On The Martian

Somewhere around the winter release of the film, Daniel Joseph tweeted this about Interstellar:

Daniel has a way with pithy reviews, and he’s 100% right about the way that Interstellar functions. It takes some large-scale problems like ecological devastation, the strategic defunding of scientific endeavors, and the perils of genetic modification and boils them down into some very simple and understandable vectors for understanding them. The grand revelation at the end of the film, which is that these things can be solved if we just pitch some of our base scientism out the window in order to embrace some metaphysical love, produces some real hope for solvency in the viewer. Things might be getting bad in the world, a viewer might think, but damn if Monsanto corn won’t get us through this if there’s a little bit of black hole help.

the martian

The Martian follows a similar pattern. Where Interstellar puts ecological devastation in the viewer’s face, The Martian does its best to bracket out anything other than the distinct relations of scientists to their science (Watney to Mars; NASA to Watney; NASA to science production facilities; the human public to Watney; Chinese scientists to NASA). The Martian refuses to give us the rest of the world, and we have to take that world as being almost entirely utopian in its creation. Geopolitics are sublimated beneath the mission to rescue a space botanist; political battering rams like space technology are sacrificed in a grand human mission; people around the world universally celebrate the rescue mission.

Despite the handling of settings and what we know about those settings, Interstellar and The Martian are functionally the same film on a basic level of ideological assumption. No matter what, capitalism will find a way to get us through this short-term crisis. Both are profoundly hopeful, but both require a hope that defers toward a future where capitalism has solved itself.

When Interstellar functionally summons God to solve its plot, or when The Martian eliminates all the political repercussions of its basic plot in favor of “science the shit out of it,” what we are left with is a purposeful faith that capitalism will solve all of its excesses. Both films feel like artifacts out of the 1990s, some weird “capitalism with a face” or “Clintonian third way” in which an Independence Day-style universal patriot speech wouldn’t feel out of place.

The Martian is the micro. Interstellar is the macro. Both tell the story of an economic system that has solved its problems by allowing technocracy to do its work. If only the engineers, the scientists, and the corporate entities were allowed to do what they do best. Nation states are the enemy in these worlds, and if we really want to rescue that scientist or get off the rock, we need to let things just work the hell out, despite what that does to 90% of the population.

Then, finally, we will have space colonists and corn on a ringworld.

Read Nick Montfort’s critique of The Martian too.

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2 Responses to On The Martian

  1. terenceblake says:

    On the film THE MARTIAN: I keep trying to drive a wedge between the film and the book. I think it is a mistake to see Mark Watney as a spokesman for Ridley Scott’s vision, but I don’t know how to prove it. The book is an ode to problem-solving, but as Nick Montfort says it gives a reductive image of problem-solving (see:http://nickm.com/post/2015/10/), and, I would argue, of science too. Watney does not really “science the shit out of it”, but “engineer the shit out of it”.. That is to say, the scientific concepts he employs are at the level of junior high school comprehensibility.

    If science fiction is defined as the “literature of cognitive estrangement”, then the estrangement involved here is minimal. Despite the story’s show-casing of “scientific” problem-solving, the whole plot is based rather on magical thinking. Magically everything that is needed to keep Watney alive and to bring him back to Earth is already in place or becomes available with a little effort, and real tragedy is avoided. Watney is not really transformed by his unique experience, and does not become a “Martian” at all, but remains very much an Earthling, happy to transmit his knowledge and experience to future astronauts, and to promote business as usual for Nasa.

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