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Kurt Hollander: The Avatars Of The Martian

Do Hollywood blockbusters fuel corporate space exploitation?

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Image taken from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Flickr page.

By Kurt Hollander

The Martian, a recent Hollywood blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, is the story of an astronaut mistakenly left behind during a mission to Mars and all the subsequent measures taken to rescue him. Besides touting the advanced technology available to NASA, The Martian reflects the compassion of this governmental agency as its super-smart, multi-cultural employees use their American know-how to solve the nearly impossible task of rescuing an astronaut stranded on Mars.

The idea that the US government would spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars and risk the lives of several others to save one astronaut is, of course, a fantasy, but for Hollywood such an idealistic, nationalist narrative is good business. Like Black Hawk Down, which Ridley Scott also directed and which was also a box-office success, the “no-man-left-behind” imperative in The Martian serves as a distraction from its real mission, which is never explained or even mentioned (in Black Hawk Down the original mission is to illegally kidnap a terrorist). In the first scene of The Martian, however, just before things go awry, we see the astronauts digging around in the dirt and taking soil samples.

Since Total Recall (1990), the idea of extracting minerals from Mars has been played with often in Hollywood films, especially in the past few years. The interest in outer-space mining, however, far from being a fiction, has everything to do with the fact that Mars is a tempting investment option for the wealthiest corporations on Earth and an integral aspect, perhaps the largest motivation, of NASA’s future space missions.

The Space Act of 2015, recently approved by the US Senate, grants “space resource” rights, including water and minerals, to US Citizens.

The Mars Exploration Program (MEP) was created by NASA in 1993 and has since sent orbital spacecraft, landers, and rovers to explore the possibilities of life on this planet. More importantly, and less advertised, is their mission to investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the planet (which is precisely The Martian spacecraft’s original mission).

The race to privatize and exploit the resources of other orbs is on, and the USA aims to be the first. The Space Act of 2015, recently approved by the US Senate, grants “space resource” rights, including water and minerals, to US Citizens. This bill provides an exit from the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967 that stated that no “celestial body” could be subject to “national sovereignty.” Although the passing of this bill ensures the future funding of NASA, its major purpose is to fuel the private sector’s space race.

Planetary Resources, a company whose co-founder is the creator of the X Prize Foundation, which organizes competitions to stimulate privately funded space technology, has set its sights on installing precious-metal mines on near-Earth asteroids. Planetary Resources receives funding from billionaire executives of Silicon Valley (including Google, Microsoft and Dell), and is advised by ex-NASA employees and also by James Cameron, the producer, director and writer of the movie Avatar, all of who stand to share future profits.

While asteroids are known to be rich in platinum, nickel and other precious metals whose value keeps increasing, large rocks in orbit around the earth can’t compare to the natural resources that a planet such as Mars offers. This is why NASA’s sixth annual Robotics Mining Competition invited 46 universities from around the United States to compete in designing robots that can dig in simulated Martian conditions.

Although NASA is very busy preparing to help the human race (or at least those from the United States of America) conquer outer space, it gladly took time off to provide the producers of The Martian with scientific and technological expertise. In fact, not only did NASA work closely with the filmmakers on everything from the script development to the cinematography, it also helped market the film, promoting it on its website and even timing the announcement of the dramatic discovery of liquid water on Mars to coincide with the film’s release. (As a promotional stunt, the front page of the script for The Martian was included in the payload of a spacecraft during a 2014 test flight.)

The film’s total reliance on state-of-the-art technology, available only to the largest entertainment corporations, problematizes the movie’s supposedly progressive message.

The role of the US government in the production of Hollywood blockbuster movies has increased greatly in the last decades, so much so that it is often hard to separate their financial, ideological and even aesthetic interests. Movies such as Black Hawk Down or The Martian could easily be confused as slick advertisements for the US elite military forces or NASA. The thing these two entities most share in common, however, is their love and complete devotion to advanced technology, precisely that which keeps them ahead of other competitors and countries.

Although technology in Hollywood is advancing as fast as in the US military or in its space program, the narratives of Hollywood blockbuster action movies remain very much rooted in the Industrial Age, when America was still a manufacturing economy and the individual worker had real skills and know-how (for instance, Matt Damon’s character, a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, manages to survive by creating a self-sufficient environment with plants grown on the planet’s soil).

The contradictory relationship of traditional American film narratives and technological advancement is nowhere so present as in the blockbuster movie Avatar, which takes place on Pandora, the moon of a distant planet, and begins with a mining corporation’s search for unobtanium (an imaginary mineral described in the movie as essential to human space exploration and survival). While Avatar might deliver a radical message by supporting the local creatures’ eco-defense against heartless Earth-based mining companies (within “an emotional journey of redemption and revolution,” according to the press release), the film’s total reliance on state-of-the-art technology, available only to the largest entertainment corporations, problematizes the movie’s supposedly progressive message.

The term avatar is revealingly contradictory, coming from the Hindu belief of an enlightened deity or spirit embodied in a human but now widely used in video games to designate a player, thus illustrating both it’s spiritual and commercial usage. The avatar in Avatar is a man-made creature that humans can inhabit and control from a distance, the perfect metaphor for the innovative motion capture digital simulation technology perfected for and employed in Avatar. Not only did this technology allow Cameron to convert human actors into big, blue creatures from another planet, it also allowed him to control all aspects of lighting, make-up, and even wardrobe, digitally, thus freeing him from hiring so many traditional unionized film-industry workers. Most of the software programmers that create these digital miracles work freelance in far-flung places on the planet and thus receive lower wages than in Hollywood and few, if any, health benefits.

Outer space is fast becoming the utopic future for global capitalism’s most visionary entrepreneurs.

Just as digital and robotic technology are designed in large part to displace workers, the marketing and distribution of blockbusters are designed to create increased economic inequality. To make big money you have to spend big money, and few filmmakers around the world can match Hollywood’s budgets. The producers of Avatar spent half a billion dollars in the production and promotion, but recouped double that amount in just 20 days after the commercial release, with the movie going on to become the highest grossing film of all time in the USA and Canada, and in 30 other countries, as well.

Avatar’s aggressive global marketing strategy, like that of The Martian and all Hollywood blockbuster movies these days, designed to squash all competition and to extract resources from the pockets of people all over the world and to deposit them into the bank accounts of certain corporation’s and individuals residing in southern California, makes the Avatar movie itself seem like nothing so much as the heartless and imperialistic mining corporation its depicts. And given James Cameron’s involvement in the privatized space mining industry, the contradictions between the progressive narrative and the corporate structure of his movie become even more pronounced.

“As on Earth so too in the heavens” seems to be the corporate battle cry these days of the largest mining corporations, especially as environmental disasters, workers deaths and increasingly radicalized miners unions continually plague the mining industry on this planet. Outer space is fast becoming the utopic future for global (or better yet, universal) capitalism’s most visionary entrepreneurs, as it provides unlimited natural resources to exploit without having to pay for digging rights, with an added plus that there are no environmentalist groups or unions there to worry about.

As advanced robotics obviates the need for human workers on Mars and elsewhere in outer space, rescue missions will become a thing of the past. No man will ever be left behind again in outer space, although the billions of human workers who will be left behind without work on Earth might very well feel like aliens on their own planet.

Kurt Hollander is originally from New York City but has been living in Mexico City since 1989. He is a writer and photographer (author of the autobiography Several Ways to Die in Mexico City). He blogs at dfdeath.blogspot.com

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