viewpoint changes the dynamic of the interaction: rather than looking down at the plant from a towering perspective, Watney comes to the plant’s level, effectively smoothing the plane between himself and the plant. The music settles into a joyful, tinkling tune as an awestruck Watney greets the young potato plant. “Hey there,” he says, an address that may have been equally suited to a fellow human being. By including these elements, the scene asks its viewers to think of the plant as a significant being that is not inferior to Watney (The Martian). In acknowledging that the plant is not inferior, the scene is emphasizing that the material world, which includes potato plants, is not inferior to Watney.

Despite the connection that it forges between human materiality and the rest of the material world, this scene showcasing Watney’s dueling attitudes raises tension between humans’ relationship with the material world and our desire to conquer and surpass it. After creating a space for growing the plants and bringing in Martian soil, Watney sits above the home of his prospective crops and curses Mars, seemingly determined to get the better of the environment that threatens his survival. Before planting the potatoes, Watney spoke to his video journal, the music swelling as he begins to stand above the camera: “Mars will come to fear my botany powers.” In this quote, Watney delivers the impression that Mars, a planet, has reason to fear him, a human, and that he as a human being has the power to possess and manipulate the power of plants through applied science. This quote, combined with Watney’s towering perspective, suggests a kind of anthropocentric dominance that is not checked by the inspired and hopeful mood of the soundtrack. Watney’s domineering attitude in these moments contrasts the appreciative, equal attitude in earlier scenes and complicates the message of the crop-growing scene as a whole.

By granting Watney the position of a creator, the scene also contradicts its message that the human and material worlds are equally connected. Watney explicitly takes ownership over the soil for his plants, composed of Martian soil and human waste, when he says, “I have created one-hundred and twenty-six square meters of soil.” Watney does not give an agency to the waste or even to the Martian soil, which acted as a base for his soil, when he claims that he himself created the soil for his plants. Significantly, Watney is also twirling a crucifix as he speaks this line. Thus, the scene juxtaposes Watney, creator of soil on Mars, with a symbol of a Christian God who is also, according to that faith, a creator. Such juxtaposition cements the scene’s assertion that Watney holds the position of creator, a role with significant implications for the human relationship to the material world. If Watney, a human, can be given the role of creator of material beings—in other words, if he can be granted the agency to orchestrate material processes—then the human relationship to the material world ceases to be one of mutual connection and becomes one of superiority and inferiority. Thus, the scene is inconsistent in its message of equal connection and creates a tension in the relationship between humans and materials.

The inconsistency and tension of this scene are not resolved by the overarching message of the film as a whole; rather, the entire film further develops the tension that is established in the potato-growing scene. In several notable instances, the film seems to have a dominant attitude. For example, in a deleted introductory scene, the purpose of the Mars mission is explained: to research Mars in order to colonize it. Such a mission implies that not only do humans have the capability but the right to colonize a planet. To subject a planet, an entire material being, to human use, upsets the interconnected human and material relationship that was partially established in the potato-growing scene. Later in the film, Watney begins to receive messages from Earth, one of which tells him that since he has grown crops on Mars, he has technically colonized the planet. Watney, upbeat as he stands among his crops, seems proud and amused by the idea of colonizing Mars, and the tone of the film established by music and camera perspective does not contradict him. The idea of human colonization of a planet, coupled with its lighthearted presentation in the film, suggests once again that humans have both the capacity and the right to dominate the material world.

Yet, the film doesn’t side strictly with such a humanistic, dominant perspective; in fact, several scenes capture Watney’s appreciation for material things. As he contemplates death while looking out at the Mars horizon, Watney remarks that if he dies in space he will be dying for something “big and beautiful, and greater than me.” In admitting that a non-human material being such as Mars is greater than himself, Watney is not adhering to hierarchical thought. Nor does he side with the hierarchy when he personifies his rover and directs the next person to use it to “take care of this rover; she saved my life.” The relationship between Watney and the rover in this scene is one of interconnection, not unlike Watney’s relationship with the plants; humans in NASA built the rover, and the rover protected human life. Even here, however, there is an idea of material value being assigned only to things that are useful to humans. Thus, the overall message of the film with regard to humans’ relationship with the material world is uncertain.

The Martian develops tension and uncertainty in its wavering messages about the relationship between humans and the material world particularly in the crop scene but also in the movie as a whole. Watney’s attitudes, which range from appreciation of the plants to domination over their creation and use, are inconsistent, as are the film’s other messages. However, the inconsistent message of the film, whether intentional or unintentional, highlights the complicated nature of humans’ position with regard to the material world. Ultimately, our relationship with the material world stems from what our needs should be: should humans simply survive in a sustainable manner, or should we create, explore, and progress beyond mere survival? This question is unanswered by The Martian, perhaps because it is largely unanswered by society. Our materiality is made clear in the potato-growing scene, but the acknowledgement of our materiality does not equate an equal relationship with the material world. As The Martian suggests, whether directly or indirectly, we are still drawn to possess materials, cast ourselves as creators, and gain the superior role in relationship between ourselves and the material world.


Works Cited

Dring, Rachel. “Sustainable Food Trust.” Sustainable Food Trust. Sustainable Food Trust, 15 May 2015. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

Jordan, Gary. “Can Plants Grow with Mars Soil?” NASA. NASA, 05 Oct. 2015. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

The Martian. Dir. Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Drew Goddard. Perf. Matt Damon. 20th Century Fox, 2015.