Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Martian: A Hopeful Space Odyssey

20th Century Fox Image.

I have not yet seen the new “Star Wars” movie, but I expect to. And, like the 1977 original (and unlike the three clunky prequel movies), I expect it will be entertaining—a cowboy tale of good and evil set in a galaxy far, far away.

But it won’t be my favorite sci fi movie. In the endless Star Wars vs Star Trek debate, I’m a Trekkie. There’s something to be said for a fictional tale set in our own universe, not some alternative reality. And the whole “force” mumbo-jumbo pseudo religious stuff is kind of irritating, at least to me, even if I can cheer for the good and boo at the bad

Anyway, visions of the future are often either dystonian or hopeful, and I’ll freely admit I’m more of a fan of “hopeful.” And visions of the future are either far-fetched or seem plausible. I can’t say plausible is always the most entertaining (Star Trek is no more plausible than Star Wars, I’ll concede), still a good dose of “plausible” is pleasurable in my science fiction.

On the day after Christmas, my two sons and I saw the movie “The Martian.” They both have read the book and, naturally, chatted a lot about how it compared with the movie. Me, I would like to read the book now.

We all enjoyed the movie. Once again, millions in treasure and lives are imperiled to rescue Matt Damon. Mars doesn’t seem like the kind of place I would want to spend a year on, eating potatoes grown in my own poop—but it was entertaining to watch.

Anyway, as far as I could tell, no laws of physics had to be rewritten for the sake of the story. It presumes many technical problems had been solved in the future—but that doesn’t seem so far-fetched. It also presumes that a hot redhead mission commander would be huge disco fan—which is kind of tragic, but again doesn’t require the laws of the universe to be realigned.

ABBA on vinyl? No wonder she was ready for another year in space …

NASA-JPL image of Mars surface from Mars Rover.

But, I digress. 'The Martian," besides being a type of science fiction that I enjoy, had me wondering about the role of plausibility in fictional media. Clearly, “To Kill a Mockingbird” didn’t happen, but could have. But, why do I like it, but also enjoy Jasper Fforde books?
"Lord of the Rings" takes place in a clearly “other” place that is nothing like our world, and it works on that basis. Why does “Harry Potter” work?

Why do most fanciful tales of talking animals not appeal to me, but "Watership Down" did? Or, for that matter, what is with the appeal of "Charlotte’s Web"?

There’s no requirement that fiction be plausible to be pleasurable, I suppose—but it works better when there is some consistency within its own universe. Anyway, with science fiction, in particular, I do enjoy it if the “science” seems possible. "The Martian" is a man vs. nature fantasy in which part of the appeal is that it is a not-so-far-off future that could be.

Except for that ABBA part.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Seeking the Best & Worst TV Political Ads

I am exploring a new theory for the 2016 presidential elections, and I want your thoughts on it. I think TV ads may have peaked.

Since 1952, for two generations, TV has been the main arena of competition between presidential candidates, and we've seen and heard some historic things in that time period:  a girl plucking daisies before a mushroom cloud in 1964; a promise from Nixon to find an “honorable end” to the war in Vietnam in a commercial that ended with a soldier who had “love” stenciled on his helmet in 1968; Willie Horton in 1988; even Rick Perry wearing the Brokeback Mountain jacket in his disastrous and hilariously parodied 2012 “Strong” commercial.

NPR reported this year that television ad spending in the 2016 race should top $4 billion. But even as the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for cash to pour into presidential politics, the 2016 races feels different to me.

Mike Huckabee—where is your “Chuck Norris” ad now? In this presidential election cycle, if you don’t live in Iowa, you might not already be inundated with candidate and PAC TV ads, but trust me, they are out there. Yet, in all the odd twists and turns of this very strange campaign (don’t look to me for an explanation why a blowhard billionaire with a tenuous hold on reality leads the polls in one of our major parties—I too am stumped by Trump), I don’t think that there has been a breakthrough TV ad message.

Indeed, some of the commercials I've seen are frankly just entertaining because they are so silly.

Take for example, this PAC ad endorsing Bobby Jindal. It’s not really loaded with much content except “Bobby is coming up in the polls,” but the meteoric rise it trumpets and praises is all the way to 6 percent. Right after this ad started airing, Jindal disappeared from the race completely. I guess he was rising so face he just raptured out of here.

Hillary, a hard-nosed politician and policy wonk of long standing, is toting a softer, "vote for grandma" message in this commercial:

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, wants you to know that the economy is rigged in this ad. It takes a socialist to change America, I suppose, except I am not sure Middle America will ever vote for a socialist, even if he’s got a catchy slogan like “Feel the Bern.” We've certainly changed the tone of our campaigns since “I Like Ike.”

Jeb, whose poll numbers remain stubbornly low but who has the cash to keep running for some time anyway, actually takes a jab at Trump in this online ad—which I have not seen on Iowa TV, but wonder if I will should Trump’s numbers stay up:

Anyway, as noted, despite a record amount of cash pouring into the coffers of Iowa television stations, I am not sure advertising as yet has moved the needle this year. The mood of the electorate is very down, as world events prove too chilling. As a nation, we seem to be losing the middle.

I don’t want us to descend into multiple warring political factions, and I suppose the roughness of the current political rhetoric might be too easy to be alarmed at. But, how odd it is to feel nostalgic for 2012, when this was one of the hard-hitting ads of the campaign season:

To be fair, I'm not sure all of the ads I'm showing have aired on TV. I saw then on the Internet. Iowans, which have you seen on your home screen? Anyway, I want your help, legions of the Internet. What are your favorite or least favorite ads of the 2016 presidential race so far, and why? Please embed a link with your comment, so we can all share the fun.