Geomedia: Film: 'The Martian' puts the magnificence and messiness of science at the fore

Martian Matt Damon Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded and alone on Mars in "The Martian." Credit: Aidan Monaghan/© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Sweeping in low over rocky outcrops and rust-red sands, the monochrome landscape looks far more peaceful in the dim light of day than it had the evening before, when an unexpectedly vicious dust storm tore through the area. The camera view traces smoothly over the ground toward a faint beeping, which grows louder as we approach a small hummock in the soil ahead. The hummock, it turns out, is actually the motionless, mostly buried body of astronaut Mark Watney; the shrill noise, a siren in his helmet warning of dangerous oxygen levels. With a sudden gasp, Watney’s eyes open, darting around behind his faceplate as the first inklings of comprehension seep in.

This scene sets the tone early on for the exhilarating and tension-filled 2 hours and 20 minutes that is “The Martian.” The movie, which opens today nationwide, closely mirrors Andy Weir’s novel of the same name. The novel was a hit, particularly among science-loving crowds, thanks to its engrossing storyline, thorough research and attention to detail, and its unabashed appreciation of science and general nerddom. And the movie is sure to follow suit.

Martian Ares Crew Inside the "Hab," their lab-slash-living quarters, the Ares 3 crew monitors an incoming dust storm early in "The Martian." Credit: © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
The story tracks astronaut Watney, along with his five crewmates on the Ares 3 mission — the third of six scheduled trips to the Red Planet in NASA’s first foray into manned interplanetary exploration. Midway through a month-long stay on the planet, the aforementioned storm rolls in, forcing the team to abort the mission and head for home. After Watney is swept away and separated from his companions, however, he wakes to find himself stranded, alone and with little hope of rescue before his supplies run out. So ensues his struggle to survive on the hostile planet, where he’s often reminded that minor miscalculations or lapses in concentration can get him killed in any number of ways, thanks mostly to frigid temperatures and — oh yeah — the lack of air.

Far surpassing past portrayals of the Red Planet, “The Martian” deserves the comparisons that have already been made between it and classics of the space-exploration genre like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.” Like the latter in particular, the film’s tension and drama emerge not from convenient plot devices but from the inherent and myriad dangers of extraterrestrial travel, the intertwined sense of thrill and fear that comes with separation from the known, and the conflicts — both material and personal — navigated by the authorities at NASA back on Earth. (How do you decide whether to risk five additional lives trying to save one, or to doom that person to near-certain death?)

Unlike those films, “The Martian” is, of course, fictional. Yet it’s so grounded in realism that viewers are to be forgiven if they temporarily forget that fact. (I certainly did at points.) Familiar pieces of actual Mars exploration history are woven into the plot, setting the story up as a plausible progression from that history. The Martian terrain portrayed — rendered largely by computer, no doubt, though also from on-location filming in Jordan — is at once majestic, eerily uninviting and, importantly, based on current scientific understanding. Similarly, many of the technical details in the film — from the Hab (the crew’s inflatable laboratory-slash-living quarters) and rovers to the portable nuclear generator (repurposed by Watney as a space heater) and the ion propulsion engine aboard the crew’s interplanetary ship — are all based on current or anticipated technologies.

Martian NASA folks NASA's Media Relations Director and Director of Mars Missions, played by Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor, respectively, look on anxiously while awaiting details about Watney's status on Mars. Credit: Peter Mountain/© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
NASA’s collaboration in making “The Martian” surely contributed substantially to the movie’s authenticity. But, most of the groundwork was laid in Weir’s novel, which contains far more scientific explanation and nitty-gritty calculation. If you’re curious how Watney navigates his rover around Mars without detailed maps, for example, you’ll understand better from the book. This might be cause for complaint among viewers inclined to dissect the minutiae. But the filmmakers, led by director Ridley Scott, probably portrayed about as much science as they could’ve without repeatedly halting the film’s dramatic tempo and/or extending it toward the three-hour mark.

Despite the tension sustained by the ever-present threat of Watney’s death, which seemingly hangs on every decision he and his would-be rescuers make, the story doesn’t dwell on the morbid or morose. There are moments of despair to be sure — how could there not be? — but both the novel and film strike refreshingly positive, often light-hearted tones, buoyed by Watney’s wry humor and MacGyver-like ingenuity. The ample dose of ‘70s disco and TV classics that soundtrack his time alone on Mars — offering opportunities for a game Matt Damon, in the lead role, to get his groove on — doesn’t hurt.

In a somewhat rare feat, the movie and the novel are both highly enjoyable. What’s more, they’re terrifically complementary, each enriching the other by emphasizing different strengths while otherwise faithfully recounting the same story. The book excels in technical detail and description, and has additional scenes that only reinforce the seeming authenticity of Weir’s portrayal of someone coping with the harsh realities of existence on Mars. The film adds welcome color and texture, not only in stunning fashion to the physical backdrops, but to the dialogue among and personalities of some of the characters. Nobody will mistake the story as a masterpiece of character development. But that’s OK. “The Martian,” in both forms, is all about elevating science — with all its attendant magnificence and messiness — as well as the best of the collective human spirit. And in this, it succeeds mightily.

Timothy Oleson

Timothy Oleson

Tim is the news editor at EARTH, and writes the Bare Earth Elements blog. His scientific interests span the geosciences from biogeochemistry to seismology to space science. Formerly based in Madison, Wis., he now resides in the Washington, D.C., area.

Friday, October 2, 2015 - 13:30

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