Posted by: bkivey | 20 January 2016

Turn the Ship Around

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

Mark Watney

The Martian

I saw another recent sci-fi movie this week, this time on DVD. The film was The Martian, and it’s what you get when Apollo 13 meets Castaway, but with Matt Damon instead of Tom Hanks. The result is a superior movie. Even though people who haven’t seem the movie know generally  what it’s about, the story is told in such a compelling way that the film is worth seeing.

There’s a lot to like about this film:

  • Matt Damon inhabits the character of Mark Watney, projecting the kind of good-natured competence we’d like to think we’d have in a dire situation. After he deals with the immediate situation, he figures out what he has to do. He doesn’t (on screen, at least) whinge and moan about how unfair life is. He solves problems. He gets shit done. He also puts up with a steady diet of disco, which is no mean feat.
  • The rest of the cast ranges from good to excellent. Everyone commits to their roles. No one is miscast, and even a bit player like the mission controller whose sole job appears to be monitoring Watney brings nuance to the role. A superior ensemble effort.
  • The screenplay is very good. People act like people rather than characters. The dialogue rings true: people don’t go around cracking wise and getting off one-liners. Matt Damon’s first word after he deals with the initial disaster is what 95% of people would say. There are differences of opinion, but folks act like the professionals they’re portraying. And for a movie about a man making stark choices just to stay alive, there’s a fair amount of humor.
  • The cinematography is well done, capturing the vistas of an uninhabited planet. We know a lot about what Mars looks like: the header on the blog this month is an image of a Martian sunset, so movies should get that part right.
  • There’s a J.R.R. Tolkien reference.
  • The pacing is very good. The movie starts with a disaster and doesn’t let up. I haven’t seen a movie with this level of kinetic pacing since Runaway Train. Every scene and every line move the story along. It’s about the shortest 140 minute movie I’ve seen. In fact, there are places where the movie could reasonably slow down to give the viewer a moment to breathe. Exposition is minimized nearly to the point of making some parts of the movie obtuse. Aaron Sorkin this ain’t. When the ship’s crew is informed that they won’t be returning to Earth after nearly two years away, it wouldn’t have hurt to spend a bit of time showing their reaction. But this movie is about one thing: getting a guy off Mars in the shortest time possible, and the film does a good job conveying that sense of urgency.
  • Directing is very good, but it’s Ridley Scott. He gets nice performances out the actors, and they interact with each other in believable ways.
  • A running joke is that the only music Watney has available is 70’s disco, which he detests, and that conceit nicely offsets the very harsh realities he’s facing. He appears to be a bit of a Happy Days fan, as there’s a scene where the TV show is playing, and in his first image back to Earth he strikes a Fonzie pose. It occurred to me that as the first soft landing of a US Mars probe happened in 1976, the entertainment choices might be an homage to that event.
  • We see once again that duct tape can fix anything. We already know this to be true, so another point for the film.
  • This is a Science fiction story, as opposed to Star Wars’ science Fiction. STEM is front and center, and the movie does an excellent job of portraying what interplanetary travel will likely look like. There is no magic here. It’s human beings living and working in a completely inhospitable environment, and dealing with situations within the unyielding framework of real physics. Choices have to be made, and corners are cut, sometimes with unhappy results. The story by itself is a good one, but the fact that people face real limitations elevates the film and greatly adds to its veracity.

Every movie is a compromise, and even a work that tries to hew closely to reality has to make some stylistic choices. None of the choices made in this film take the viewer out of the movie, but there is one big thing and few minor ones:

  • The One Big Impossible Thing in The Martian is the complete ignorance of radiation in open space. Not that the production crew was ignorant of it, but that they consciously chose to ignore it. A movie where Matt Damon dies of radiation poisoning in a few months isn’t going to do great box office. When NASA executives discuss the viability of the rescue plan, their only concern is if the ship will remain viable for the extended mission; there’s no discussion of the effect 900 days in space will have on the crew. The current record for continuous time in space by a human is 437 days, while most proposed crewed Mars mission profiles are for around 600 days, and there’s real concern whether people can survive the radiation exposure.
  • I had to wonder why a botanist would be sent to a lifeless planet. As this is the third manned mission, maybe something was discovered on the previous two. This is another place the movie might have taken a moment with a few lines of dialogue.
  • The windstorm that sets the story in motion is massively, uh, overblown. The atmospheric pressure on Mars is so low that even a wind of hundreds of kilometers an hour is going to feel like a breeze. Director Scott knows this, but a crew isn’t going to abandon a mission for a mere zephyr. The movie references the thinness of the Martian atmosphere later in the film, so there’s a bit of contradiction there.
  • As would be expected, the metric system is used throughout the film, with one notable exception. Scenes shot in the Martian habitat and ship show monitors with readouts on atmospheric conditions. The air pressure is the only reading in English units (psi). I’d have thought they’d show pressure in kPa or at least millibars. I figured this was a stylistic choice to make the movie more accessible. Even folks who grew up on metric may not know the units for pressure.
  • Hollywood has a tendency to make spaceships too large. I’ve seen an Apollo Command Module (Apollo 10), and a mockup of the Shuttle crew compartment at Johnson Space Center, and the thing you notice is how small they are. The ship in The Martian looks to be at least as large as the International Space Station, a structure that took years and billions of dollars to build. I expect that if you’re planning on going to Mars more than once, it would make sense to build a large, robust ship, and re-crew and resupply it at the end of each mission. And if six people are going to spend a couple of years on board, you’d want some elbow room, but every gram of that ship has to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well.

Except for the radiation thing, these are minor quibbles that in no way detract from the movie, and this film is good enough to get away with ignoring radiation. This is a well-made, well-acted, entertaining and riveting movie that puts the science in science fiction. It’s been nominated for Best Picture, and it’s only real competition is The Revenant, which will probably win. I was surprised to find that the movie is still playing locally, and it’s a film that rewards a big screen. I expect I’ll go see it in the theater, because if I don’t, I’ll regret it.

EDIT: 28 January 2016: I watched the official trailer for the movie, and it’s like watching a different movie. The trailer seems to be made of outtakes, or more precisely, the director/producers had a different vision for the movie than what ended up in theaters. This is the rare case where the actual movie is better than the trailer. Much better,



  1. This sounds like a movie that lives up to the book; although as of yet I’ve not seen the movie nor read the book! But it is on my list…

  2. Go see the movie if it’s still in theaters. It’s well worth the money.

  3. Blair– enjoyed the review. Saw the movie 1st, then saw the author on a Google-Talks video, then saw him give a talk to the JPL people (if I recall correctly.) My quibble would be the Hardware he has to work with–it takes an endless beating but always remains working & dust-free. The “wind-storm” is over the top, as well– as you noted.
    –Did you do a review of “Interstellar?” (direct me to your post if so) Had free HBO on DISH for 2 weeks & watched it 1/2 a dozen times– enjoyed the actual Space scenes but the first 40 minutes could safely be cut out & some of the plot-devices are sorta “crazy.” I’m thinking “McGuffin,” if I’m using that correctly.(?) The whole “we messed up the Earth” lecturing is a bit too much for me as well. Love my S-F….dislike Lefty messaging.
    –Dr. Roger Penrose made some comments about how they “didn’t get the visual-distortion of the Black Hole correct.” but Hollywood never does this stuff “correctly,” although I realize they were perhaps better than most & spread some of their cash to actual Physicists.

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