Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Martian: Get To Work

matt damon

I love space. I also love survival movies. Man vs nature. Disaster porn. Apocalypse. Whatever. Watching someone survive against all odds can be a great reminder of human resilience. Usually these movies come with a heavy dose of survival of the fittest and not much focus on brains though (unless it's a zombie apocalypse, but that's different). There might be a little ingenuity, but for the most part the focus is on hunting skills, brute strength and endurance with maybe one nerdy character the others keep around because they need him but who wouldn't survive otherwise. And that's where something like The Martian comes along to remind us that the most important muscle in a tough situation of any kind is your brain.

Matt Damon plays a better, much more charming, version of his character from Interstellar, getting left behind all alone on Mars and having to figure out how to survive, communicate and finally assist in his own rescue.  But he's not the only person you connect with in this movie by a long shot. This is basically Apollo 13 times one million, so we right there with mission control and engineers and rocket scientists (always greater than brain surgeons on my scale) working serious science on tight schedules. What we get is an opportunity to feel really great about what humanity is capable of when people pull together and figure shit out. Yes, there are risks, because there always are, but if we do the math and focus we can probably figure it out. Of course, the assumption is that you're working with people who are highly motivated, skilled and trustworthy. But this is NASA. There's no fucking around.

ridley scott

There are several moments in the film where head of NASA, Teddy Sanderson (Jeff Daniels) has to weigh whether to put resources and lives on the line to rescue one man. His focus is always on the big picture and at one point he mentions that failure will mean the public and the government not buying into the importance of the space program and they lose funding. He's not wrong. He's not a villain at any point no matter which side of a decision he was on. He really does have the hardest job. At one point he says it's bigger than one person and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), one of the guys running the mission says "No, it's not."  He knows and in some sense has the luxury (that Sanderson doesn't) to say that as big as this is, it's still about that one man. It's about how the big picture connects us back to our humanity. That bringing him back can be something that can unite the world in triumph. Or that not trying kills the purity of the big picture. I'll say no more. It's really better to just watch it unfold for yourself.

A few months ago I wrote about Tomorrowland that it was the start of a conversation about science and our future. Even at the time, I wasn't sure the film was even that great, but I was fully on board and ready for that message. Before that, I was nuts about Interstellar for similar reasons, though that transcended into much more personal and emotional territory. Three films, this far apart, are far from a trend, but I'm going to pretend it is one. I'm going to act as if this is a turning point in our culture where we actually herald science as a hope for fixing our future instead of the cause of all our problems. Too often movies are about how scientists were "playing god" when they shouldn't have, while trying to fix a problem. You'd think the rise of the nerds and geek culture would have turned this around sooner, instead of just giving us countless superhero movies, but here we are. And maybe I'm overstating it. Maybe there are plenty of examples of recent good scientists in movies, inspiring the next generation. But I don't think I am wrong. I think any examples that come up will be exceptions to the mainstream rule that science is evil and spirituality is good.  As if those two things really were somehow two sides of the same coin. They're not. Never have been. 

Anyway, I'm looking forward to watching this with my daughters at some point. I'm not sure Shayera is necessarily ready to see it in the theater, mainly because she might get bored at some point. Then again, she's unpredictable. But I think we should all be showing this and other films like it to our kids. Inspire them to science the shit out of our futures. It's time to get to work.

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