What does Mars tell us in The Martian?

This post contains spoilers.

THE MARTIAN illustration
Illustration by Shayla Sabada

Imagine this: you are stranded on a distant planet without water, food, internet access, your smartphone, or even other humans. What crosses your mind first? Of course, you want to survive. Maybe your goal is to find a way to reconnect with the Earth, or perhaps you’d prefer to settle down in this foreign land and crown yourself as its first ruler.

Matt Damon does both in The Martian, a sci-fi adventure blockbuster brought to you by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus). The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir. Weir’s first novel was self-published in 2011, and soon topped the Kindle sales chart. Well-researched yet fantastical, Weir blends real science and fiction without sacrificing either one for the sake of trying to be more entertaining.

On the eighteenth Martian day, or sol, of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is separated from the rest of his team, the other members of which are forced to evacuate the planet when it is hit by a sudden sand storm. While everyone on Earth (including NASA and his teammates) presumes that he is dead, Watney wakes up the next day impaled by an antenna in his abdomen, finding himself to have been abandoned. Being left behind on Mars might suck for many reasons, but Damon’s character doesn’t drown himself in self-pity. Instead, he decides to ‘science the sh*t’ out of every single resource he is left with on the Red Planet.

The next NASA manned mission to Mars is four years away, which means nobody will notice Watney until 1460 Earth days later. It is frightening, but the good-humored and strong-willed Watney does not just curse Mars and then cry until he cannot breathe. Thankfully, the astronaut was a botanist back on Earth, and he manages to cultivate four hundred and something sols worth of potatoes using his own feces and the universally scarce resource that is water. Meanwhile, Watney has to figure out how to regain contact with NASA and find a route to the spot closest to the landing site of Ares IV in the hopes that he will be picked up and brought back to Earth. Thanks to Watney’s super-brain, he translates his scientific knowledge into creative engineering, which ultimately saves his life.

Despite Watney having devised a comprehensive plan to keep himself alive on the Red Planet, those four hundred sols are riddled with frustration and uncertainty. Watney’s courage and endurance are tested as he struggles to overcome the volatility of Mars.

How should he positively deal with the decompression of the airlock on the habitat which blows up his shelter and kills all his crops inside? When the crew returns to Mars to rescue Watney, how can he ensure his vehicle achieves the necessary altitude to intercept the spaceship?

Undoubtedly, one could very quickly get discouraged in such situations. However, Watney is the poster-boy of human ingenuity, and his cool-headedness and optimism are qualities that audiences should take home with them. He does not beat himself up for miscalculating the amount of heat needed to create water by burning hydrazine rocket fuel (OK, well, he does—for like one or two seconds). He even jokes that he has colonized Mars, because he cultivates crops on its soil. Weir’s character lives up to the idea of “Keep Calm and Carry On” brilliantly.

Loneliness is hard to cope with, but Watney keeps his mind active on Mars by recording daily video logs. Scott shrewdly grants the video logs the dual purposes of allowing Watney to explain complicated scientific ideas in plain language while also giving the audience a chance to get a closer look at the intimate side of the character.

Besides recording what he is going to do next, Watney complains about the poor musical taste of the mission commander (played by Jessica Chastain) while blasting her old-school disco music collection in the background during his recording. This is just a little comic relief, which gives you a break from feeling bad for the poor guy.

Regarding the purpose of the recordings on a broader scope, they show that it is important for us as humans to learn how to cope with loneliness. Watney learns this incredible lesson, but we all do not get a chance to experience what he goes through—nor do we want to.  Not everyone can dance with loneliness classily, and if you can, that is truly an amazing ability. Human beings rely on the need to belong, but who knows when you will have to be all alone. The movie conveys that coping with loneliness is also a vital survival skill.

The Martian is not a typical Scott movie in terms of its cinematography and script (I had expected the story to be more devastating, to be honest), nor is the movie a typical disaster sci-fi movie. You’re sure to become infatuated with Damon’s charisma during the video logging, and be prepared to get yourself into the nostalgic mood when Gloria Gaynor’s disco dance number “I Will Survive” plays in the background.

-Contributed by Michelle Luk


The Fantastical Duo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

This review contains spoilers.

America teaming up with Russia—that doesn’t sound very friendly.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a 2015 reboot of the 1964 NBC TV series directed by Guy Richie (who previously wrote and directed the Sherlock Holmes film series a couple of years back). The retro-flavoured, stylish remake of the classic spy show reimagines the history of the Cold War by pairing up CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to dismantle a criminal organization lead by a Nazi sympathizer.

While the duo is forced to work together by their superiors, the competition between the two agents, who represent the two great world powers, continues. Solo and Kuryakin’s silly squabble over their fashion choice at a boutique, their skepticism about each other’s gadgets when attempting to break in to the villain’s shipping yard, and their eyes on the disk stored with nuclear bomb data—all of their comical interactions negate the political and cultural tensions that would otherwise have existed between the two. Indeed, the pair is an apparent mismatch, but Solo and Kuryakin turn out to be companions who oddly complement each other’s inadequacies. Solo’s suaveness and Kuryakin’s brute strength in the opening scene foreshadows the successful partnership of the two working together later in the film. The contrast between the characters’ personalities is explored in depth, and much of the film attempts to convince the audience that they can be made into good working buddies.

The movie is speculative and sci-fi-esque on some level: the cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet during the Cold War is stranger-than-fiction and daring, but the odd duo’s combat against the ex-Nazi is rather familiar in terms of history. Sam Wolfe, the mastermind behind The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series from the mid-1960s, playfully twisted the looming hostility between America and the USSR, and transformed it into the most fantastical idea by having the ideological rivals work side by side. This could possibly be the biggest reason why the show still lives on vividly in the minds of our parents’ generation, and why it has received a modern revival.

Given the political tension of the Cold War, the 1960s theatre was riddled with spy-themed shows and films. James Bond, the legendary MI6 agent created by Ian Fleming, who remains the most iconic spy character today, is the epitome of sophistication. Bond is a lone ranger who kicks baddies’ butts with sass. On the other side of the world, Solo and Kuryakin struggle to get along with each other as they bicker about what Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the agents’ shared source of intelligence, should wear. But that does not make the duo any less capable than the British agent.

Although the men insist that they “work better alone” while on a mission to find traces of uranium at the shipping yard, the duo is in fact stronger together. Solo’s intelligence and Kuryakin’s strength, plus their unusual sense of humour, puts them on the same level as the legendary MI6 agent. However, there are moments when Solo’s American hedonism gives the audience the impression that he cannot get his priorities straight; it seems he would rather leave his partner than risk being gunned down by the security guards during the boat chase scenes.

The American and the Russian finally set aside their differences when Gaby, who is working to locate her scientist father who assists in the making of the nuclear bomb for the villain, is taken hostage by the enemy. She could be read as the bridge that brings the men together, but, for the most part, the men assist one another to take the villain down. Solo rescues Gaby from the crashed jeep and Kuryakin kills the already wounded villain who tries to strike the American. Solo locates Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), who is escaping on a boat with the warhead, via radio, and Kuryakin helps the British Navy fire the decoy that they stole from the villain’s compound earlier to destroy Victoria and the weapon simultaneously.

The bond between the two men becomes stronger when Solo returns to Kuryakin his father’s prized watch, which had been stolen in Rome. It remains unknown to the audience whether the men’s personal hostilities towards each other persist after the successful operation; the film makes a point that they can be good spy buddies, although they are, technically, ideological rivals.

Despite the film critics’ disappointments in the reboot’s departure from the 1960s TV show, Richie’s unorthodox brand of cinematography makes the story entertaining and captivating. He has successfully preserved the fantastical aura of the American-Soviet Cold War cooperation, and that is why the film is worthwhile.

-Contributed by Michelle Luk

Rising Consciousness: The Trend of Conscious Artificial Intelligence in Sci-Fi Movies

Image from http://www.moviereviewworld.com
Image from http://www.moviereviewworld.com

The movie industry has always been frenetic about anticipating the future. The Star Wars and Star Trek series are still popular in film geek’s fandom and theatre, and even RoboCop was revived and hit the theatre last year. However, the industry has never been so obsessed with Artificial Intelligence (AI ) as it has been in the last two to three years. Filmmakers, not just scientists, are also trying to explore the question of whether computers could be as smart as, or even smarter than, human beings in the near future.

‘What happens on the silver screen stays on the silver screen’—this idea is not quite legitimate anymore because some scholars argue that the AI portrayed in movies could be real in the near future. Her constructs a bizarre world that situates itself in between the present and the future. Samantha is the fictional representation of the already existing Siri in Apple devices, but what makes Samantha different from Siri is her variety of capability. Samantha can read email, proofread Theodore’s writing, engage in sensual or humorous conversations with his friends, and even compose music. Despite her lack of physical body, the many hats Samantha wears makes her feel as though she is a human living right beside Theodore. Speaking of feeling, the romance Samantha and Theodore develop makes her “real” in that the ability to form an emotional bond with someone is one of humanity’s defining characteristics.

Image from http://www.moviereviewworld.com
Image from http://www.moviereviewworld.com

Stephen Wolfram, a British computer scientist who invented Wolfram Alpha, suspects that it will not be hard to build a computer system like Samantha in his recent interview with Speakeasy.

But what about  humans falling in love with computers like Theodore does with Samantha? Philosophers and engineers do not have a firm answer yet because the question forces them to think about intelligence and emotion in AI.

If Her is a fantastical portrayal of the human-AI relationship, Ex-Machina (directed by Alex Garland) captures humanity’s intense fear of the emergence of highly intelligent computers. The movie plot follows young computer coder Caleb,  who wins the chance to participate in his boss’s experiment on artificial intelligence by evaluating the human quality of Ava, a female robot. The thriller explores the possibility of consciousness and self-awareness in AI, which seems unsettling and threatening because the non-sentient could cause unimaginable damage to humanity. In his recent Channel 4 interview, Garland makes a point that he acknowledges the trepidation AI raises in people, but the movie is pro-AI in the sense that having  AI is “terrific”.

Perhaps Garland is a visionary; he assumes that AI could continue the legacy of humanity on earth or on other planets if human beings got wiped out. What most people are concerned with about AI is whether the machine could turn its back on its creator. Right now, AI experts all over the world have signed an open letter published by MIT-affiliated The Future of Life Institute, promising to find a solution to regulate AI Highly personalized AI.

AI like Samantha could be a fantastic personal assistant, but there is no guarantee that she would not share personal data with the Internet. The fear is real, and it is shared amongst all kinds of people.

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. This phrase by Marshal McLuhan perfectly sums up the paradox we are facing with the rise of AI—we are creating something meaningful, yet we are also creating problems for ourselves. Perhaps AI will perfect our lives, or maybe it will turn our world upside down.

-contributed by Michelle Luk







From Deerstalker Hat to Black Wool Overcoat: Timelessness in Sherlock Holmes’ Speculative Stories and Drama

This review contains spoilers.

BBC’s Sherlock is  my favorite TV series. The 2012 reboot of the Victorian detective solving mysterious crimes retains the curious aura of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story. Brain-twisting crime plots, breathtaking adventures, devilish Moriarty, eccentric yet intelligent Sherlock—all of the exciting elements that led to the success of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are contained in the British TV series. After replacing Sherlock’s smoking pipe with a nicotine patch, how did the producers of the critically acclaimed show manage to preserve the enigmatic quality of 20th century speculative fiction in 21st century TV adaptation?

There is one thing that does not change over time in the franchise— Sherlock’s heroic figure!


The detective and his super-brain solves mysteries that would seem impossible to solve to common brains. Despite the fact that the fiction is strictly confined to the Victorian period and contains strong Victorian moral discourse, the plot revolves around crime and stresses the need to bring justice back to society.


You may be curious as to why Sherlock bothers to catch criminals and bring them to justice while complaining about how “bored” (S1E3 “The Great Game”) he is. When the world offers Sherlock stimulation in the form of mystery, he gallantly participates in the realm again, along with his exceptional knowledge of chemistry and forensic science. Solving crime is a piece of cake for Sherlock.


It seems to be a different story in S2E3 “The Reichenbach Fall”. This time, the detective demonstrates his humane side. Learning that his archenemy Moriarty is acquitted in the juridical court, Sherlock murmurs to himself (or to the judge): “you must find him guilty.” This is a powerful yet interesting moment in that Sherlock does not find the intellectual tango with Moriarty entertaining (as he usually does when solving crimes), but addresses the matter with seriousness. Being crowned as “the Napoleon of crime” (“The Final Problem”) by Sherlock, Moriarty is a threat both to society and to Sherlock himself, for he has sworn to bring Sherlock and his reputation down. When the law fails to bring Moriarty to justice, Sherlock decides to do it himself, alone.


The obnoxious villain plots a series of kidnappings and murders in London to attract the detective’s attention. With so many human lives being taken hostage or even taken away, Sherlock becomes increasingly uneasy, fearing that more victims will be involved in the conflict between him and Moriarty.


The rising tension between Sherlock and Moriarty reaches a breaking point when both men confront each other on the rooftop of the Reichenbach Hospital. The criminal mastermind leaves the detective no option but to kill himself to save his friends (John, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade) from being murdered by assassins. Sherlock tells Moriarty that he is “prepared to do anything, prepared to burn, prepared to do what ordinary people won’t do” in order to save his friends from death.


The mighty Sherlock turns humble in the face of friendship. For Sherlock, stepping off the rooftop to commit suicide in order to save three innocent lives is an appealing deal. Sherlock’s selflessness makes him heroic; he risks his life in order to save people who mean a great deal to him.


Although Sherlock’s death turns out to be a lie (as we are told in S3E1 “The Empty Hearse”), he successfully manages to avoid the tragedy. You may argue that Sherlock’s faked death is overly dramatic and that it breaks everyone’s heart (especially John’s), but do not forget that during his two-year absence Sherlock has eliminated Moriarty’s criminal network singlehandedly. That is no mean feat for one man working alone.


From client’s hand written letters to email, Sherlock’s biography to blog, the 21st century adaptation of the fiction is an upgrade. The producers have done a brilliant job in balancing innovation and preservation. While technology has improved drastically over the past hundred years, the detective’s heroic act is still celebrated.


If you are fangirling/fanboying over the great detective after reading this article, keep calm and #sherlocked.


-contributed by Michelle Luk