Last year was pretty good to science fiction film fans. We got, among other things, a new Star Wars movie, a bunch of new comic book movies and even a handful of original, non-franchise films. To cap it all off, two science fiction films were nominated for Best Picture Oscars — George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Ridley Scott’s The Martian — and while neither of them stands a chance of winning, together these two Academy-recognized films represent something far more interesting: an essential dichotomy that lies at the heart of the genre.
Let me start by saying that both are fine, even excellent films, although neither is probably quite worthy of the hype that surrounds it. Mad Max was a gorgeous, intense thrill ride with some of the best production design and stunt work ever committed to film. That said, it boils down to essentially one very long chase scene and it lacks any sort of character development or even a story beyond the rudimentary “good guys must escape bad guys” impulse that serves to drive it forward. Of course, The Martian has its own issues, offering up a precarious balance between scientific verisimilitude and big-screen entertainment that probably leaned the wrong way for plenty of people on both sides of the equation. (As a geek who knows just enough science to impress people who know absolutely none, while not being able to hold my own with anyone close to a real scientist, it was just about perfectly balanced for me, but I assume I am a minority here.)
In any case, both were fine movies enjoyed by many, but what’s really interesting to me is the choice they present. Both take place in the near future, but what different futures! In Mad Max, we see humanity’s worst impulses run wild, giving us a savage world ruled by ruthless, bestial men where the protagonists are heroes simply by virtue of regarding other human beings as, well, human. By contrast, The Martian offers us a glimpse of a world where humanity is still reaching for frontiers, exploring the unknown together, eventually setting aside political differences and coming together on a worldwide scale to effect the rescue of a single person. One is a vision of almost irredeemable cynicism, the other of immaculate hope.
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Science fiction is always about “what if?” In Mad Max, we ask, “What if we destroy the world, and the worst of us seize what is left? What if the best that is left for the few good people who remain is to escape to something marginally less awful?” In The Martian, we ask, “What if we continue to push the frontiers of human knowledge, no matter the risk? What if we can use our minds to accomplish wonderful things, even in the worst, most hopeless situations? What if our political differences are never so great that we can’t put them aside to do the right thing when the need arises?”
Science fiction is perhaps the best way to illuminate the stark differences between the kind of worlds we get when we either give in to our worst impulses or strive to realize our best. Even the dark visions can, and usually do, serve as cautionary tales that illustrate the cost of making the wrong choice. The positive visions can be inspirational reminders of what we might someday accomplish if we work hard enough and do the right things. Both can make for some fantastically entertaining films, of course. Better yet, both visions are useful, because both illustrate the same basic choice: will we be our best selves, or our worst?
I know which choice I prefer. Do you?