The Martian conquest

Ridley Scott movie becomes latest moneymaker with a pro-China storyline

Chen Shu

Chen Shu: doing her bit to save American spacemen stranded on Mars

China’s space programme has made remarkable advances in a short period of time – in fact, the China National Space Agency wants to have a permanently manned space station by 2020 and likewise send an astronaut to the moon.

But in Hollywood’s vision China’s ambitions in space are even more advanced. In Ridley Scott’s latest movie, The Martian – spoiler alert here for those yet to see it – the science fiction film becomes the latest to involve a crucial intervention by the Chinese that saves the day.

Cinemagoers will recall how in the climax of the 2013 movie Gravity, Sandra Bullock finds refuge in the Chinese space station Tiangong and then makes her way back to Earth aboard the spaceship Shenzhou. In The Martian, when an explosion destroys the food Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has planted, China steps in to help by allowing a booster rocket called Taiyangshen (god of the sun, or the Chinese translation of Apollo) to help him escape.

The country’s starring role as saviour of the NASA astronaut will certainly have helped receipts. The Martian took more than $52 million at the box office in its first six days in China, helping the movie surpass $500 million in worldwide ticket sales. Hollywood executives will be keen to see how it performs in the coming days, ahead of another ‘blackout’ period starting on December 7 during which only local movies will be shown.

The Martian was also heavily promoted in the Chinese market. Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, Sebastian Stan, mainland actress Chen Shu and Hong Kong actor Eddy Ko all attended the premiere of the film in Beijing.

Nor does the fact that it opened in China two months after its American debut seem to have dampened filmgoers’ ardour for the film.

Chen and Ko star as leaders of the China National Space Administration. This even led China Daily to say the film was “a cut above Ridley Scott’s previous efforts Alien and Prometheus” explaining that “an additional treat for fans here is the key role China plays in helping to rescue a stranded astronaut”.

Not everyone was so positive. “This is a forced loved relationship with Chinese aerospace. Ridiculous,” wrote one blogger. But the reaction has generally been upbeat and the review site Douban.com gave the film 8.5 out of 10.

One aerospace expert, Hu Xiao, wrote on Zhihu.com that he thought The Martian was simpler than Interstellar and more impressive than Gravity.

“The humour of the lead actor is very moving. There is no emotional exaggeration. The rescue on Mars is very impressive. The Martian doesn’t have massive space scenes or high-end technology, but it is real hard science fiction,” commented Hu.

Asked if he thought that the film reflected China’s rising international status, the 78 year-old Scott told the China Daily that expensive space exploration needed international collaboration.

That said, when Chinese fans were keen to get more scientific details during the promotional tour in Beijing, Scott answered their questions in a pretty generalistic way. “I’m not very smart… and might be a disaster in science. But I do everything in the way that I’ve learned to do,” he told a news conference.

At one point, director and cast went to Tsinghua University to meet students from eight universities in Beijing. During their visit they also met leading Chinese scientists including Jia Yang, deputy chief designer of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe, and who also led a team to develop China’s first moon rover, the Yutu, or Jade Rabbit.

Scott explained to Jia how the filmmakers shot scenes in the Wadi Rum (a valley in Jordan also known as ‘the Valley of the Moon’) and painted everything Martian red in post-production.

Meanwhile Damon got to meet the Chinese botanist Gu Yourong and discuss how he learned to grow potatoes for the movie.

“Acting is a funny career because we learn these kinds of very bizarre skills,” Damon said on China.org. “It’s nice to be with a real botanist. To play a botanist, basically, all I learned is how to grow potatoes, but this is only a narrow aspect of what botanists do.”

Damon’s botany skills help him survive on the ‘red planet’ and mirrors an earlier role: in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the actor also played an individual whose life must be saved, regardless of the risk to his rescuers. The theme in that movie was the importance of an individual life, and similar symbolism is evident in The Martian.

His co-star Chen Shu reiterated this point at a news conference in Beijing: “Just like the values depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan, I believe it’s worth all the money and staff to rescue Watney, especially with China’s support.”

Nicely put, though just how important a ‘Chinese life’ is has been questioned by netizens after a near-death incident – involving an airline and hospitals – caused a furore in Beijing (for more, see this week’s story Long way to go).

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