by Matt McKenna
If Ridley Scott's The Martian is a science fiction story about stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) struggling to survive on Mars until he can be rescued by his crew, CNN's recent Democratic primary debate is a political science fiction story about presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton (Hillary Clinton) surviving in the primary until she can be rescued by her fellow Democrats. Both the film and the debate were lengthy and exposition-laden affairs in which the audience was expected to be less excited about the content of the protagonist's speech and more excited that they were speaking at all. For example, it didn't matter what scientific flimflam came out of Watney's mouth, it just need to represent cocksure smart-guy talk well enough to impress the audience and elicit a laugh. Likewise, it didn't matter what political flimflam came out of Clinton's mouth, it just needed to represent mainstream liberal values well enough to impress the audience and elicit sycophantic rapturous applause. That said, if you were marooned on a desert planet in desperate need for entertainment, you could do worse than The Martian or even the debate. If you could only watch one, however, The Martian is the clear winner–at least it openly advertises itself as fiction.
The Martian has received positive reviews mostly on the basis of Matt Damon's affability. His character cracks a great many jokes while in the direst of predicaments, and this certainly is amusing. His wisecracking does increase your hopes he'll survive, but it's not as if you're ever truly worried he's going to die anyway. Compared to other Ridley Scott science fiction films, The Martian is a relaxing romp where the fate of the main character is never really in doubt. Audiences don't seem to mind this lack of drama, however, as the film has already made over $128 million at the box office and garnered overwhelmingly laudatory reviews.
There has been a similarly positive reaction to the first Democratic debate hosted by CNN. Not only did it set a Democratic primary debate record of fifteen million viewers, but the response from the media has been that both frontrunner Hillary Clinton and permanent runner-up Bernie Sanders comported themselves very well. All these viewers and positive reviews exist despite the Democrats hardly having had a debate at all–instead of debating, the candidates mostly congratulated each other on not being Republicans. At one point Clinton said, “There is such a difference between everything you're hearing here on this stage, and what we hear from the Republicans,” which is an interesting comment coming from her since she was the only candidate on that stage who sided with Republicans in voting to authorize the Iraq invasion. This artifact of history is made all the more amusing because Democratic candidates Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee were actually Republicans at the time of the Iraq War, and both of them managed to be against it. It makes one wonder if this difference between Democrats and Republicans on the debate stage matters if the difference evaporates as soon as candidates are elected.
Admittedly, to fault The Martian or the debate for the hollowness of the dialog is unfair as neither piece of entertainment expects the viewer to pay much attention the words themselves. Instead, viewers are expected to notice signposts in the structure of the story and react accordingly. Indeed, moviegoers need not understand how Watney's rescue plan actually works, they just need to pick up on the secondary characters' stern faces and recognize that Watney is in trouble. And then when the scientists in mission control erupt in cheers and yeehaws and hugs and handshakes, that's when the audience knows something good happened and they should be happy.
The primary debate had a similar structure. Steely-eyed moderator Anderson Cooper would pose a supposedly tough question to Clinton, and the audience was intended to wriggle in their seats wondering how she'd respond. Clinton would then say what amounts to nothing but during that stream of nothing she'd change the cadence of her speech to indicate she had come up with a meaningful retort, and the conditioned hand clappers in the audience would therefore know to applaud and yell “woo.”
The problem with The Martian isn't that it's all structure and no substance; It's that the film attempts to insert substance into the story via exposition explaining Watney's survival techniques when few of these survival techniques add drama to the film. In this way, The Martian plays out like children's version of Gravity in which every sequence must be narrated and elongated in the fear that someone might not understand what's happening. Both films, for example, require the protagonist to improvise and propel their bodies while floating in space. In Gravity, Bullock's character simply grabs a fire extinguisher and uses it to project herself and the story forward. In The Maritan, we have to hear Damon's character jaw on about his plan just so we the audience don't get lost when it actually happens. Clearly, I prefer films like Gravity that get on with the plot without belaboring each point, which saves everyone a lot of time (Gravity runs fifty minutes shorter than The Martian). I would prefer the debates be like that too: instead of forcing the audience to sit through the candidates cycling through their pandering talking points, I suggest we have the candidates walk onstage, hold for applause, and go home. The whole process should take less than fifteen minutes, and we'd all save a lot of time so we could get back to our Netflix queues.