Michael KreponThe Popularity of “The Martian”

“The Martian” is a box office hit because it fits the tenor of the times. This film perfectly reflects the anti-politics-as-usual mood of the U.S. electorate and our craving for genuine heroes. Supporters of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders could join hands in rallying around this film. It’s so enjoyable that Democrats on Capitol Hill might even be willing to plus up NASA’s budget by $1 billion every year to make the agency as good as it can be — while Republicans decide to close a small tax loophole for the super-wealthy to pay for it.

Heck, why stop at NASA? Why not kill sequestration and reach compromises over spending and revenue increases and entitlements? It sounds ridiculously ambitious, I know. But after seeing this movie, our elected officials might be moved to aim higher than gridlock. The two-year respite from budget histrionics brokered by outgoing Speaker John Boehner is a modest start, but was only possible by dispensing with the “Hastert rule,” named after a previous Speaker, where legislation is brought to the floor of the House only when most Republicans can line up behind it. In this rare exception to stasis, Speaker Boehner relied on Democratic, not Republican votes.

The Hastert rule isn’t dead because the Republican caucus will fracture if its leaders seek compromise with a Democratic President that many within their ranks detest. And if Hillary Clinton is elected President, they will surely detest her as much as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. When partisan disdain becomes this venomous and visceral, as was on display in the nine-hour prosecutorial harassment of Hillary Clinton over the deadly chaos at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, it stains Washington like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands. The steady drip of poison from conservative media outlets into the nation’s bloodstream doesn’t wash out. The resulting political dysfunction deficit has grown so much that sideshow barkers are filling the void.

“The Martian” provides welcome relief from this nasty political theater. No politicians and diplomats sully a single frame of this movie. Yes, there’s a NASA director who is risk-averse, but the president is completely absent. (What, was Morgan Freeman unavailable to make a wise and noble speech to the nation?) Instead, in a nice plot twist, the Chinese make noble gestures. In real life — yet another symptom of dysfunctional politics — Republicans on Capitol Hill pushed through legislation forbidding bilateral exchanges between NASA and the Chinese space agency.

Let’s not nitpick. Spare me the astrophysics. Leave all the improbable plot twists aside. “The Martian” resonates with our hunger for true leadership and acceptance of calculated risk. We love spaceflight and exploration because we are drawn to stories of talented people who improvise and refuse to give up. We don’t even need humans in deep space to fire our imaginations and sense of wonder, as the flyby of Pluto amply proved. But it helps at the box office when humans in grave peril act with understated heroism far, far away.

This film tips its cap to “Apollo 13,” but Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell is a dullard compared with Matt Damon’s character, astronaut Mark Watney. The folks at NASA have learned a few improvisational tricks, too. “The Martian” clarifies why we have lost interest in the International Space Station and have no time for politicians who bloviate and measure accomplishment in empty gesture. Ditto for disingenuous diplomats who make arrangements with themselves while offering arguments they know to be hollow. Space diplomacy is not exempt from these pathologies, as the halting progress of an international code for conduct for responsible spacefaring nations attests. Perhaps the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space can do better coming up with guidelines for space sustainability.

Ridley Scott, director of “The Martian,” does science fiction as well as anyone. But unlike his 1982 film “Blade Runner,” which was totally suffused with shades of gray and moisture, the scenes in “The Martian” are, with one significant exception, crisp and dry. The landscapes are reminiscent of the panoramas of rugged terrain and endless sand that filled the screen in “Lawrence of Arabia” — this time, through a dull orange filter.

Those drawn to clear night skies, staring into infinity watching for shooting stars and satellite tracks, will love this movie. If this is not already a habit, I highly recommend it.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this post appeared in the November 2nd issue of Space News. Extra credit goes to those who can find lyrical fragments borrowed from Neil Young and Van Morrison.


  1. Kevin (History)

    Tell me, why? Tell me, why?
    Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself
    When you’re old enough to repay
    But young enough to sell?

    • Michael Krepon (History)


  2. Michael Krepon (History)

    Message to non-U.S. readers of ACW who may be puzzled by U.S. political dysfunction: The majority party in state legislatures have “stacked the deck,” configuring districts to suit their needs, rather than to have contested elections. (We call this “gerrymandering.”) When single party districts proliferation, contests shift within the dominant party between moderates and those more willing to upset apple carts. Since Republicans dominate more state houses than Democrats, Republican legislators have become less centrist than Democratic legislators, although both Parties are moving away from the center. In my home state of Virginia, we just had an election. There are 40 seats in the State Senate. Only 22 seats were contested, and only six were expected to be reasonably close. Not one seat changed hands. The picture is similar in the Virginia House of Delegates, where only 38 of 100 seats were contested, and only a handful were competitive. To reclaim U.S. democracy, it will be up to the Courts to strike down districting plans that deny competitive elections. In some states, ballot initiatives are possible to take away the powers to draw districts from legislators who don’t want competition.

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      The US is in a unique position of ignorance – and I mean that as a (backhanded) compliment. That is, the US is the only nation on earth who makes enough entertainment. Everyone else imports a fair slab of it. And since most adults get most of their post-school education from often tv and the internet (and hence get a lot of US content), lots of people on earth know quite a lot about America. I religiously download the Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, for example.

      It’s always struck me how much Americans revere their constitution, almost as a religious document. No matter how many flaws that are shown up, the idea of changing it is abhorrent to so many. Most of we newer democracies intentionally stole elements from the US constitution, and I think many of us improved on it. But the idea of looking at how other countries do things seems very (ahem) foreign to Americans. Which is a shame, because US politics have become a byword for dysfunction and ineptitude (despite some amazingly intelligent and competent people involved). But the rest of the world has stuff to teach.

      To use one example: here we are in Australia with a federal government of limited power, with a senate and independent state governments, all built on the US model …and we have universal healthcare that costs a fraction of the American health system, and delivers better results in almost every metric. Yet when was the last time anyone in the US said “if Australia can do it, we can do it”? When people decry how much universal healthcare would cost, why don’t people just say: “look at other countries: it actually costs less”.

      Another example: we have a federal apolitical Electoral Commission, which sets common rules for ALL federal elections, and (by consent) runs state elections too. Everyone’s vote is treated the same – no, you don’t get to set up inaccurate outmoded voting machines in black neighbourhoods. Gerrymandering is impossible (we had our own flirtation with it in the 80’s) – the EC sets district boundaries, and its independence is fiercely protected.

      If Australia can do it, America can do it. And America should do it. The world badly needs America to get its shit together.