The Martian: Blows Gravity and Interstellar out of the water

Space movies have become a hot genre over the last few years, with star-studded blockbusters Gravity and Interstellar reigniting interest in the drama of space exploration.

The makers of those movies also prided themselves on the scientific authenticity of their movies, appointing science advisors to help them get the technical aspects if not exactly right, at least plausible.

Those two movies in particular have been picked over by experts. Gravity is my favourite of the two, but had major technical flaws, most notably the idea that you could jetpack your way between the Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station. Here are some of the other things people have questioned about the science of Gravity. Interstellar, naturally, involved interstellar space travel, something that may well be physically possible but which we don’t currently have the means to undertake. So you might think that a movie with interstellar travel at its core would be firmly in the realm of science fiction. Well it is, but Interstellar won praise for its respect for science.

This interview with the filmmakers’ science advisor, physicist Kip Thorne explains how they approached the science and where they took artistic licence.

For me both movies were great to look at – the opening of Gravity is simply breathtaking. The massive tidal wave scene in Interstellar was a highlight for me. But both were weak on story. This is Hollywood after all, a great script doesn’t necessarily need to obey the laws of physics but it needs to draw you in with great characters and storytelling.

For us science fans, Interstellar requires a major leap of faith to keep you buying into its scientific veracity.

Which brings us to The Martian, which I think does a far better job of respecting the science while delivering gripping storytelling.

It is a Ridley Scott movie so was always going to be a slick production. Shot in the Jordan desert, the dusty, red-tinged landscape makes a great stand-in for the surface of Mars. The spacecraft and ground base the astronauts use are futuristic, but not that far removed from the type of technology NASA is already using.

The Martian is the story of NASA astronaut, Mark Watney, who in the midst of a devastating storm is left behind on Mars by his crew, who presume him dead. But Watney survives and with limited food, oxygen and energy, must innovate to survive until a rescue mission can be organised.

Science the sh*t out of this

The following two hours see us following Watney as he figures out how to feed himself, re-establish communications with NASA and lay the groundwork for getting home. In that sense, it has much to remind you of the superb Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 – and shades of his other movie Castaway. But for those who love science, The Martian offers a delicious logic puzzle that keeps you thinking as Watney, a botanist, works through technical solutions to the problem of staying alive on Mars.

It helps that Matt Damon is brilliant as Watney and that the humorous tone of the book by Andy Weir is maintained. I agree with Wired’s writer that the movie is better than the book – the prose version is heavy going as Weir uses Watney’s monologues to explain the technicalities he has to overcome. This is a case where the movie is indeed better than the book, which is no criticism of Weir, a space nut who thoroughly researched the book before self-publishing it and catching the eye of a major publisher and Hollywood.

Early in the movie, talking to his video log, Watney delivers a delicious line that sets up the rest of the movie:

“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

What follows is a fascinating, convincing movie that even at its seemingly fantastical ending (which I won’t spoil here) retains a plausible feel. Indeed, virtually everything in the movie has had the tick of approval from NASA and numerous independent scientists. The main criticism, as outlined in the Scientific American piece, is to do with radiation – the crew featured in The Martian would have been subjected to massive amounts of it. So Weir had to dream up some sort of radiation shielding that currently doesn’t exist. Most of the other technology, he says, is fairly conventional in nature.

“Pretty much all of it exists. The radiation shielding was the one magical technology I granted them. But otherwise all the technology is either current or scaled-up versions of what exists today.”

My favourite aspect of The Martian is the interplay between the stranded astronaut and the team back at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab tasked with helping keep him and alive and attempting to rescue him. The sequence where Watney comes up with an ingenious way to get communications going with Earth again is fantastic.

This movie is no less ambitious than Interstellar or Gravity – it is a major production, which just as high production values. But it shows that you can base a movie on science and produce an inspiring story that says a lot about the positive aspects of human nature.

The Martian is in cinemas now.

Image credit: 20th Century Fox

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