Hubble's Universe Unfiltered

  • October 3, 2015

    My Favorite Martian (Movie)

    by Frank Summers

    In 1982, I went to see the film "Blade Runner" without many expectations. It was just a sci-fi movie starring Harrison Ford, who, at the time, was known only for his role in "Star Wars." I came away enthralled with the depth of both the thought-provoking story and the detailed artistic vision. After recognizing that the director, Ridley Scott, had also done the 1979 film "Alien," he immediately rose to being a favorite. In subsequent years, the words "directed by Ridley Scott" were reason enough to go see a film.

    However, as an astronomer, I approached his new film "The Martian" with a bit of trepidation. While still in the category of science fiction, the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars is ripe for massive clashes against science fact. Previous astronauts on Mars stories have not thrilled me. Such movies generally pay homage to the scientific aspects by providing various reasonable justifications and using lots of jargon to make things sound technical and complicated. Then, in typical Holywood fashion, the movie veers off into something jarringly non-scientific to advance a storyline or provide a twist.  

    I am certainly not the type who tries to hold a work of fiction to the standards of reality. I truly bellieve in the audience's "willing suspension of disbelief" that is vital to capturing someone into a good yarn. I can suppress my analytic brain and forgive lots of small points that advance the narrative but really don't make sense. Even unexplained phenomena, used judiciously, can be quite enjoyable. However, as in the "Harry Potter" world, there are some unforgivable curses where basic facts, forces, or fallacies are ignored. These points can jolt my intellect and pull me straight out of the story.

    With that preface, let me say that "The Martian" did not disappoint. I watched the entire film staying inside the bubble of the narrative. The plot, characters, visuals, and direction kept me focused and empathetic, without startling my astronomical subconscious. That may not sound like high praise, but it is a rare experience for me on a film of this nature.

    Are there mistakes in the movie? Of course. Do they matter? Not much. I can discuss those points in another post (with proper spolier alerts). In this post, let me focus on the good stuff. Without giving away anything not already in the advertisements, here are three aspects I particularly liked.

    First, the computer graphics of Mars are wonderful. The views of what is really a rather bland and desolate planet are filled with warmth and majestic vistas. The mostly rock and dirt landscape of Mars was showcased in a wide variety of formations that gave it considerable grandeur. The scenes harken back to Scott's Monument Valley shots in "Thelma and Louise."

    Second, the fictional astronauts behave like real astronauts. I have interacted with a dozen or so astronauts, and observed some of them for long hours during the Hubble servicing missions. These people are part of our best and brightest. They are cool-under-pressure problem solvers who can attempt and accomplish audacious goals. Astronauts do have emotions and a sense of humor, and that is also captured in the film. But, overall, the characters exude proper competence, skill, and acumen, without soap-opera histrionics.

    Finally, the movie is a really good story, and is really well told. This tale has out-of-this-world dilemmas, strong and sympathetic characters, and action that is emotionally, intellectually, and visually engaging. Even before its release, I heard jokes comparing this movie to "Apollo 13." Now that I've seen it, I'd say the comparison is apt on many levels, and this film should garner similar acclaim and awards.

    Back in the year 2000, Neil Tyson and I started chatting about Ridley Scott's film "Gladiator." I gave that film perhaps the highest accolade by telling him nothing about it. I said something like "Don't read anything, just go see it with no expectations." I'm not sure I would go that far with "The Martian," but if the advertisements pique your interest, the film delivers on multiple fronts. I can heartily reccommend that folks see this picture, both as an astrophysicist and as a film enthusiast.