Nerds As Heroes

10 08 2016

The Martian has become my current obsession (I get that way, wanting to watch a movie or movie series repeatedly). Despite a couple technical flaws, the movie feels like something that actually happened, and this despite being set in the future. But what really struck me about the movie is that all of the central heroes in the movie are nerds. Geeky, slightly pedantic at times, but nerds nonetheless.

Spoiler alert: this piece discusses important plot points that may gave away the ending or expose key parts of the story. Read at your own risk.

Why Does Elrond Mean Secret Meeting?

While there are plenty of scenes that expose the nerdiness of the cast, the most telling is when Annie asks why Vincent named the rescue planning session “Project Elrond”. Everyone in the room gets the reference except for Annie (and extra points to the writers and director for having “Boromir” deliver the first explanatory line. That was brilliant). Even the head of NASA is a nerd, asking for his code name to be a somewhat obscure but still real character in the Lord of the Rings universe. The only person who might be considered “cool” in a conventional sense is completely left out.

But we see this over and over: the “rules” for colonizing a planet; explaining how Watney is about to become a space pirate (and please call him Blondebeard); the interaction between Vincent Kapoor and Mindy Park over the Blondebeard reference; the fact that the mission commander is a massive fan of disco music,;that their lead technologist carries an ASCII table (printed on paper) all the way to Mars. These are not the actions of “normal” or conventionally “cool” people.

But We Don’t See The Stereotypes

What we don’t get is a conventionally “cool” character making fun of the nerds and saving the day, the nerds relegated to the role of sidekicks. The hero doesn’t “get the girl”. The challenges faced are solved through a combination of logic, science and a bit of “gut feel”. We don’t have a “bad guy”, an overtly evil antagonist out to get everyone. At best “space” and “Mars” are the bad guys, but in a benign sense. Yes we have tension, and yes we have interpersonal conflict. But it doesn’t result in fireworks and histrionics (kind-of like real life, basically).

Instead, we are treated to smart, nerdy but still relatable and engaging characters, taking significant risks in order to either stay alive or save their friend. We don’t get buried in the science such that only hardcore science geeks get what is going on. Sure, there are some issues. The fact that the Mars atmosphere is so thin that the harshest storms would barely qualify as a stiff breeze. That a major political decision in China would be made by a high-level bureaucrat and not the party leadership. But so what? It doesn’t take away from what is a great and compelling story.

It’s Ultimately A Great Movie

In the end, The Martian is simply a great movie. The visual effects are used to provide depth and realism, not “oh wow!” and “holy crap!” and lots of bangs and pops and flashes. We have a story that has depth to it. It poses some interesting questions (what would it be like to be the only human on a planet?). It offers some interesting takes on how to apply science. But it gives us real, human, relatable characters, most of whom are also nerds at their core.

And that speaks to me, since I admit I am a nerd as well. Those guys up on the screen are “me”, in some sense. I don’t have to wonder “what if” about physical skills or appearance. Not everyone in the movie who is a hero is buff or supermodel. They are smart, creative people trying to solve an urgent and important problem. A lot of us “normal people” who are nerds know we could do that, too.

The Martian is definitely now on my list of favourite movies. It is one that I can watch over and over and still enjoy it. It is a compelling and interesting story, with enough humour to be funny without being campy, and characters that I can relate to in some way. And I expect to watch it a lot in the future.

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