Today I saw Ridley Scott’s new science fiction film The Martian, starring Matt Damon, which opened last week to positive reviews and good box office. I see an average of two movies a year in the theater, so it’s pretty rare for me to actually “go to the movies” in the traditional sense, and this was worth the wait. Just to get the “review” portion of this article out of the way, I was highly impressed by The Martian, which I found to be a tense, emotional, entertaining thriller set in space but focusing on very human problems. Matt Damon’s performance was very good, Scott’s directing was tight and competent, and the visual look of the film is utterly stunning. It should do very well financially and may possibly emerge as a modern science fiction classic. I hope it does. More than just its success as a film, however, I was particularly impressed by the way The Martian uses real science as the basis of its plot and situations–something I’m told Andy Weir, who wrote the 2011 novel the film is based on, specifically wanted to do, and which the filmmakers had the wisdom and courage to preserve in the movie version. Indeed, The Martian puts the science back in science fiction, which is something that’s sorely needed in my opinion.
Thanks to the film’s viral marketing campaign you probably already know the premise. A mission called Ares III has just landed on Mars. A terrible dust storm kicks up and mission commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) decides to abort the mission and take off in their rocket–but not before astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed lost in the storm after being hit by a piece of debris. Since he can’t survive more than a few minutes, the crew quickly writes him off as dead, and they blast off back into space. Of course Watney is not dead. He manages to get back to a habitable biosphere, but as the Ares III ship is now long gone he faces the difficult task of trying to survive on a planet with no liquid water, no food and no breathable air. Eventually Mission Control realizes he’s alive, and then it’s a race against a slow-moving clock–more than a year, in fact–to mount some kind of mission to rescue him, with options dramatically narrowed by various real scientific problems.
The Martian’s plot is pretty simple: a guy gets trapped on Mars alone, and Mission Control tries to save him. There are obvious similarities between this another realistic “space movies” made in the past, such as Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), which dramatizes real events, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). I found The Martian harking back to a much pulpier film from long ago, Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which has almost the exact same plot. Like The Martian, Robinson Crusoe On Mars at least attempted to depict the Red Planet consistently with what was known about it at the time. In that film astronaut Kit Draper (Paul Mantee, who later had a cameo in Apollo 13) is stranded on the surface after a meteor storm and his co-pilot is killed. Like Mark Watney he must find indigenous solutions to problems of obtaining enough air, water and food to survive long enough until a rescue can be mounted, assuming anyone on Earth realizes he’s still alive. It’s a compelling story in any era, and made even more so by real science and real problems.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a bit more fantastic than The Martian, and in any event what was known about Mars in 1964 pales in comparison to what we know today–in the 1960s scientists suggested that liquid water and plant life could possibly exist on Mars in significant quantities. Today we know there are no obvious life forms and if there is any liquid water it can’t really exist in a stable state. Robinson Crusoe does eventually veer into truly pulp SF territory, with aliens and flying saucers making an inevitable appearance, though to the film’s credit it avoids depicting indigenous “Martians.” The Martian‘s plot conflict is entirely science-based: how would a human being survive up there, and how could one realistically bring him home? There are no aliens, no monsters. It’s just pure scientific problem-solving.
The 1964 film Robinson Crusoe On Mars, directed by Byron Haskin, can be considered a forerunner of The Martian, but obviously not nearly as accurate.
This is The Martian’s true strength. The problems of making water, growing food, stretching supplies and communicating with Earth are all shown very realistically. From the Mission Control side, the limitations of real space missions are also portrayed realistically, with characters constantly talking about things like escape velocity, payload distribution, fuel capacity and other real-world problems of space travel. Not everything is 100% accurate–I’m told the dust storms are quite exaggerated for dramatic effect–but there’s a lot more science in The Martian than you see in most other science fiction movies.
The Martian is an excellent film, one that succeeds admirably at its chief objective which is to entertain. But it also does something arguably more important: it treats science as a subject worthy of creating human drama. In this era where public education in America is under siege from politicians who generally reject science and see no value in state or society advancing scientific literacy, it’s good to have a cultural depiction of what science really is and how it can affect our lives and our story as a species. Think of it this way: every major character who appears on-screen in The Martian has a Ph.D. (the Matt Damon character’s degree is in botany, for Pete’s sake!) And it’s still a film that has you on the edge of your seat the whole time. That’s a pretty major accomplishment.