The Martian and the Point of Entertainment

The MartianI finally got around to seeing The Martian the other day. And in a sense, it is the perfect American entertainment. What The Odyssey was for the ancient Greeks, this film is for Americans: it tells them who they are supposed to be. The film is so filled with pluck that I really wanted to see Mark Watney (Matt Damon) die at the end.

But no. The Martian tells us all that there is no problem we can create that we can’t fix. (This is a terrible philosophy — and provably false.) So the film becomes kind of a “how to” documentary for surviving on Mars. This is made less tedious than it would be by Watney’s constant flippant chattering. And I’ve always found Damon kind of adorable. But really, there isn’t much here to like.

There is a constant drum beat of supposedly funny lines about Watney being stuck with only Disco music. I’m not really sure if, as a viewer, I was supposed to agree with him or not. It would have been better to pick a style of music that has not been widely mocked. At least in that case, we might learn something about who Watney is. But we don’t. Nor do we learn anything about any of the other characters. Really: the film is made up of positions, not characters.

I’ll give a nod Sean Bean — playing the mission director. He doesn’t have much of a part, but he has almost the entirety of the humanity in the film. He’s an exceptional actor who really doesn’t get as much due as he deserves. But who needs humanity when you can be an American!™? Really, rather than The Martian, the film should have been titled, The American.[1]

The Martian Is Just Another Disaster Film

The Martian got me thinking about the point of entertainment. Because I’ve seen this film so many times before. It’s just a disaster film. It is The Poseidon Adventure. But, you know, without actual human characters. It is The Towering Inferno. But, you know, without actual suspense. I’ll bet the vast majority of my readers (who skew older) haven’t seen either of those films. So why not just watch them? Why watch a guy on Mars grow potatoes using his own excrement as fertilizer?

That’s not a rhetorical question. We live in a world in which no one needs to suffer from hunger or homelessness. So after you get those issues taken care of, what is left but ways to find meaning in life and enjoying entertainment? Nothing really. But entertainment is a business. So films are not produced to entertain, but to make money. So Hollywood is going to put how how ever many films each year, even though almost none of them are categorically different from films we’ve seen before.

Newer Isn’t Necessarily Better

What’s more, these new versions are not necessarily better. For example, The Martian, in addition to being kind of boring, is all CGI. The film just looks mushy. Watney mentions gazing at the horizon every day just because he can. Yet there is not a single frame in the film that made me think, “Wow! That’s beautiful!” This is a big problem with modern blockbusters: they’re all pretty much Who Framed Roger Rabbit (that is, live actors on top of a cartoon).

A much better film that is similar, but categorically different is Moon. (See my review.) It should have been made. The Martian? I really can’t say. You will get the same exact experience from countless other films. So why make just another disaster film? I mean: besides making money.


I think the film could have been something much greater if Mark Watney had died at the end. Obviously, the entire script would need to be reworked. But it might have said something about pluck that I hadn’t heard before. Maybe pluck is it’s own reward? Watney will die eventually anyway. What if he had just held out as long as he could and all the world looked on helpless? It wouldn’t have to be a downer. Think of Shane.

The Martian as it stands ends with an annoying lecture by Watney where he says, “You solve one problem — and you solve the next one — and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” Yeah. But we already knew that. If you just happen to be a botanist stranded on Mars who knows far more about operational matters than I find credible, then there might be a sequence of steps that allow you to come home. But often times, there are no steps that lead home. And that’s simply a more interesting thing to think about — especially when you consider how completely implausible the ending of The Martian is.

[1] There is a film called The American, which stars George Clooney. It is a much more likable film. Or rather, it is a much more poetic film. I’ll have to revisit it.

What About the People Who Don’t “Make It”?

Chris Hayes on the People Who Don't Make ItAfter the election, I conducted a kind of exit interview with retiring Senate minority leader Harry Reid. I asked him what the Democratic Party stands for, and after speaking of his own upbringing in deep poverty in the rural town of Searchlight, Nevada, he said: “People have asked me the last year, ‘What message do you want to leave with people?’ And here’s the message: I want everyone in America to understand, if Harry Reid can make it in America, anyone can. And I want those young men and women out there who are looking for a way out to realize, if Harry Reid can make it, anybody can. That’s what America is all about.”

This is, in some ways, a perfect summation of the Democratic Party’s message in the Obama era: in America, anyone can make it out, anyone can rise to the highest heights. Immigrant, native-born, black, white, disabled, gay, straight, male, or female — no matter your background, there’s a place at the top for you. Even if this were perfectly true (and it’s not), we’re now seeing what happens when the Democratic Party is perceived, by white working-class people at least, as the party for those who make it out. But millions didn’t make it out — so who champions them?

The answer is that someone came along and more or less said, “Fuck all that. You won’t have to go to college to live your dreams; I’ll deliver them to you myself. I’ll reopen the coal mines. I’ll wave a magic wand, and this place that’s been pummeled will be restored. You can stay here and live your dreams. Your town can be great again.”

I think Obama recognized the need to speak to the dislocation and alienation of the Americans who didn’t make it out as well as anyone. There’s a reason he won all those counties that Trump flipped: it was Obama’s extraordinary political talent to connect with citizens from all walks of life that made him one of the greatest figures in American history. A century from now, schoolchildren will be celebrating his birthday.

But I’m left to wonder what it must be like inside his head now. Does he have a blissful moment every morning where he wakes up with no memory of what happened in November, a sweet morning calm before remembering the catastrophe? And I also wonder if that blissful moment before reality sets in is how we’ll remember his presidency.

–Chris Hayes
How Will History Judge Barack Obama?