Science and great character makes The Martian glow

Matt Damon is a lucky actor.  He’s been rescued more than once in film, but The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, incorporates more science than usual in a Hollywood SF film. We expect great things of Ridley Scott, of course.  His credits are a litany of great SF films:  Alien, and Blade Runner to start.  (Prometheus is a Scott-directed prequel to Alien.)  Andy Weir, first-time novelist, crafts a great, admirable character for Damon to portray.  We cheer for him without question.  I felt a glow in my heart as I left the theater.

Weir’s reality-oriented, plucky character stranded on Mars a scant fifteen years from now is a refreshing change from broody, Byronic anti-heroes that so many movies offer, especially when destined for a slot on the “Oscar nominees” list.  Astronaut Mark Watney keeps his focus on the now, demonstrates a ferocious work ethic, only a few times thinking about his impending death to express concern about how his family will feel.  Moreover, he’s a scientist, whose knowledge of the scientific method and its implications preclude emotional drama.  “Mars will fear my botany powers!” and “I’m going to have to science the s___ out of this!” are  comic lines, but they prove Watney’s confidence in science, his love of it, and reassures us that science will get him through the days to come.  His level head and humor are truly heroic.  In the end, the world comes together to rescue Watney.

There are science quibbles, of course.  Can you really seal a fractured face-plate with duct tape?  Would Mars’ thin atmosphere support the fierce storms that rage over its surface to threaten Watney’s life twice?  (Being on Mars is no different from being in space as far as atmosphere is concerned.)  Can you really grow potatoes on Mars?  (They are growing lettuce on the International Space Station, it turns out.)  Reading Weir’s book, where Watney explains in greater detail his methods, makes it all the more credible.  I make it a rule to read a book before I see the film version, and am glad I did so here.  NASA is actually developing much of the technology that astronauts will use once they travel to Mars though the real space suits don’t look as cool. Weir doesn’t think we’ll get there until 2050, according to a Daily Mail article, but NASA hopes for an earlier voyage.

“The movie portrays the operational side of things pretty well.” says astro-critic Leroy Chiao, a former commander of the International Space Station.  (He’s done six space-walks, flew for NASA for 15 years, and spent 230 days in space.) “Astronauts and NASA think through every scenario as thoroughly as possible, and plan for every reasonable contingency. Still, we sometimes get surprised. In those cases, it is up to individual and collective creativity to solve the problem and try for a good outcome. The movie holds up on this account.”   Commander Chiao stressed that “during survival training, new astronaut candidates are drilled in never giving up. A big part of ISS training involves drills in isolating leaks and toxic-chemical release, as well as fighting and retreating from fire. You have to believe that you are going to survive, and practice how you are going to do it.”  Chiao takes the two rescue attempts to task, but does not go into detail since the article I quote from was released before the film opened.  (Read more on Space.com.)

Mars really does have big dust storms.  Some, which occur about every five Earth years, can encircle the planet, according to  Michael Smith, planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  But Mars’ atmosphere is only one per cent of Earth’s.  Equipment would not fly off as the film shows, because even the strongest storms on Mars would not exceed 60 mph, less than half the speed of hurricane-force earth winds.  Likely, an astronaut would not get stranded on Mars, either.  But dust is a problem:  in Weir’s book, Watney’s carefully stacked solar cells can’t get power because storm dust blocks sunlight, which means he doesn’t have enough power to keep his water-reclamation and energy running.  Dust gets into everything, says Smith.  It interferes with machine parts, causing friction and also carries an electrostatic charge, so particles cling, like Styrofoam peanuts.  Scientists have tracked Martian dust storms for more than a century. Smith says we’re overdue for a big one. (http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/space-exploration/mars-mission/fact-and-fiction-of-martian-dust-storms/)

The duct tape?  That’s still a mystery, but there’s no mystery about The Martian.  It’s a terrific film, a cut above most SF offerings on screen.  See it twice.  I certainly plan to get the DVD when it comes out.  I’m sure I won’t be alone.

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