There is a long history of awards’ ceremonies ignoring science fiction as fun but not worthy of enshrinement. Almost, if not all, of the films recorded as Best Picture have been dramas or musicals. The voters, mysterious creatures, but all too predictable, seek to reinforce the gravitas of the human condition, or the light-heartedness of the times between the terrible. Heavy be the high watermark that keeps film from being fun; Drama is Art, but not Fun, because verboten be that particular Venn diagram.
If comedy is the populist mandate for the film industry – and it is – then science fiction is the socialist third-rail. Audiences who scoff at a serious science fiction work – book or movie – often cannot decide whether they enjoy the science or fiction part less. The concepts are too high-minded and far-flung, and the situations just not humanistic. We have not yet been to Mars in any capacity, so instead of letting computer aided graphics show us a branch of the possible, the Academy scoffs. Millions of people saw The Martian and presumably enjoyed it because while the human condition needs history to preserve for future generations, the human condition is not simply a puzzle of the past, it is also very much the struggle for the uncertainty of the future.
Science fiction offers an escape to its readers. The scariest science fiction toes the line between the possible, the macabre, and the near future. The world is broken and we need technology to save it. Eventually, we find out that what we thought we knew was completely wrong, and we unite to crush the dystopia to bring order. The tamest sorts the world out; we are a fixed species in the future and our problems are common and external. We are running out of room and resources for humans, say, so it is time to start exploring our Solar System. Here, science fiction branches off again. There is the fear of being alone in our Universe – and then not – and our neighbors are not benevolent. Then we fight for survival, and we win, because to watch a film about the actual end of the world shows a bleakness reserved for the innermost depths of our minds. There is also the joy of rooting for a singular human who faces dire consequences and must channel the best of us. This character is heroic and faces internal conflict as a matter of narrative. But this human is relatable because his situation is unbelievable, but he is a projection of what we would like ourselves to be.
We all aspire to be Mark Watney.
At its core, The Martian is a musing on semiotics and process. Tapping into his inner Eco, The Martian‘s creator, Andy Weir, provokes his audience with solutions to problems that, according to us, should not have solutions – easy ones at least. In a way, we are lucky that Weir’s astronaut-botanist does not face multiple crises or crises he is ultimately unable to solve. That would fall into the bleak category, whose ending is always painful, solitary death. (Sidebar: I have read Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun exactly one time because its ending is harrowing, and I do not often scratch the invisible itch to feel worse.)
Ridley Scott’s film is adapted liberally, because while audiences like the joy of discovery, they do not want to spend time with discovery’s pain. But the film does capture the essence of outer space that has been captivating audiences for decades: awe and astonishment at the sheer size of it and its unforgiving invisible hand. Every movie set in space attempts to do this by bending environs: Interstellar placed a wormhole near Saturn, Gravity dragged us delightedly through a 10 minute tracking shot of a spacewalk, and 2001: A Space Odyssey asked us to metaphorically examine what a space monolith meant. Yes, science fiction is strange, but it is tantalizing because it could be real. Sometimes the infinite questions of space are addressed with science, but the fact remains that humans are scientifically stuck to this Earth, and while the process of progress adds to the valor of the human spirit, it is all the better that art mimics life and humans can awe without contempt.
And one day Serious People will figure out that to astonish is part of the human spirit and always has been. Part of what makes dramatic film captivating to audiences is because “Based on a True Story” still sounds more comprehensible than “Based on My Brain.” But let us be afraid of the day when there is nothing left to dream.
Spotlight was powerfully written, acted, and directed. It deserves its place in the upper echelons of film history because future generations should know about horror and about honor in its wake. Seven movies challenged Spotlight. but most did not fit the goal to record the top-tier of the gestalt, including The Martian. Ultimately, while sci-fi deserves its due, The Martian sits squarely in Fun.