Ridley Scott Just Needs a Little Focus: A Review of the Martian

The Martian is a feel-good, science positive, uplifting film about the power of the human spirit, botany, and engineering. It looked, from the credits, like it had at least 8 scientific advisors from NASA (and possibly other places). Too bad that Ridley Scott only half listened to them. As one of the primary sci-fi filmmakers working today, it’s kind of amazing how a lot of the science in Ridley Scott’s films sort of leaves a chalky taste in the mouth. (Take a look at this link for a scathing review of the science in Prometheus).

It’s clear that The Martian is science-positive – the main character’s facility with everything from chemistry to botany to electrical engineering is quite inspiring, even though, this itself it is one of the not-quite-realistic elements of the movie (I am told that the book does a better job of making Mark’s broad spectrum of practical knowledge believable rather than seeming almost savant-like as in the movie).

So, spoilers ahead, what’s good, what’s bad in The Martian:

1) A botanist as the hero! A scientist as the hero! And a plot that involves explaining what Mark was doing as he was doing it (although never far from the surface).
2) The whole problem solving aesthetic of the movie really captures the science and engineering spirit beautifully.
3) “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” – what a great line!

Please don’t get me wrong – the Martian, on the whole, is one of the most science positive, science-career-inspiring movies to hit theaters in a long time – it is a step in the right direction – a big step in the right direction. But it’s only another step on a road that stretches out a bit farther into the future.

Sloppy Movie Science:
1) The hurricane force dust storm on Mars has already been acknowledged by the author of the book, and widely discussed, as a scientific inaccuracy “necessary” to the plot. This is, in my opinion, just a little bit lazy plotting and a desire for some dramatic visuals. There are many other possible reasons that Mark might have been left on Mars that are more realistic, but maybe less dramatic.
2) Making water from hydrazine. Hmm…hydrazine is rather toxic. Mark doesn’t wear any protective gear while working with it. He probably would have killed himself before getting much water, especially working with it as depicted in the movie.
3) The ship itself seems a bit on the absurdly large side – lots of long, apparently empty cylindrical corridors to fly through at high speed in microgravity – looks neat, doesn’t really match the reality of the ISS or any other ship ever yet sent into space. It even makes the USS Enterprise look cramped. Similar giant ship silliness has been pointed out for Prometheus.
4) Jessica Chastain as the commander of the mission? Couldn’t they get Zooey Deschanel? Or Sarah Jessica Parker? Could this be an embedded hilarious joke by the director? Apparently whoever cast the film was not allowed to meet any real astronauts. Jessica Chastain is a wonderful actress, she is just not the right actress for this part –she exudes little or no confidence, clarity, competence, intelligence, control or inherent leadership qualities of any kind. I don’t believe I would feel very safe on a ship in her command. Check out Anamaria Marinca in Europa Report if you want to see how one should cast this part. Check out any armed forces commercial on television if you want to see more appropriate portrayals.
5) I hypothesize that upon seeing astronauts scampering and scooting, and hopping along the outside of the space ship WITHOUT ANY TETHERS, that all 8 NASA advisors probably felt faint and secretly wondered if it was too late to take their name off the credits but still cash their checks. This is only a hypothesis, of course.
6) Is there really no other way to slow the ship down other than blowing parts of it up? Well, okay, none that involve awesome explosions in space (complete with sound! Just like in Star Wars, but unlike in 2001 A Space Odyssey, where accuracy was a bit more in evidence).
7) There might be an average 12-13 minute communication delay between Mars and Earth, but the much longer communication delays between “what Mark was doing” and “when the people on Earth figured out what he was doing” was kind of painful to watch, and underscored how fortunate it was that Mark seemed to be a cross between Einstein, Tesla, and George Washington Carver.
8) Like the dust storm that starts the movie, the whole rescue scene is way over the top, even beyond the lack of astronaut tethers (for everyone but Jessica, can’t lose her). This also has been discussed in a review in the Guardian.

It’s just weird that Ridley Scott, in a movie where accuracy actually makes more of a difference to the story, ignores enough science details to make an otherwise wonderful science movie become cringe-worthy every few minutes or so. I recently was working with a high school science teacher who said he had to walk out on the movie because the buildup of little mistakes became too great for him to tolerate. In general accuracy is more important in “near” sci-fi than in “far-in-the-future” sci-fi, and so matters more to the believability and integrity of the story in “The Martian” than in, for example, “Prometheus”. Maybe, but just maybe, with a little more attention to detail (i.e. maybe the level of detail one might have found if this were a movie about the French Revolution, for example), maybe “The Martian” wouldn’t have been nominated in the Best Musical or Comedy section of the Golden Globes. But this is only a hypothesis.

Despite all this grousing about details, The Martian is the most science positive blockbuster level movie from Hollywood in some time – and that alone is an important and significant accomplishment in my little opinion – just remember to squint through the parts that remind you of some of the answers you typically find on high school science tests – mostly well meaning, but not quite in tune with reality.

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I was more bothered by,

(a) how could he have an unlimited supply of Oxygen.
(b) The problem of radiation exposure without major protection.

The dust storm didn't seem that bad to me, it only had to threaten the return rocket, and allow debris to fly.

Of course as a guy who has had a long career in computing, hero #2 was the trajectories calculating kid*. Did he get fired for slipping the rescue possibility to the crew? But, sitting in the actual supercomputer? Looked great photographically, but even if the problem couldn't have be done on an average PC, he wouldn't need to be within several thousand miles of the actual compute server.

* Extra points for potential inspiration of African Americans thinking about STEM potential career path.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 01 Apr 2016 #permalink

Replacing a blown hatch with duct tape re-enforced plastic film was also pretty egregious. Holding back .1 pounds per square inch would be unlikely, anything close to earth atmosphere would a at least a hundred times more pressure than that could possibly hold...

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 02 Apr 2016 #permalink

Reading the book would help. The problem being that the movie would be something like 5 hours long with lots of technical monologues to stay fully accurate. Oxygen is not a problem if you have plenty of energy - i.e. a solar array - and a machine for using that energy to split CO2.

It's a bit like the LOTR movies, which to me make very little sense without the books because so much is cut out of the movies - which makes you wonder how long the movies would have to be for completeness..

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 03 Apr 2016 #permalink