The Martian, Ridley Scott's blockbuster film adaptation of Andy Weir's extraordinary novel by the same name, continues to rack up accolades and rake in dough. It's back at the top of the box office heap this past weekend, grossing $350 million so far despite having blasted off a month ago -- an age by which most Hollywood vehicles would have succumbed to gravity's pull.
So why is The Martian still soaring? What explains its resonance and staying power?
The film is a riveting and visually beautiful tale of resilience and courage. But it is not, of course, the first plot premised on an accidental marooning. Robinson Crusoe is its most obvious antecedent, followed by the space-age kitsch-flick descriptively named Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
It also is not unique among science fiction space thrillers. The genre is old, well-stocked, and with countless examples of movies with big budgets, big names, and big ambitions, that nonetheless crashed and burned shortly after their debuts.
The Martian, by contrast, appears to be a much more significant piece of American culture. The film's promise and premise are no less than iconic. The Martian, in fact, may be the 21st Century's retelling of The Wizard of Oz -- the long-loved American fable that spoke directly to Americans' anxiety and identity, both as a nation and as individuals.
The Wizard of Oz is a film that kindled reflection and aspiration, even a yearning, at an especially fraught time in the life of the nation, sandwiched between the Great Depression and World War II. It ultimately was a film that reminded us that our perseverance and resourcefulness and, most especially, our diversity as a people, make us stronger and more invincible than we may realize we are.
The Martian, like The Wizard of Oz, is a vivid depiction of the quintessentially American paradox -- independence through interdependence. Mavericks, in community. Not e pluribus pluribus but e pluribus unum -- from the many, one.
The parallels between The Martian and The Wizard of Oz are striking. A violent storm throws the protagonist into a disorienting dystopia, marooning him (or her, in the case of Dorothy) away from the safety and comforts of home and into a dangerous but alluring new frontier. The Martian's Watney, like The Wizard's Dorothy, conquers fear, marshals courage, and relies on a combination of optimism, ingenuity, and self-reliance. Survival is at once impossible and imperative, and creativity combined with practical knowledge -- depicted in a scientifically realistic way in The Martian -- are the only hope.
Yet as with Dorothy and the motley crew of helpers that she befriends along her way, The Martian's Watney realizes early on that his survival depends both on his self-reliance as well as the help of his richly and differently talented peers back on the spaceship and on Earth. Colleagues who represent the America we are fast becoming, today. An America without a dominant (and dominating) racial or ethnic majority but instead boasting a broad diversity of races, ethnicities, genders, and religions all working together, with intelligence and drive, reaching both towards one another and out to the heavens, into the future and "over the rainbow."
With African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, multiracial, as well as white actors in key parts, The Martian gives America an irresistible and optimistic peek into our future. A society roughly two decades from now that seems both idyllic and familiar. A future in which we -- finally -- appreciate our differences in background, perspective and identity not as impediments but as the very things that make, and will keep us, a superpower.
The extraordinarily diverse casting of The Martian, in fact, is its triumph. It reflects America today, and projects us into the future. Interestingly, the producers of The Force Awakens, very recently criticized for that film's daringly diverse casting, appear to have come to this realization as well -- with good reason. And, if The Martian's success is prologue, which it should be -- with great appeal.
The Martian's bold view of a richly diverse future will cement the film's importance as a major cultural artifact for decades. It is a tour de force of American imagination and aspiration. And it will, I hope, exert an enormous influence especially on American Black and Latino/a youth and girls, for whom role models in STEM fields -- either in the real world or on the silver screen -- are few and far between.