Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 October 2015

“The Martian”

In myth making, a strong message should never get in the way of a good story. A riveting story is what myth making is all about. But when a strong message joins a great story, the myth becomes transcendent. It forms part of our culture, like the Bible.

So it may be with Matt Damon’s and Ridley Scott’s recent tour de force, “The Martian.”

Don’t worry. I won’t spoil the movie for readers who haven’t yet seen it. Matt Damon has to survive, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. Beyond that, the how, what and when provide the riveting experience.

But the movie offers more than dazzling graphics and a riveting tale. At long last, it transcends the consistently mindless but spectacular violence in which Hollywood has lost itself.

For decades we’ve been trapped in an infinite maze of remakes of “Spiderman,” James Bond thrillers and, yes, Matt Damon’s own “Bourne” series. Never mind the repetition and lack of creativity and imagination. The worst thing about these movies was not their numbing sameness. They all offered a single, depressing moral message: even if you are a superhuman hero, your sad fate is a grinding struggle of mindless violence endlessly fighting mindless human evil. For any alien intelligent species that may be watching us from afar, this consistent message has been an advertisement for our extinction.

Our comic-book superheroes have suffered this Sisyphean lot for some time. Recently, writers, producers and directors have been lost in the same maze of nihilistic tedium, afraid to exit for fear of losing money or position. “The Martian” finally breaks this dismal mold, offering sound moral messages for our era.

Individually, we humans are small, light, weak, fragile, and stupid. Collectively, we have come to dominate our small planet. We out-compete and out-survive all of the other millions of species that share our isolated world.

How do we do that? By working together.

Other primates are capable of cooperating. Even insects are. But our species’ unique combination of intelligent communication and empathy has taken us farther—much farther—than any other species on our planet.

The secret of our human success is not our opposable thumbs, our upright posture or our grapefruit-sized brains. How many Newtons, Adam Smiths, Darwins, and Einsteins have we had in our entire history? No, our chief evolutionary advantage is not our overhyped brains. It’s our ability to work together, at a level of detail and complexity that no other species here has mastered. We do that every day, while we wait centuries for our next individual genius.

The notion of transcendent cooperation seems to be a modern meme. Less than two weeks before “The Martian’s” release, PBS’ “Nova” series aired a retrospective of the lifelong work of an eminent biologist, E.O. Wilson. This scientist made uniquely useful insights into our own human biology by comparing us with ants and termites. As he noted, these species, too, display altruism and individual self-sacrifice in the service of cooperation, though probably not the fully conscious kinds we humans have.

Without preaching, “The Martian” immerses us in our human capacity to cooperate. It does so at three levels. The first is the obvious one: all those scientists and technicians assembled in the control room at NASA’s Space Center.

There each man and woman does a small but necessary task with absolute dedication, precision and professionalism. Electronic systems connect each to the others and to external workers and instruments. The whole endeavor resembles a gigantic super-organism, which comes alive and aware at the critical moment of launch.

The second level of cooperation is “just” a dramatic device. At one point in the story, Matt’s team, on the way home without him, has to turn back to save him.

After discussion, they do so. Fully conscious of risking their lives and prolonging their already wearing ordeal in space, they consent unanimously, in a willing, conscious spirit of altruism and self-sacrifice. Eat your hearts out (if you have them), ants and termites!

The final level of cooperation is global. As you might expect, the ordeal of a single one of us marooned on Mars rivets our entire species. Connected electronically across the vastness of space and around our own globe, we humans all share his fate vicariously, as if we were a single organism.

After a terrible failure of NASA’s, the Chinese space program offers to help. So the enigmatic and aloof Chinese are present, too, offering a helping hand to keep our species’ lonely American hero alive.

Despite their aloofness and strange writing—unreadable by anyone else—the Chinese share our species’ chief evolutionary advantage: cooperation. In the end, the whole world shares the joy of a hair’s-breadth escape from disaster. It is a species-wide triumph—a not-so-subtle message that we are all in this together.

The movie offers other, more subtle messages, too. The Universe in which we evolved is a harsh and unforgiving place. As we search for life like ours on other planets, we have come to study how rare and unlikely is the “sweet spot” of chemistry, gravity, atmosphere, temperature and sunlight that allowed carbon-based life to emerge on this Earth and us to evolve.

We know now that those rare and delicate conditions can change unexpectedly, with unfortunate results. Just ask the dinosaurs.

As a species like all others, our task is to survive and thrive, as best we can, using the chief evolutionary advantage that brought us to this point: cooperation. A second task, which we are just beginning to take aboard, is helping other species survive also, and so preserving other life and our biosphere’s diversity as best we can.

So the movie’s final message is the best. In the end, it chronicles a massive, species-wide effort to save a single human life. The message is unmistakable: life is infinitely precious. In a huge, uncaring Universe, it is also infinitely vulnerable.

So, the film seems to say, our species is at our best when we work together to preserve life. Syria and runaway global warming don’t have to become our epitaphs.

Rarely has a movie with such compelling moral messages come at a more appropriate time. I have written a whole essay on “The Defiant Ones,” whose perfect metaphor of a black and a white man leg-chained together presaged our nation’s civil rights struggle five years before Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech. Movies with such powerful and timely moral messages come but once a generation, if at all. They are the guiding myths of our age.

And so it is with “The Martian.” Take your kids to see it, more than once, and be sure to discuss what it means. Our species’ future may depend on how well it drives its multiple messages home.

Footnote: In one respect “The Martian” breaks no mold; it’s in the mainstream of the recent lost-in-space genre, which includes “Interstellar” and “Gravity.” But while those other movies explore the themes of our fragile home sweet home and its preciousness, none probes our species’ chief evolutionary advantage as deeply and beautifully as “The Martian.”

Is it just a coincidence that these movies, all of which have at least some moral message, are among the most successful so-called “science fiction” films in recent years? Could moral value be compatible with making money in the film industry? Might major studios be losing money and talent to so-called “indies” and new media because they have utterly lost their creativity and moral compass in trying to make myths with spreadsheets?



  • At Sat Oct 31, 06:01:00 AM EDT, Blogger Abbas Sutarwala said…

    Enjoyed your insightful analysis! Motivates me to see the movie.

    - Abbas K. Sutarwala

  • At Wed Nov 04, 11:57:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay, I just have to say that having enjoyed this movie with a 12 year old, he greatly enjoyed this NASA sponsored and endorsed experience... We rarely go to movies, but he does enjoy a somewhat/and very historically accurate fictional movie, Rod


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