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'The Martian' Is Pure, Pleasurable Competence Porn

The film starring Matt Damon is the latest installment of an old genre that's all about problem-solving in the face of very intense problems.

by David Perry
Oct 2 2015, 4:40pm

All photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox

This week NASA announced that they had evidence of free-flowing water on Mars. That would have been news to astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon), the main character of The Martian. Abandoned on Mars, Watney finds himself badly in need of an ample supply of water in order to grow food. He's got Martian dirt. He's got dried astronaut poop. But he needs water, so comes up with a clever technique to make H2O by burning hydrazine, only he gets the details a little wrong. Cue the explosion.

Watney survives this disaster and plenty of others in this feel-good pro-science, pro-NASA love story between a man and his space potatoes. If, somehow, you're too callous to be lured in by hominid-tuberosum romance, then rest assured there's plenty of physics, chemistry, more explosions, all kinds of nerdy heroism, and lots and lots of smart people of all ages, races, and genders getting together to, as Watney says, "science the shit" out of all their problems.

The Martian, closely adapted from the book by Andy Weir, is the latest installment of an old genre—science-fiction competence porn. These are stories featuring highly skilled individuals or groups (often scientists) who navigate or pacify hostile environments through their wits and talents. The genre hails from the "golden age" of science fiction, but has tendrils stretching back into the 18th century and maybe even to Shakespeare. Nearly every heist movie, spy movie, or action flick features characters who are good at fighting, shooting, lock-picking, driving, or whatever aerial acrobatics it takes to get into the secret locked vault of doom—but most of the time the focus isn't on problem-solving. Examples of recent competence porn match-ups include Tom Hanks and crew or Sandra Bullock versus space (Apollo 13, Gravity); Liam Neeson versus arctic (The Grey); Robert Redford versus ocean (All Is Lost).

There's no high concept here. The movie isn't trying to present a realistic exploration into the psychology of a man marooned on an alien world—and thank goodness. The Martian just works as an enjoyable take on a classic genre, adapting the "marooned sailor in space" story, sometimes called Robinsonade, without falling into the trap of smug self-satisfaction at the cleverness of its heroes. Here are three of its best features: First, Ridley Scott's Mars is beautiful and alien. I never got tired of the landscapes. Second, the teams of people back on Earth and on the spaceship (the rest of Damon's crew) are funny, diverse, and all well-imagined. They aren't the protagonists, but they matter to the story, doing a little to undermine the white-guy-savior problem. Third, the movie uses humor to poke fun at itself, including a hilariously meta bit involving Sean Bean.

Matt Damon is also really good. He knows just how much to milk the emotions of being alone on an alien world. He lets his Mark Watney be vulnerable, but the character's irreverence keeps the scenes, even the ones in which he's literally the only person on the planet, roll briskly along. Watney does break down both physically and mentally, but this character study never takes over the movie.

Compare that to Castaway, which skips ahead four years just as Tom Hanks's character was becoming interesting and figuring out how to live on his deserted island. That movie was not about survival, but the mental deprivation that comes with extreme isolation. The Martian is about the body, and how it can survive when thrown into the wilderness.

Since its origins in the 18th century, competence porn has always been concerned with contrasts between civilization and the wilderness. Robinson Crusoe is the most famous early example of the genre, but there's a huge array of both "real-life" and fantasy survivor texts. Robert Markley , a literature professor at the University of Illinois who has written about both 18th-century survivalist fantasies and Mars, sees the natural connections between Crusoe's deserted Caribbean island and the alien world. He told me, " Robinson Crusoe is a quintessential fantasy story about survival. [Author Daniel] Defoe's great achievement is that he makes fantasy look like reality."

The Martian works much the same way. These survival stories feel real, even though of course both depend on sequences of luck and circumstance that could never happen. (It's worth noting that many people think a Mars expedition would be a terrible idea, period. Markley told me, "Any realistic story of a Martian expedition should be called, ' The Donner Party,'" after the famous 19th-century California expedition that, according to legend, resulted in cannibalism.)

The Martian is a frontier movie, and a very American one. These survival fantasies often reflect their origins. Robinson Crusoe's mastery of the island reflects a sense of 18th-century Englishness. Swiss Family Robinson, as my friend the writer Arthur Chu pointed out to me, depicts a Northern European family as "the master engineers of civilization in 'darkest Africa.'" Scott's film is seemingly aware of these pitfalls and avoids them: Watney makes fun of himself and is aided by a diverse crew, including a female commander; back on Earth, China comes to the rescue at a critical moment. Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is half-Indian, half-African-American—he reveals his father was Hindu and his mother Baptist at one point—who leads the rescue mission. A hyper-nerdy (and perhaps intended to be autistic) African-American mathematician comes up with the critical innovation to make that rescue possible.

This diversity is nice but merely icing on the cake—which is, of course, the actual doing of deeds, the conquering force of competence. In the theater where I watched the film, when the key moments of the rescue took place, the audience gasped, sighed, and then clapped. What better reaction could a filmmaker hope for?

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The Martian is in theaters nationwide today.