2001: A Space Odyssey, Andy Weir, Film, film review, Gravity, human exploration, Matt Damon, Philosophy, Ridley Scott, science fiction, Seth Wilson, space travel, Star Trek, STAR WARS, Sublime, The Martian
It often feels like I’m selling religion door to door whenever I offer people the chance to write articles for my blog, for often eyes glaze over, compassionate nods appear, and the sentiment of “I’d really like to but, time you know…hey is that Superman outside the window?” This of course leads me to turn my head in hopes of seeing some “Super-pecs” and when I discovered Superman is not actually there my friends have mysteriously vanished. Still despite this lack of interest, I have found some takers interested in at least self-promotion, however the following article does not fall into this category. Mr. Seth Wilson, an Oxford scholar and fellow graduate student, found the time to write a small review of the Ridley Scott film The Martian based on the novel by Andy Weir.
I do hope you enjoy.
The Martian and the Sublimity of Space
I read Andy Weir’s self-published debut masterpiece The Martian last year, and found it mentally engaging and emotionally compelling. And yet, I felt the book was greater than the sum of its parts in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Now that I’ve seen Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, a masterful work in its own right that stays mostly faithful to Weir’s novel, I have had an opportunity to examine what makes this story so special. In a word, it’s sublime.
So what the hell does that mean? Most of us have heard the word, and some of us (myself included) have bandied it about without knowing exactly what it means. That’s not entirely our fault. Part of the problem lies in the word’s transcendent quality. Like the feeling it describes, the sublime is bigger than us, something just outside our reach—and yet, it’s also a part of us, in fact that best and highest part of our minds and spirits. Of the ten definitions for the adjectival form listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (and that should tell you something right there), number nine hits nearest the mark for my purposes: “Of a feature of nature or art: that fills the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; that inspires awe, great reverence, or other high emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur.”
The theory of the sublime was first outlined in a first-century text of rhetoric and aesthetic philosophy by a writer we call Longinus (the textual history of the work is complicated and need not concern us here). The author of the treatise outlined several qualities common to the sublime in art and literature. Among them is, surprise surprise!, a paradox. For while the sublime has the power to elevate the mind as seen above, it simultaneously has the power to overwhelm and even terrify us. This is what distinguishes the sublime from what we, and eighteenth-century philosophers grappling with issues of aesthetics, would call the beautiful. The beautiful is the sublime defanged.
Okay, okay, back to The Martian. The book, and film, are so powerful because they embody this paradoxical quality of the sublime. On the one hand, the story is a testament to the very heights (the Greek word Longinus uses for sublime is hypsos, meaning quite literally “height”) of human intellectual achievement. On the other hand, it thrusts us into the beautiful terrors of space, sublime in its own right. This powerful effect is what Alfonso
Cuarón’s 2012 film Gravity promised its audience, but unfortunately an unwieldy plot and unrelenting melodrama robbed that movie of its power. But here there is nothing to detract from victory after victory snatched from the jaws of inevitable defeat.
The story is also replete with examples of the elevated nobility of human spirit, another hallmark of the sublime. Mark Watney’s unflagging humor in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles pushes the reader, or viewer, to question whether we could, in his shoes, find those same inner resources of resilience. And, without spoiling too much, the loyalty of Watney’s crew, who left him for dead on the red planet at the story’s start, is also tinged with sublimity.
You would think that the presence of the sublime in a movie about the vastness of space would be a no-brainer, but as the cautionary tale of Gravity reminds us, this isn’t necessarily the case. The problem, I think, is that the sublime in art can often be, over time, a victim of its own success. Early films and shows about space—Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Wars—were rife with instances of the sublime. The opening shot of Star Wars, in which the star-riddled blackness of space is blotted out by a hulking metallic star destroyer, is a prime example. Unfortunately, the success of these creative works spawned imitators who clad their works in the same outer trappings as these masterpieces without considering the underlying narrative and aesthetic elements that made them so successful. Take faster-than-light travel as an example. The spectacle of watching the Starship Enterprise engage its Warp Drive or witnessing the Millenium Falcon make the jump to hyperspace must have been an awesome and awe-inspiring experience to audiences witnessing them for the first time. Now that every space opera and science fiction show employs faster-than-light travel, though, a jump across galaxies is now no more sublime than a trip round the corner to the local market.
So, whether intentionally or by sheer accident (to me it’s still up for debate whether the sublime can be crafted or manufactured intentionally), Andy Weir as author and Ridley Scott as translator-into-film have both managed to recapture what is sublime about space and our precarious place in it.
About the Author:
Seth Wilson is a Graduate Student at the University of Texas at Tyler pursuing an MA in English, after which he hopes to enter a doctoral program elsewhere. He already holds an M.St. in History from Oxford University, where he studied cultural transmission in Old Saxon gospel translations.After some unprofitable time in the business world, he has returned to academia with a focus on Romantic literature, which inspired his interest in history in the first place. His current research interests revolve around cultural reception of Romanticism, including the fantasy genre’s use of Romantic visions of the imagination, and Transatlantic Romanticism. He is legally blind and lives with his retired guide dog.