Friday, October 2, 2015

"The Martian" Review

Okay, I'll admit it: I've never watched a single episode of MacGyver. I'm almost afraid to do it at this point, considering how deeply woven into my code the ethic of the show has become.  I'm worried that the 80s cheese will taint that Mojo of Inventive Improvisation that so guides my approach to the problems that can so pretzel up my days.

Indeed, there have been times when, in the process of tackling one of those problems, I have arrived at a "MacGyvered" solution, using available materials (Madame 'Cyte frequently...errm...laments the heaps of bric-a-brac that I keep around, expressly for its utility as a pool of raw materials for such projects...till the moment when they allow me to construct --like a Master Builder in Lego World-- a Fix)...only to find a purpose-specific tool for the job...and experience actual disappointment over that, and the sudden obsolescence of my jury-rigged solution.

If that Moment rings any kind of bell in you, then you are just the sort of person who will groove HARD on "The Martian."

The novel --the first by engineer Andy Weir--  had sat in my Kindle queue for a couple of years, after it had been recommended to me by someone who'd read and enjoyed (and written a lovely review of) my novella, Night Music. She'd said that it bore strong affinities to my book, in its scrupulous attention to technical detail, its inventive use of technology, and its celebration of the human mind as a problem-solving engine. Naturally, I was intrigued (and more than a little flattered/honored to have communicated so successfully that she so clearly Got what I was going for). 

Finally read it over the Summer (before I found out that it had been optioned as a film, let alone  that it was nearing completion....with Ridley-Freakin'-SCOTT at the helm!)....and immediately re-read it as soon as I was finished (and I almost never do that). I was even MORE flattered/honored at the comparison!

As for the film....Yay. Just Yay.

As I say, this is not a movie that will speak with too loud a voice to those with not even a whisper of tech-geek in their souls. It is very faithful to the book, though with some notable exceptions which are all in service of making it work better as a film (successfully. The "Iron Man" beat comes most vividly to mind).  It moves at a deliberate pace. It explains many things (usually via the protagonist, Mark Watney's video log).  It sets up problems, establishes the stakes, and walks us through the solutions (and setbacks. OY! Such setbacks!).

The situation is that Watney --played superbly by Matt Damon-- finds himself left alone on Mars after his fellow crew members on an exploration mission need to abort very early, due to a terrible storm that jeopardizes the crew's ability to leave safely (gotta give a Mulligan here; the actual atmosphere on Mars is so thin that even a hurricane-speed wind would exert little more dynamic force than a stiff breeze at Earth-level atmospheric pressures. But whaddya gonna do; gotta tell a story here). While trudging to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) to evacuate to orbit, Watney is struck by a fragment of the high gain antenna and hurled into the Martian night, very plausibly killed in the process.

But, it turns out, he is not dead....but will be if anything breaks down, and when the food supply runs out.

So, as the trailers say, he's gotta "Science the shit outa this!"

And Science he does!  It is a JOY to watch him attack problems, inventorying his assets and liabilities (rather bigger column, that one), apply scientific principles in solving them, fail to be defeated by the odds and the obstacles, and maintain a wry, profane sense of humor about the whole affair (wait for the whole "Space Pirate" thing..).

All Hail Duct Tape. 'Nuff said.

One of the characteristics of Scott's films that most stands out is his eye for breathtaking visual design. This film is no exception.  The surface of Mars is rendered with heart-stoppingly stark, majestic beauty. Being something of a Mars Geek, I was impressed at how precisely the color palate of the 4th rock from the Sun is reproduced. "You Are There" doesn't begin to cover this! The space scenes are stunning, conveying the brain-melting vastness of the distances in every direction, while also preserving the paradoxically claustrophobic quality of hurtling through that Vastness in a succession of pressurized tin cans.

Probably set in the early 2030s, the technology is marvelously realistically designed. Things are functional and plausible, treated in the matter-of-fact way that tech is treated by real people (when was the last time that you described your computer as a "silicon-CPU information processing node?"). It was the little things: the big outboard thermal radiator vanes on the aft end of the mothership, Hermes, glowed orange while the ion engines were active (and those low-but-constant-thrust engines glowed a realistic arc-blue-white, with no dramatic flares like you'd see with chemical rockets). Also, things fell on the Martian surface at rates and on trajectories that accurately depicted what it would look like at .38-gee. Most folks wouldn't notice these things consciously, but the dividends in verisimilitude pay off quite nicely in the hind brain.

All of this visual and technological wizardry, however, would fall flat without recognizable people in its midst.  The character work in this film is highly effective in its deft, understated clarity. These characters come across as real individuals, into whose lives we have dropped at a critical time. Jessica Chastain's Cmdr. Lewis is someone who takes her job very seriously. She is wracked by leaving Watney behind, even as she clearly knows it was the only responsible choice. The conflict of these realities is at times heartbreakingly manifest in her performance.

The unfolding relationship between Kate Mara's Johannson and  Sebastian Stan's Beck comes across in a series of sweet, almost-imperceptible little beats. Michael Peña's Martinez is a good-hearted, wise-cracking natural counterpart to Damon's Watney.  The Earth-bound cast plays out the politics and practicalities of this extraordinary situation with a recognizable Truthfulness that makes no one the Villain (even Jeff Daniels' NASA Director has defensible motivations for choices that might otherwise have been turned into a stock "Gutless Bureaucrat" cartoon in a lesser script). Honorable mention goes to Donald Glover's Rich Purnelle, the brilliant, quirky, socially inept astrodynamics savant; his description of his rescue plan during the "Project Elrond" meeting (One does not simply walk to Mars...) was high-LARIOUS!

And Damon. Ah, Damon.  He simply LIVES in Mark Watney. It's like how I will never again read LOTR without seeing Viggo as Aragorn. He inhabits that character with such an unforced, real-to-the-marrow way that his voice will sound in my head when I eventually (inevitably) re-re-read The Martian. It's clear (as it actually wasn't in the book) that the wise-cracking persona is a defense against the Dread and Despair that it only very precariously holds at bay. His humanity is a stand-in for our own, speaking to the best aspects of how we might manage any analogously dire situation in which we might find ourselves.

Final note:  Of all the things I love about this film, perhaps the one that lies closest to my heart of hearts is the degree to which it non-preachily extols the virtues of learning and critical thinking as the means by which we can deliver ourselves from the atavistic Fears that lie within us. Lateral, creative thinking, fueled by an intelligent deployment of well-learned lessons about how things work in the 'verse are what allow us to transcend the shadows all around us. The bootstraps by which we can lift ourselves from even the deepest of pits are composed of well-tempered strands of neural fiber, honed by exposure to and flexible recombinations of the DNA of knowledge and logic, informed --but not dominated-- by emotion, intuition, and Love.

"The Martian" not only tells us how we can survive even the most desperate of straits...but why we can and must do so.

Friday, September 11, 2015


14 years.

Many decades.

No time at all.

Lost in the blur and the bustle of the day-to-day, eclipsed by the Meantimes --marvelous and morbid-- overwritten by the business of existing, and --every now and then-- Living......It waits.

The defining Moment of our times.

As with all things of comparably enormous import, the interval seems murky, phenomenologically muddled as to perceived duration, because, although it slips farther and farther away in 'objective time' (whateverthefrak that is), it remains present, because it underlies --at varying depths-- everything else.

"Why should it loom so large, when suffering at least as horrid befalls vastly more people on a daily basis, elsewhere in the world?"

Fair question. And one which is typically answered with far too little depth, such that it appears --alas, all-too-often correctly-- to connote an ugly over-undertone of chauvinism ("Because they were MERRRRcuns!").

But obviously that's not it, or I would hardly have brought it up.

That was the day that asymmetric warfare joined --and soundly upstaged-- Great Powers War (hot and Cold) in the annals of geopolitical mayhem. It was the day that a band of highly disciplined, guilefully canny, chillingly Certain individuals successfully exploited the very best aspects of an advanced, evolving civilization, in order to deliver a withering blow upon it --and, in so doing, force a spasmodic realignment of the vectors of power across the whole skin of this Marble-- for the sake of one that's among the least advanced, and pointedly retrograde in its evolution.

It was the day that decisively cemented into the zeitgeist that which had already been true for some time.

Wars no longer had "fronts."

And they never would again.

Warriors could, once upon a time, come "Stateside," and reflect --in safety-- on the horrors of battle, while "civilians" would seek to comfort them, secretly thanking their deity of choice for the fact that they wouldn't have to face such nightmares, themselves.

And now they would.  Now they would have to bare their muffin-tops at the airport if they should be foolhardy enough to wear metallic belt buckles, expose to public scrutiny their threadbare, swampy socks. All because a caustic ideology had sufficient emulsifying force to yoke the divergent hatreds of myriad factions into a perfect storm of deadly intercontinental venom.

On that day.

Yes, a great many people in this world just might be sufficiently aware of those events to look up briefly and say "Yeah? And?" But everyone that any readers of these words would be likely to encounter did experience a Sea Change on that day.

It's the kind of thing that always lives/lurks, to varying degrees in the background.

How far into the background has a distinct bearing on how we approach these Anniversaries.  Many say that we ascribe an outsized value to That Day's events, and in so doing we create the conditions under which the hatreds that burst like a long-neglected pustule are simply allowed to re-fester. They add that we must strive to live in the kind of world in which such things are not allowed the space to happen ("Be the change you want to see in the world").

A laudable sentiment. However, it is one which perilously papers over the fact that, in the absence of evidence that it is broadly shared, serves essentially the same purpose as a "Gun-Free Zone" sign does to an armed psychotic (Target-Rich Environment [without the irony]).

Which brings us to those for whom it is seldom/never very far into the background (like Yours Truly). For people toward that end of the spectrum, the alarm clock didn't come with a snooze button.  The vigilance which was triggered by an understanding of the full scope of those events' antecedents continues to resonate to the frequencies that reveal their continued presence in the world.

And they grow worse.

Thus, the task incumbent on this magnificent, vulnerable Civilization is to harry and scatter the agents of chaos that struck with such malevolently spiteful brilliance on That Day.  We must discredit and Shame those raging revenants' ideology without respite, without recourse to the precious platitudes with which the typically --though not exclusively-- well-meaning apologists for negotiated, multicultural coexistence seek to minimize the existential threat that it still represents.

As is sometimes said, "We may not be at war with them...but They still are with us."  

That bears reflecting on.

And for those who are gearing up to deliver some retort which suggests (or asserts) that the USGOV was responsible for 9/11 (either via missiles/planted explosives, or via deliberate withholding of actionable threats [e.g., for the sake of ginning up a war, on behalf of Big Oil/the Military-Industrial-Complex/whateverthefrak])....I reckon you might as well Unfriend me instead.    Right now.

I'm not having it.

You see, I have no respect for Troofers. That would seem an uncharacteristically un-nuanced position for me to take. I am pleased to report that this would be an accurate statement. I fully acknowledge that it is not altogether immune to exception (what is?)...but it has sufficiently robust heuristic value that I choose to treat it as a functional Fact.

I do not consider 9/11 conspiracists to be serious people.

The willful dereliction of intellectual rigor which is required in order to partake in an Alex Jones version of that reality is of sufficient magnitude as to disqualify an individual's opinion from my consideration. I don't listen to Scientologists, either.  I'd not presume to infringe on their right to express their opinions, obviously.  But life is short.

You see, there are people in this world who are entirely too invested in the belief that, somehow, they are clever or savvy or well-connected enough to be On To It....which all-too frequently leads them to drift more and more Out Of It.

"Theories" like these are the very definition of such Mission Creep.
Hint: The unfolding of any sufficiently complex occurrence, in nature and/or in human affairs will invariably be riddled with anomalies.

And so will our descriptions of them....even when they are accurate.

A scattered smattering of "hmmm"-worthy, apparently paradoxical factoids do not invalidate the central thrust of events, any more than line noise nullifies the music.

There are no altogether Noise-free Signals in any 'verse that we're ever gonna live in.

But "Paranoid is just Reality...on a finer scale."   (/"Strange Days")

Seriously. Just keep it to yourselves.

Regardless, it's been 14 years.  Or 25 seconds. I go back and forth.