The Martian a Good Adaptation of Andy Weir Novel

Directed by Ridley Scott
20th Century Fox, 141 minutes, PG-13 (language)
* * * *

When it comes to recreating futuristic landscapes, few directors can match the visual style of Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus). He's done it again in The Martian, which presents the red planet as you might have imagined it: red sand, imposing bluffs, pocked craters, dust storms, and flying debris. Okay, Scott gets some of the details wrong—the distant sun would probably cast a blue tint rather than full spectrum light, for instance—but after all, he did shoot in Jordan, not the fourth rock from the sun.

The Martian is the film version of Andy Weir's eponymous novel and it's probably as good an adaptation as is possible for a Hollywood film. Fans of the novel know that science was discussed in great detail on the printed page; on the screen we hear lots of references to science and observe people doing lots of fancy things, but let's just say you won't need a degree in astrophysics to follow any of it. Like most Hollywood movies, The Martian opts for drama over intellectual musing. The time frame is sometime in the 2030s, and the seven-member ground team of Ares III mission is collecting samples, when a sudden violent storm forces them back to their capsule to make an emergency launch before powerful winds topple their vessel. As they hasten back, a broken communications antenna impales botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), depressurizes his suit, and kills him. Or so his comrades think when they reluctantly leave him behind. Actually, the broken end of an anchoring clip and Watney's own congealed blood sealed his suit breech and he revives to find himself marooned on the red planet. Task one is to do self-surgery and dress his wound. Task two is to figure out how to survive until Ares IV lands four years hence.

The Martian is essentially Robison Crusoe with no Friday as companion. All Watney has to do is figure out how to create enough water and oxygen to survive and then grow food on a planet whose temperature varies from -80 to -200 degrees Fahrenheit and has no soil. (His solution is unique, gross, and possible.) Did I mention that the Ares IV site is several thousand kilometers away and that his land rover has a 15 mph top speed and that he has to charge batteries every few hours? Or that his bio-habitat is made of Mylar? Watney must, as he puts it, "do the science" for every problem thrown his way and bet his life that his calculations are correct, that he makes no careless mistakes, and that he avoids debilitating accidents. Plus, he has to let Earth know that he is alive, something discovered for him by observant NASA monitor Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis). But how to speak to Earth when it was the destruction of the communications array that impaled him? Science (and conveniently discarded material) to the rescue!

Most of the film is a rush against time, with Martian and earthly complications. As NASA chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), reminds, NASA is about politics as much as science or morality. This, of course, pits him against those who are all about morality, including project director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejofor). Then there is the simple matter of whether a resupply rocket can be built in time, a question raised by payload specialist Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong). Should Watney's crew even be told that he survived? Could they even attempt a rescue that would add over a year to their mission and might mean no one could get home? (There's a nice role for Donald Glover as math whiz Rich Pernell that deals with this question.)

At heart The Martian is a standard Hollywood race-against-the-clock flick, but it's a good one—not a great one, but a cut above the usual fare. Damon delivers a solid performance as Mark Watney, even though his part is underwritten. We see the steely determination and the humor that sustained him during his lonely vigil. Weir's novel also delved into the loneliness and despair of an individual stranded in a situation in which death was much more likely than rescue. We don't get very much of that in the film, but that's a script issue, not a failing on Damon's part. If you've been avoiding this film because you thought it might creep you out, rest assured that most of it plays to the Hollywood trope of triumph-against-all-odds. There's plenty of tension, though, and Ridley Scott builds it well and shows it in spectacular form. The best way to enjoy The Martian is to suspend disbelief, ignore the hyperbolic PR surrounding it, and just let it be escapist fare. It's not Tarkovsky's Solaris, but there's no reason why it has to be.  Call it a summer film that just happened to have a fall release.  

Rob Weir

Postscript: If we ever need to send an actor into space, Matt Damon might be our go-to guy. He was also lost in space in Interstellar (2011), traveled off world in Elysium (2013), and appeared in a short film of what it would be like to be on the moon. Guess it gives no meaning to the phrase, "You go, Matt!"


Trans -Sister Radio : A Novel Revisited


Chris Bohjalian
Vintage 0375705171
* * ½

As many know, I periodically revisit older novels and see how well they hold up. The recent hoopla over the sex reassignment surgery (SRS) of former Olympian Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner led me back to Chris Bohjalian's Trans-Sister Radio, a tale of Dana Stevens, who went Jenner's route. How does it fare fourteen years later? Short answer: our social and intellectual horizon is light years beyond that of 2001.

Before looking at the book, let me partially take Bohjalian off the hook. Gender identity is now viewed across a broad spectrum Bohjalian would not have considered at the time. The evolution of thinking about transgendered people has followed the historic script of other social awareness issues: quiet early adopters, relative silence, a handful of high-profile cases that spark opposition and backlash, and finally, some degree of acceptance of difference. Over time, those once considered odd or perverse are resurrected as "pioneers," those who follow become "brave," and slowly social barriers crumble. History is replete with examples of sex dysphoria­––those who feel they were born the wrong sex.  In 1921, a German known only as Dora R is believed to be the first transgendered individual to undergo SRS. Denmark's Lile Elbe transitioned from male to female in 1923. The came Virginia Wolff's Orlando (1928), but relatively few thought about such matters until 1951, when American Christine Jorgensen revealed that she had undergone SRS. Still, when Gore Vidal featured a transgendered character in his 1968 novel Myra Breckenridge, many tarred the book as pornographic. A few other novels appeared here and there, but few made more than a ripple outside of the LGBT community until Bohjalian's book.

Trans-Sister Sister is not a great novel; it's at best an easy read that appeals most to those versed in the sometimes-nasty pettiness of small-town life, not those looking for a serious work on sexual and gender identity. The story unfolds in the Addison County, Vermont town of Bartlett and centers on a broken family. Allison Banks lives in a grand old house in the middle of town where she and her ex-husband Will raised their daughter, Carly, a high school senior about to go off to Bennington College. Allison is a popular elementary school teacher, Carly is bright (and tolerant), and Will the president of a National Public Radio affiliate. He's also an emotionally challenged sad sack in the midst of messing up his second marriage. Forty-two-year-old Allison has had a series of post-Will relationships, none of which has gone well, until she meets 35-year-old Dana Stevens, a tenured film and lit professor who works in Burlington. The fireworks fly, but Dana has a secret: he can't wait to lose the penis that has brought Allison so much pleasure. He sees himself as a lesbian trapped in a heterosexual male's body.

The book's drama focuses on questions of identity, bigotry, and desire. Allison falls hard for Dana, but considers herself heterosexual, an identity crisis when Dana's hormonal therapy kicks in, breasts grow, and features soften. A bigger crisis: some Bartlett residents are so scandalized that they declare Allison unfit to teach their children. It doesn't help that her principal, Glenn Frazier, is among the doubters. Why, he wonders, would she want to rub the community's noses in her lifestyle? Can't she at least move away from the center of town? The book details the lynch mob mentality, follows Dana through SRS, and deals with Allison's post-op decisions. Is she actually a lesbian? Pleas for tolerance come first through Carly—a budding radio journalist who rather too conveniently accepts Dana as a sort of pseudo sister–and through Will who green lights an NPR feature on the Bartlett melodrama.

Okay—lots of problems. The story is way too pat, Allison exhibits "cougar" symptoms, the last 10% of the book is contrived, and each resolution of a major issue is reasoned in an NPR liberal sort of way. Dana is an underdeveloped character of whom we learn little beyond the fact that he wishes to be she. I know from firsthand experience that rural Vermonters can be a cantankerous lot, but Bohjalian's portrait of Bartlett is a bit heavy on pitchfork morality imagery.

On the plus side, I know Vermonters like Allison who refuse to be bullied by small-minded people. The novel, though no literary marvel, moves at a crisp pace and those who know Addison County will endlessly speculate which town was the model for Bartlett—conservative, around two thousand people, and an easy drive to Middlebury or Burlington. (My vote goes to either Starksboro or Monkton.)

Is the book dated? Yes. In 2001, Bohjalian pretty much viewed gender and sex alike as binaries—male or female, with transgender or bisexuality as temporary spaces until one figured out if it was A or B. There was very little discussion back then of terms such as agender, bigender, cisgender, pangender, or polygender. That said, Bohjalian's handling of Dana's ultimate identity transition would anger many modern readers. It is indeed problematic now, but rather than being angry, consider that the book's initial impact could be compared to how the 1993 movie Philadelphia mainstreamed AIDS for those only beginning to consider it as anything other than a gay curse. Trans-Sister Radio stands as a reminder how far society has come in a short period of time. Call it a non-vintage museum piece.

Rob Weir


Coddle Eggs, not Kids

There's been a lot of ink spilt about how annoying Millennials can be. You'll get none of that from me. In my decades in education I've come to believe that young folks have always annoyed their elders and that the only difference is that each new crop of youngsters comes up with new ways to do so. I like to remind colleagues and friends that our elders thought we were creeps back in the days when we were the whelps loping across social norms and whizzing on The Establishment.

Are there things Millennials do that annoy me? Of course! That's the point of growing up, isn't it? How else are kids supposed to forge their own identities? There are, however, several things I want to air because it's their parents and teachers who are fault, not the kids.

We hear much about the Millennials' sense of entitlement. I blame a lot of that on parental helicoptering and teacher timidity. The default position for a lot of my college students is to ask­­––about everything. I certainly prefer that to kids of a previous generation who simply did their own thing and assumed instructions for chumps, not them. But it is annoying to write detailed instructions about every assignment and have students ask, "What do you expect in this assignment?" It would be nice if they looked before they asked. I've asked some of my students about this and their answers are remarkably similar­­––they are used to having parents and teachers tell them what to do and check to make sure they've done it properly. I guess teachers are running scared in the current climate that values test scores above trivial things like independence. At some point, though, some adult needs to tell young folks that in the world beyond high school, one is simply supposed to go get what is needed to complete a task. That's especially the case when a professor, boss, colleague, or leader has already provided the tools necessary for the job. I'm happy to clarify any and all things a student finds unclear, but when I'm looking at 120 students per semester, I simply don't have the time to spoon-feed things I've already prepared for them or hold their hands while they do tasks they can do on their own.

Here's another thing I can't do on the college level: teach them to read. I can (and do) help them read more efficiently. I also write prompts to guide their reading and hold book discussion sessions, but another thing I hear far too often these days is this: "This book is too long and I'm afraid I won't be able to get through it." Long book, mind, is anything over 125 pages, and quite a few students tell me they never read anything that long in high school. Whose fault is that? Not theirs. If a high school English teacher lets them watch The Great Gatsby instead of reading it, that teacher hasn't done his/her job. Ditto if the teacher merely assigns the book and creates tests that can be passed by watching a video instead of reading the text. I am aware, of course, that some students game the system, but after hearing the phrase "We never read much in high school" enough times, I have to think there's some merit to it.

Soft teachers are practically prison guards compared to helicopter parents. I actually find it touching that so many of today's kids have warm relations with their parents. My generation generally had what could charitably call "strained" relations with theirs and I don't wish that on anyone. But can we shoot an Aristotelian Gold Mean here? Do parents still believe in "empowering" their kids? Do they ever tell them to "toughen up?" Do they still use old-fashioned terms like "responsibility" and "problem ownership?" Are they doing too much for their kids?

Here's a small example from my neighborhood. If you think it bugs me, you're right. Every morning one mother drives her high-school-aged daughter to the bus stop, which is at the intersection of where my street T-junctions with another road. She pulls up to the stop sign and sits there until the bus comes, at which time the daughter gets out of the car and walks onto the bus. Anyone who actually wishes to turn onto the other street before the bus arrives must pull into the left lane and go around her. I'll put aside the mother's appalling and selfish driving to raise a more troubling issue: the student lives all about 300 yards from the bus stop. Good grief! Do you think it might be just a teeny bit excessive to drive her to the bus stop?

Could there be other factors? From what I see, her peers greet the girl warmly, so I'm not seeing any bullying issues. It's certainly not the case that this is a dangerous neighborhood, unless you call the occasional smashed pumpkin a crime wave. There are no physical mobility issues and the kid is always carrying a stack of books, so I also doubt she's hooky-prone. She does strike me as bit stuck-up, though, as coddled kids can be.

So here's my message to teachers and parents alike: coddle eggs, not kids. The Millennials are all right and they'll be even better if we let them grow up.