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Society & Culture

First on Mars, Second on Earth

Nov 17, 2020

It’s hard to imagine a half-year long journey to Mars cramped into a small spacecraft without some bickering along the way, especially if the crew has been selected for diversity, with representatives of the U.S., China, Russia, India, and Africa on board. 

Who’s going to be the first human in history to step foot on the red planet? 

The Netflix serial drama “Away” is a reasonably realistic fantasy about what an international journey to Mars might look like. More importantly, it speaks to a vision of the future where countries learn to get along because they have to. 

Being stuck together on a small spacecraft on a Mars mission drives home a point that is sometimes overlooked on our pandemic-stricken home planet: humanity must cooperate not just to thrive but to survive. 

Mars is so technically daunting a space shot, and so incredibly costly, that a joint mission is likely the only way to get there. 

In a plot turn that hints at Hollywood’s need to be a player in the profitable China market--the story suggests that a blockbuster Mars project would be inconceivable without Chinese money. 

Score one for social realism. 

Various little clashes between big civilizations run throughout the drama, some petty, others with a bigger payoff in plot terms, but there is a through-line that runs from liftoff to the first footsteps on Mars that pits the American way against the Chinese way. 

It’s both a tribute to, and a veiled criticism of, the world we live in that the most intractable differences in space can be traced to rivalry between the two greatest powers on earth, the U.S. and China. But the conflict proves manageable and more importantly, it makes the mission better than it would have been otherwise. 

The drama may start out depicting America as a nation of rugged individuals and China as a nation of blue ants bound to group behavior, but this tired cliché is challenged midway and upended in the end. 

The U.S.-China dynamic injects some welcome tension to an otherwise loose, baggy drama. The machinations of the Russian cosmonaut in particular tends to mix it up a bit. For one, he understands the “Chinese way” better than the American does. 

The film is set in the near future when women not only “hold up half the sky,” but play a key role in exploring it. The mission commander played by Hilary Swank gets star billing and consequently more screen time, but her Chinese “subordinate,” played by Vivian Wu, comes close to stealing the show. 

Wu’s finely-controlled face is a canvas capable of projecting a wide range of emotion with nary a muscle moved, expressing a complex mix of emotions in an understated way. What might appear, at first glance, to be a plain poker face in keeping with her character’s repressed individualism, manages to convey smoldering anger, epic loneliness, existential irony and cool professionalism. 

The two actresses are poles apart in personality, the story is set up that way, and they serve as stand-ins for their respective cultures. Hilary Swank’s Emma is emotional, individualistic to the point of selfish self-absorption, though tough enough when she has to be. The Chinese astronaut Yu, is cool and brooding. She dutifully listens to her leader, though not without some stony doubts and disquieting indecision along the way. 

The script has one character crying and emoting all the time, wishing she was back home with her family, while the other is more stoic, making the sacrifices necessary to make the mission a success. 

As such, Vivian Wu (Wu Junmei) is the secret star of the show, even if her star burns less brightly in Hollywood than superstar Hilary Swank. 

As Rolling Stone puts it, “Whenever the story turns to Yu and the various burdens she carries as a female Chinese national, it becomes hard not to wish that she were the central figure of the drama, rather than an emotional counterweight for our actual heroine.” 

“Away” is meant as entertainment, but there’s something edifying about a space drama that reminds us quibbling earthlings that the best way forward is together. 

The U.S. response to the pandemic has been too hampered by politics to contain the outbreak, but American scientists and their counterparts around the world have risen to the occasion with urgent research into the coronavirus, its pathways of infection, mitigation technique and promising vaccines. 

Despite missteps and setbacks, the U.S. remains a beacon to the world (even if it’s losing confidence at home) in the realm of science and higher learning. 

Alas, this strength is being chipped away at by the rise of racism and the state-mandated abuse of foreigners. Aspirants to study in the U.S., especially Chinese, are increasingly subject to woefully prejudicial immigration treatment and cavalierly regarded as spies until proven otherwise. 

Given the sharp retrograde turn that US politics has taken of late, driven by resentment, protectionism and a desire to decouple, the beacon to the world is burning a little less bright these days.

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