Film Review: The Martian

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Every now and then space geeks are treated to a great, scientifically feasible science-fiction film.  I am happy to report that The Martian, a film adaption of the novel by the same title, is one of those films.

For those of you who haven’t read the book by author Andy Weir, go do so. In fact, you should go do that now so you can watch the film when it’s available in theaters. Really, go do it.

The Martian is a simple premise: Sometime in the near future, on the third human exploration mission to the planet Mars, a martian dust storm forces the crew to evacuate and abort the mission. Launching from the surface of the storm battered planet, they escape, leaving behind one of the crew whom they believe is killed in the attempt to reach the spacecraft.  Except he doesn’t die.

Instead, fictional astronaut and reluctant protagonist of the drama Mark Watney (played by deftly by Matt Damon) is marooned alone, very much alive, on the surface of Mars.  Faced with incomparable desolation and a meager collection of leftover equipment, Watney is forced to adapt in order to survive before a rescue mission can be launched years later.

Much of the angst fans of the book will center on the next 2 hours of the film: does it portray the science (and engineering) correctly?  Of course the answer is yes AND no. For obvious reasons, there are simply some aspects of interplanetary life that just cannot be replicated on Earth. (Or effectively in CGI, for that matter.) For example Mars has only 38 % percent of the gravity found on Earth.  The film does it’s best to diminish the impediment of Earth’s 1G, but there is just so much that can be done here on our orbital rock. Wisely, director Ridley Scott didn’t attempt to force unnecessary and poorly simulated Martian gravity into the film.

Our astronaut hero is left on Mars with but a few months ration remaining in the habitat module he makes home.  Ingeniously, he endeavors to grow potatoes from some of the few remaining examples cached in the crew’s stores. Now, when he pours raw martian regolith (as non-organic soil on extraterrestrial planets is called), I cringed.  The actual surface of Mars, besides being rich in oxidized elements, has been found to contain perchlorates– an ammonium-based substance toxic to most lifeforms, including humans. Astronauts living on Mars would be constantly working to mitigate the exposure to these chemicals. Disregarding this, the premise of growing crops to supplement future Martian explorer’s diets is a well established concept. Even today, research into growing foodstuffs on Mars is a full-time occupation for some scientists.

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I want to point out I’m not a scientist- I cannot vouch for the veracity of every aspect of the film’s scientific accuracy. (Although I have taken part in a long-duration Mars Mission Simulation)  There are some elements in the film which will likely leave some more literal viewers aghast.  I’m not one of those viewers- I can enjoy the film for it’s entertainment value alone.  Instead, space geeks should rejoice that this story remains true to the novel in almost every respect.

Space enthusiasts and aficionados will be excited to see the array of space exploration technology seen in the film. Habitat module? Remarkably similar to proposed NASA configurations. Mars rover? Again- nearly straight from the pages of industry’s designs. Even the spacesuit- which is considerably more form-fitting than contemporary EVA suits being tested BY NASA- has a basis in reality. (The Dava Newman bio-suit) Even as I typed this review, NASA unveiled a design concept for a Mars Ascent Vehicle, or “MAV”, just tlike the one that plays a key role in the plot of The Martian.

It can be said the real star of this film is Mars itself. There have been many depictions of the red planet in movies, some more accurate than others, and some downright laughable.  Perhaps because the surface of Mars is slowly becoming a part of the collective consciousness through the images returned from the rovers now exploring its geology, it takes more than just a red filter and matte frames of Monument Valley to adequately portray the planet in a movie.  The Martian doesn’t falter in this element. Wide alluvial plains, windswept hills, dust devils- even the incomparable Tharsis volcanoes make an appearance in the film.  (Some of the topography brought back memories of flying over the Sahara in Southern Algeria from my time in the service)

Perhaps the major sticking point in the science shown in the movie is very dust storm that strands poor Watney in the first minutes of the motion picture.  Mars does endure massive dust storms that envelope entire hemispheres for months at a time- but with the average density of the atmosphere being close to just 1% of that found on Earth, the devastating chaos featured in The Martian is an exaggeration of tremendous magnitudes. There is an enlightening article featured at Space.com by Elizabeth Howell that investigates this issue in detail- ‘The Martian’ Dust Storm Would Actually Be a Breeze. To read what NASA has to say about the dangers of Martian dust storms, click HERE.

The film is also limited in another dimension that just cannot be experienced in the same fashion as the novel: time.  The tedious efforts to farm, construct makeshift repairs, and simply wait was an aspect of the book that had a discernible impact in literary form. But constrained by the period in which a feature film can run, Watney’s sentence on Mars seems much too quick. The sequence depicting his cross-country road trip to seek out the defunct Pathfinder lander is an example. However, one manner in which the film succeeds in this conundrum is the visual degradation Watney experiences over the course of the story.  When we first see Damon on screen, he is a muscled movie star. By the time his character is preparing for his desperate rescue, he appears, gaunt, malnourished, and broken.  That gradual slide toward doom plays well in the film.

Besides our abandoned hero, The Martian also features a diverse cast of supporting characters that add to the whole of the odyssey.  This is a place where the film succeeds- adding a textured backdrop to Watney’s arc.  Taking place mostly at either the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, these sequences of the film at first seem jarring- almost TOO much contrast from the panorama of Martian topography. But as the audience comes to know the characters, they become more and more essential to the overall story.

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The crew of the Ares spacecraft is led by Commander Lewis, played by a guilt-ridden Jessica Chastain. Her crew is made up of Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan),  and Alex Vogel (Askel Hennie, who seems a ringer for real-life astronaut Luca Parmitano).  In many ways, the Ares crew has even fewer resources available to them to effect Watney’s rescue than he does himself. With just a docking hatch, a spacesuit, and some orbital velocity, they ensure the story happens. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen more character development of the crew- but the film reflects the book in this regard neatly.  But for what the Ares sequences lack in-depth, they make up for in grandeur on the screen. (The interior of the spacecraft seems almost laboratory-clean, at least in comparison to photographs of the interior of the International Space Station)

More impact comes through in the scenes taking place on Earth.  The audience is treated to the politics of mission management at JSC as well as the technical trouble-shooting of the engineers at JPL.  It is through the actions of the mission directors and staff that we see how the world reacts to the discovery that astronaut Watney is alive, and the frustration of being unable to devise a way to reach him as quickly as necessary.

A very serious Jeff Daniels plays “the director of NASA” (the actual title is “Administrator“), shown mostly presenting press conferences and sparring over rescue plans with flight directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetal Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean).  Circling around them is an array of supporting characters whose roles are to enable the solution that help to rescue Watney.  I was pleasantly surprised how well the scenes featuring the Chinese space agency fit into the overall film, considering it essentially introduces a whole new plot arc two-thirds of the way into the story.

It has been pointed out that the scenes depicting events at the Mission Control Center (MCC) and other building at JSC were NOT actually filmed there- no government facilities look that nice!  One can only assume that in future depicted in the film, NASA was appropriated a great deal more funding than it receives currently!

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The Ares’ return to Martian orbit and the “convertible rocket” rescue sequence is simply incredible on a massive movie screen.  The dance of centripetal motion as the ad-hoc rendezvous unfolds is better seen than read- an advantage the movie has over the novel. Desperate Extra-Vehicular Excursions (EVAs) are a staple of contemporary science fiction films, but few have so earnestly walked through the physics necessary like The Martian does.

Perhaps because it contrasts so much with recent space-themed dramas Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian stands apart by retaining a levity between the characters and the story that never allows the audience to feel despair.  Even at its darkest moments, the movie never twists the knife even when it could- (The scene where a catastrophic decompression of Watney’s habitat module comes to mind).  A well executed incorporation of Commander Lewis’ disco music collection plays throughout the movie, conveying in some regards the humanity that might otherwise have been lost by succumbing to an overwrought orchestral score.

There is an important addition the movie that wasn’t in Weir’s novel.  The film’s coda sequence is perhaps one of the more touching portions of the whole story, and a welcome extra.  In talking to others who’ve read the book, many are struck by the abrupt ending.  The director wisely included one more chapter to Watney’s journey for this interpretation of the story. Purists may find fault in this, but I really do think it adds to this interpretation of Weir’s novel.  I won’t spoil it here, however.  You just need to stay in your seat a few moments longer when the credits begin to play.

So, is the film any good? My answer is YES. I’ll even say it’s worth the $12 to see it in 3D or on an IMAX screen, if you have the chance.  It’s not every day we are treated to a quality science fiction film with some real science in it. Treat yourself this week and go see The Martian.

By the way, I hope you enjoy disco music…