Brad R. Torgersen

The Martian and Mad Max

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Two spectacular movies were released in 2015. Both of them were set in the future. Both of them focused on a single man desperately trying to survive in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds. One of these futures was depressingly bleak, populated with violent, deranged maniacs. The other future was incredibly positive, where human beings worked together, and put substantial amounts of hardware — not to mention astronauts — on another planet.

One of these futures would be a delight to live in — the conquering of the solar system, by a planet Earth which has somehow managed to overcome its problems, enough to reach for the stars.

The other future would be a literal hell — civilization has fallen, tribal war is the new normal, and human beings have regressed to a state of endlessly cruel barbarity.

Guess which future the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) voted as their favorite?

Now, anyone who knows anything about the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy (SF/F) shouldn’t be surprised — no, not even a little bit — that Mad Max: Fury Road was the top pick of SF/F’s so-called professional body, for professionals. The fans of Andy Weir’s book-to-movie hit The Martian gave it a valiant try, but SFWA isn’t about Hugo Gernsback’s “scientifiction” anymore, as much as SFWA is about soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society.

Did I mention that The Martian had a world-wide take of $630 million dollars, while Mad Max took in just $378 million by comparison?

Clearly, audiences across the globe had a much greater preference for the science fiction movie that focused on actual science being employed in a setting where science — and mankind — are making miracles happen.

But the professional body of Science Fiction and Fantasy writers liked their bleak future better. The future where a despotic madman keeps women as breeding and food stock, while the young men all die very bloodily, and too early; before the lymphoma and blood cancers (from the nuclear fallout, naturally) can kill them slow.

I saw both films, and I liked both films a lot. As a huge fan of the second, original Mad Max installment — known to United States audiences as The Road Warrior — I put Fury Road second on my list (all time) of Mad Max movies. It wasn’t quite as good as Mad Max 2 (the title by which the world knows The Road Warrior) but it showed us just what kind of insane, pyrotechnic brilliance director George Miller is capable of producing, when equipped with modern technology, and a modern budget. Fury Road was everything The Road Warrior wanted to be, except The Road Warrior was shot on a virtual shoe string.

Nobody is really sure if Fury Road is supposed to be a reboot. A sequel seems likely — which may tell us more, about how the Fury Road universe meshes with the old movies. Will we see more of Furiosa? How about Nux? Because, frankly, the single largest flaw in Fury Road is that it is focused on both Max and Furiosa, while Nux had the fullest, most satisfying character arc. Both Max and Furiosa are largely the same people — at the end of the film — as they are at the beginning. Nux, meanwhile, did a complete 180. Naturally, Nux died. So his reappearance would seem problematic at best. But when has the death of a character ever stopped moviemakers from bringing him/her back for more?

I would have liked to see Furiosa sacrifice herself to save the Wives, with Nux returning to the Citadel. I think this would have worked much, much better, for both character arcs. But that’s just my back-seat writer talking.

The Martian is equally boggling, in terms of the visual grandeur being offered to the audience. Also, like Fury Road, this was a case of one of the trendsetting directors of the 1970s-1980s cusp period, coming back to gift us with some of his best work in a long, long time. But The Martian is a classic man-versus-nature story, with a single survivor of a space disaster working tirelessly — to the very limits of his mental, emotional, and physical endurance — to save his own life. Along the way, his comrades must overcome huge technical and bureaucratic hurdles, culminating in what essentially amounts to a crew mutiny, in order to return to Mars — and rescue Astronaut Watney.

The future Earth of Weir’s imagination, is as far from the future Earth of Miller’s imagination, as Mars is from Venus.

Of course, The Martian was every inch a Campbellian movie, while Fury Road was almost entirely New Wave.

Guess which aesthetic dominates and excites the imaginations of SF/F’s cognoscenti?

I know, I know, I am a broken record about this stuff. But it never ceases to amaze me (in an unhappy way) how the so-called writers of Science Fiction, seem to be in such a huge hurry to run away from the roots of the field. I’ve read and listened to all the many arguments — pro and con, from both sides — about how Campbell rescued the field from the Pulp era, but then New Wave in turn rescued the field from the Campbell era. So it might be true that we’re finally witnessing the full maturation of SF/F as a distinct arena of “serious” literature, but aren’t we taking things too far? Does anyone else think it’s a bad idea for the field to continue its fascination with cultural critique — the number of actual nutty-bolty science types, in SFWA, is dwindling, while the population of “grievance degree” lit and humanities types, in SFWA, is exploding — while the broader audience consistently demonstrates a preference for SF/F that might be termed “old fashioned” by the modern sensibilities of the mandarins of the field?

Now, I think there is a very strong argument to be made, for the fact that Campbellian vs. New Wave is merely the manifestation of a deeper problem — a field which no longer has a true center. The two “sides” in the discussion have been taking shots at each other since long before I was born. The enmity may be so ingrained — in the internal conversation of SF/F — that nothing can reverse it. Save, perhaps, the total explosion of the field proper. Like a puffball of dandelion seeds that’s been hit with a strong wind, the various sub and micro genres within SF/F may simply fly away into the bigger world of literature, sprouting up separately all across the spectrum, with no single colony being identifiable as the “source” or capitol of SF/F.

Lord knows that those New Wavers within SF/F who are covetous of “proper” literary recognition, acclaim, critical applause, etc., are perfectly happy to shed their “skiffy” skins when it suits them. They desperately want to have a seat at the literary grown-ups table, despite desiring to also keep a hand in with the snot-nosed propeller-heads at the kids’ table. It’s a cake-and-eat-it-too problem. Just look at some of the covers being put on “science fiction” books these days, and you can tell that there are a lot of SF/F authors, editors, and marketers, who wish very much that SF/F literature would look (and read) very differently, from the SF/F that helped make the field successful — as a broad-market force, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

My personal stance has always been, “To hell with the hoity-toities! Give me my space cruisers and galactic adventure, like that which fired my imagination in the beginning!” But this is a very passé attitude. Nobody wants nuts-and-bolts SF/F anymore, do they?

Do they??

Maybe those who avidly attended screenings of The Martian, know.

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