Matt Damon, Martian ecologist

Liam Mac Uaid

In Capital (volume 3), Karl Marx observed: “In London . . . they can do nothing better with the excrement produced by 4 1/2 million people than pollute the Thames with it, at monstrous expense”. That would not have happened if Matt Damon had been around. Marx was railing against the loss of nutrients from the soil caused by contemporary (and modern) sewage systems. In Ridley Scott’s new 3D blockbuster, The Martian, Damon is inadvertently left behind on Mars by his NASA crew mates and is obliged to survive until help comes.

As is so often the way, inspiration strikes him on the toilet. We never find out if he was familiar with Marx’s views on ecology, but we do learn that he is a first class botanist. A rummage in the cupboards throws up some potatoes and the contents of the crew’s toilets mixed with some Martian dust allows him to make enough soil to grow a crop.

The fact that the film was released in the week that evidence that water may still exist on Mars was lucky timing. It was also a week in which another mass shooting in an American school and Donald Trump’s domination of the Republican Party nomination process reveal a dystopian irrationality in that society. Damon, one of the stalwarts of left liberal Hollywood, offers a defiant refutation of backwardness and irrational thinking. His approach to every problem is to “science the shit” out of it. By this he means that every problem with which he is confronted can be solved by using science and intellect. At times it feels like a promotional film for a university offering very advanced courses in physics, chemistry and biology.

It’s mercifully free of romantic interest and scenes of his bereft family. However, all the usual big budget stuff is there. The music to tell you what to feel; the reaction shots when something dramatic happens and endless joyful cheering when something good happens.

It’s a sign of changing times that the Chinese are shown as helpful allies with the maverick director of their space programme ignoring the party and lending the Americans a rocket. Nevertheless, the film is very much an artefact of American soft power. The Chinese control room is reminiscent of the gloomy Klingon starships with rather more primitive technology than the brightly lit and welcoming American one or Kirk’s Enterprise.

As well as being an excellent scientist Damon’s character, Mark Watney, has a righteous hatred of much of the 1970s disco music that is shoehorned into the film for no discernible reasons other than to add to the feelgood effect and generate sales of a soundtrack album. It’s a bubblegum film which invites you to sit back, enjoy the ride and then go home and find out what Marx had to say on soil nutrients in a stressed ecosystem. And that’s exactly what Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox is inviting you to do.

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