Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Martian (movie review)


I've been clamoring for "positive near future science fiction" in my writing for like decades, and/or noticing its absence.  The near future has been dark and oppressive, with civilization off the rails, such that "future noir" has just about taken over the genre -- so different from happier times when the culture was upbeat about where we might be going.

In this film, the world is free to unite behind a brave effort, and not because we're fighting off aliens this time.  We're rescuing one of our own, struggling valiantly to stay alive on the Red Planet.

We know it's the near future,  versus the far future, given we're told the date and some on the crew still have a bond with the same music we recognize in 2015.  The technology looks quite similar to our own.  Aside from NASA's logo everywhere, and JPL's, there's very little product placement.  CNN gets to play the TV news anchor.  Times Square is recognizable.  We don't get to look at their cars.

Yes, the film is about recruiting talent, helping youngsters project future selves onto a canvas.  The puzzles that need solving all require STEM and/or media skills, in addition to bravery, stamina and good looks.  Geodesics need to be calculated, communications established, medical treatments self administered... astronauts have to be DIY jacks of all trades.  Everyone knows about ASCII (a hexadecimal code for numbers and letters) and Lord of the Rings (associated with geekdom).

We also get a taste of compartmentalization, bureaucracy, sharing information based on "need to know" and making tough calls, giving orders.  We're in a semi-military culture the civilians have opted into, a culture that has absorbed the military's cavalier sense of hubris regarding plutonium in treating it as one more toxic substance that needs to be buried a few feet in the sand under some dorky flag.

When our hero gets cold, his solution is to dig it up and drag the container all over Mars, possibly jeopardizing the future habitability of the entire planet should he flip the truck and commend all those radio-toxins to the Martian dust clouds.  Should Americans be allowed to take radiotoxins to Mars, given this is their attitude?  An astronaut from another culture might have done the more honorable thing and self euthanized.

Only the US seems keen to have its people on Mars in this future, though we're not completely clear on their motivations.  The level of public excitement seems to be a the main variable to track and the public doesn't like people dying in tragic circumstances (outside of war that is, currently still a bestseller).  The primary motivation is to put on a good show, to give the public its money's worth in terms of infotainment.

No other institution seems to have caught the Mars bug to the degree NASA has.  Apparently the US Congress was able to boost borrowing authority through a number of election cycles.  What's the national debt level I wonder? 

No one says "days" anymore, as in "24 hour period".  The word "sols" has taken over.  Hey, maybe it's already that way at Mission Control.

As in Oblivion, futuristic aesthetics involve LCDs that make that high pitched "screen making letters" noise.  That's an old convention in science fiction, since X-Files at least.

2001 Space Odyssey deserves mention simply for how we've had to reset the clock.  The technology projected in the late 1960s is still mostly ahead of what we've come to.  No Hal.  No moon base (apparently -- or maybe the Russians have one?).  No cryogenic sleep to make the time go by with less aging and fewer intake needs.

On the other hand, the aerospace aesthetics are familiar, with hints of geodesic structures, airlocks, docking, and of course retro-rockets, which, unlike in the movie Gravity are allowed to make noise, even in the total silence of space.

The bandwidth seems awfully narrow though.  Even with communications re-established, Earth is unable to send better music?  We're maybe supposed to conclude that our hero secretly likes disco.  As shown in other scenes, these geeks routinely say the opposite of what they mean in a joking way.  Engineers still get a little dodgy when it comes to expressing their true feelings I guess.

The acrobatics in zero gravity are persuasive, especially inside the Hermes.  No real effort is made to simulate the lower gravity of Mars, much greater than our moon's, but still quite a bit less than Earth's.

I'd say geeks have moved from the carnival to high end circus, with the space program center ring.  This was Apollo 13 on steroids, a real world almost-disaster about which a major movie was made.

There are no "bad people" in this film.  Catharsis is not achieved through watching the bad people get what's coming to them.  I can't recall a single handgun in the entire two hours.  A circus without violence is not very Roman is it?  No love triangles (that we get to know about).  No sex (OK, a tiny bit).

The fact that nature is equally unforgiving to all and therefore fair, in terms of applying the same physics across the board, while humans are fallible and fragile, yet ingenious, is enough to drive the plot. In many ways, this is a hopeful film of the kind I've been wishing for, so far be it from me to be a wet blanket.

Let's not overlook the atavistic / supranational posture assumed by the hero himself:  it's not the US colonizing or claiming Mars for itself in this picture, but a lone pirate and his newfound treasure (an entire planet), a more "outlaw" experience.  He celebrates the existential scenario over a more fictive institutionalized self, and yet still remains loyal to his tribe. He's a conquistador with a plutonium teddy bear (his Wilson -- though he doesn't talk to it).

The astrogeek's tribe, in remaining loyal to him, also verges on becoming a tribe of outlaws themselves, pirates.  Overriding commands from on high is sometimes the stuff of heroism.  We saw that for real in Fukushima, when the head engineer insisted on dousing the plant in saltwater, overruling his bosses, thereby quite possibly saving Greater Tokyo from evacuation.  Perhaps Japanese engineers take plutonium more seriously?

The movie has been sold out at The Bagdad on at least one occasion, me being one of those turned away from the Friday showing at 7 PM.  I went to the 10:45 PM showing last night, Saturday, having met with a former co-worker and his nephew at Rogue Hall (I say "former" co-worker because as the website clearly states, we're dropping the "school" moniker; the original team from Useractive -- formerly NetMath -- has already mostly dispersed).