The Martian: Isolation in Space Movies & Loneliness in Cinema

Films offer some of the best explorations of isolation and loneliness, argues James...

“In space no one can hear you scream.” The tagline for Alien, and the sad truth for anyone who’s crying out for company in the wider cosmos beyond our stratosphere.

The following is a true story – many winters ago I decided that it’d be a good idea to leave behind my loved ones and wider society and go into solitary exile. I made an agreement with a stranger online and said I would spend the whole of that December looking after her two cats while she was away in Australia.

I then headed off to a cottage in the Welsh Valleys to fulfil this responsibility and, aside from those two indifferent kitties, I had no company at all. In my mind I’d envisioned this as a perfect retreat from a Christmas season I couldn’t be mithered with and from the stress and hassle of modern life. I’d imagined blissful peace and quiet. I also had some nice notions about ‘finding myself’ away from regular distractions and thought it’d be cool to become a hermit and claim some ‘me’ time away from it all.

In reality, after two weeks it had well and truly turned into something resembling The Shining. I was snowed in, seeing ghost children and manically typing the same nonsensical sentences on my laptop keyboard (and there was no internet connection in this cut-off cottage). Living off tinned soup, ignored by the cats and overwhelmed by the cold and haunting darkness, I went completely insane (suggested tagline for the Hollywood adaptation: “He went away to find himself. Instead he lost his mind.”)

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By Christmas I was back home in a very sorry state, bitterly regretting my misguided decision to become a hermit-cum-festive catsitter on my own. What I learned from this unfortunate experience is that human beings shouldn’t be alone for long stretches of time. Personal space and private time are important obviously – for reading, for writing, for meditation and for attending to personal hygiene, for instance.

As a social species, though, it isn’t natural for us to stay on our own for lengthy periods without any contact with other human beings. This makes us sick, sad, strange and potentially leads to us screaming at the hallucinated phantoms and streams of blood that are trickling down the walls of our fortresses of solitude (seriously, I’m never doing anything like that again and I urge you never to take up a winter cat-sitting gig. It took a long time to get over the trauma and the heartwarming film Pride to convince me that the Welsh Valleys aren’t actually Hell).

Loneliness is a crucial part of the human experience and it’s vital that we face it and engage with it for our wellbeing as individuals and as a society. (I recommend this website’s Geeks vs. Loneliness series as a touchstone.) Fortunately, you don’t have to put yourself through an extreme ordeal like the one already described because there are plenty of less risky opportunities and artistic representations out there. Films, I believe, offer some of the best explorations of isolation and cinema may in fact be the ideal medium through which to investigate the theme and the feelings.

It’s true that going to the cinema may not be as intimate and private as curling up with a book in bed, but ultimately it’s still sitting alone in a dark room. It may be done as a shared, communal activity but I’d still say that for a great many geeks, going to see a movie is a very personal affair in which an individual eagerly seeks to engage with ephemeral fictional characters.

A lot of lonely people enjoy films because they function as a multisensory distraction and provide a fleeting illusion of shared sociality. They offer some short-term companionship, an opportunity to empathise and get involved in some external excitement, adventure and human interest drama, etc.

It’s also true that so many movies – more than we probably realise on first thought – touch upon the concept of loneliness and express in various ways on screen, whether that be in subtle or strikingly overt fashion. Some cinematic memories may come to mind – for instance, abandoned Gary Cooper in High Noon, Robert De Niro as “God’s lonely man” in Taxi DriverOldboy, or scraggly-beard Tom Hanks on a desert island talking to a volleyball.

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Disney and Pixar deserve special mention and praise for the recent rich run of stories that explore loneliness in resonant, affecting fashion (Wreck-It RalphFrozenBig Hero 6Inside Out). I’d contend however that, of all types and categories, when it comes to screen portrayals of solitude and its effects on the human spirit and psyche, the genre to turn to is science fiction – especially the sci-fi flicks that send their protagonists into outer space.

We’ll venture beyond the stratosphere in a moment (I believe that Matt Damon is waiting up there) but first I’d like to stay grounded on Earth for a brief sweep across the genre. On reflection, I realise that sci-fi concepts and settings are perfect spawning grounds for stories with loneliness encoded into them. Science – or, at least, something science-based – enters the picture and disturbs, distorts or destroys the natural order. Frequently, this means either dehumanisation or an attack on humankind that tears the race apart or leaves scattered individuals reeling on their own.

For example, take a look at all the invasion or viral epidemic movies that have forced shocking isolation on the few remaining survivors on this doomed planet. I’m recalling reams of zombie flicks, The Road, every single cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Charlton Heston raging against the simians in Planet Of The Apes. See also the pure hopeless panic on Kevin McCarthy’s face in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and share his horror as he comes to terms with the fact that he’s the only human left in Santa Mira, California.

To differing degrees, many dystopian visions dwell in the deep wells of loneliness as they follow the battles of their lone lead protagonists – from Rollerball to The Hunger Games and from Brazil to The Zero Theorem. Think also of metamorphosis movies where scientific elements make humans mutate and change radically, turning their peers away from them and leaving them as rejected monsters.

I raise you the likes of The Fly, The Invisible Man and District 9 to name a few. Bio-tech transformations like those of RoboCop and Tetsuo: The Iron Man are arguably even more upsetting as the afflicted individuals are dehumanised even further by becoming machine-like, distancing them all the more remarkably from the human race.

Loneliness, however, really hits home when science fiction films set their gaze on the stars and project little groups of people into the great, expansive black beyond. Space is big and we are small. Space is immense and we are relatively insignificant and feeble in the grand cosmic scheme of things (well, arguably if we’re coming at things from a pessimistic standpoint).

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Space is a bleak and unforgiving emptiness in which there are vast voids of nothing. If we follow this train of thought we perceive space as a pretty lonely and desolate place (meta-place?). Present a story where it’s one person facing all that emptiness alone and we have the perfect cinematic presentation of the theme.

The release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a striking reminder that there’s nowhere worse to be alone than on another planet or in a spaceship far from our home Earth. Even if Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is a peppy, proactive character there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that being stranded totally alone on an inhospitable rock 140 million miles from home is not a pleasant state of affairs.

You don’t even have to have seen The Martian to know that its ideology is running along the lines of ‘Yes, space solitude is a bad situation’. The poster has the helmeted head of a forlorn-looking Damon obscured by the dramatic tagline text “Bring him home.” In the movie our have-a-go-hero must battle the harsh environment, try and get back in touch with NASA and use all his survival skills to stay alive – all without a buddy to help him or have a chat with.

Even if The Martian isn’t pushing the pensive, despairing angle it’s still an imaginative exercise that ushers viewers into thinking about loneliness, augmented on an extra-terrestrial canvas. Damon’s isolated astronaut isn’t the only space voyager who’s had cinema audiences contemplating the cold void lately, however. Some of those other solo spacewomen and spacemen have really brought bleak existentialism and the full emotional and psychological force of unbearable isolation upon us.

Without giving away its surprises and plot points, Chris Nolan’s Interstellar asked questions about the consequences of space travel on individuals – their relationships to the loved ones they’ve left behind and the psychological damage that occurs due to the distortions of time and the ‘desert island’ experience on other worlds in other star systems.

For more headtrips and heartbreak, feel Sam Rockwell’s anguish in Moon – so tired, lonely and homesick that not even a friendly robot with Kevin Spacey’s voice can comfort him. Gravity is another contemporary stand-out – Sandra Bullock’s grief-stricken Dr. Ryan Stone floating in orbit, forced to process all her emotional weight in a weightless setting. It’s an extreme ordeal that sees her metaphorically reborn before reconnecting with the Earth life that she had completely lost touch with.

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Bereavement and the interlinked loneliness are also very present in both versions of Solaris. After all, what haunts you follows you no matter how far you travel, and in the weird emptiness of space it appears to get even stronger. In all cases, the loss and hopeless longing are amplified when the locations are alien(ating) landscapes so physically far from our homeworld. The same goes for the unnaturally claustrophobic confines of the artificial environments that are spaceships and space stations.

It’s true that you can be lonely in a crowded room. Nonetheless, dump relatable characters millions of miles away from Terra Firma and the idea of solitude becomes something incredibly visceral and symbolic. Look to Doctor Manhattan’s self-exile to Mars in Watchmen as a potent example. What better way to illustrate total isolation than to cast an individual into the starry skies and abandon them out there all on their lonesome?

I can only think of two seemingly-content pop cultural space hermits and they fail to convince me. Yoda liked his seclusion in the swampy Dagobah system but he’s a Jedi Master and an alien (and a puppet) so he doesn’t count. Turning to TV, John Tracy is perpetually happy alone in orbit on Thunderbird 5 but he’s also a marionette. Plus, he’s also on a children’s television show and that’s not cinema or the right place for heavy duty despondency so I won’t count him either.

When it comes to the big screen, space is predominantly a inconceivable and terrifying expanse onto which our own human insecurities are projected. We feel small, alone and helpless and spacegoing sci-fi flicks can reflect this. Even if we don’t feel so alone in reality, movies like The Martian act as imaginative space in which to conduct thought experiments and ruminate on the idea of loneliness.

It’s always worth seeking these films out, for the entertainment, the philosophical stimulation and, indeed, the company if you’re lonely yourself. Looking back, I wish I’d not spent that winter cat-sitting in Wales. Really, I should have just stayed at home and watched Moon.

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