In 2011, American sci-fi giant Neal Stephenson bewailed the pessimism prevalent in the genre and called for writers to start thinking more positively about the possibilities of technology in order to inspire new generations to “get big stuff done.”
Of course, he himself hardly set a great example in the next four years with his latest tome.
But the Martian most definitely did. In this hard sci-fi scenario, an astronaut stranded on Mars has to figure out how to survive until a rescue mission could be organized. To do this, he has to, in his own words, “science the shit” of the scarce oxygen and food resources at his disposal, while a NASA that is much better funded than in real life has to solve its own set of problems, which at first glance appear intractable.
Making the story of one solitary man’s struggle to survive is not a enviable task, but the creators pull it off with ample wit and verve. The protagonist Mark Watney is constantly cracking Nerd Lite jokes with himself and mission control in his struggle with the remorseless but indifferent main villain, the Red Planet itself.
Scientific and technical problems are explained in a way that is neither patronizing nor unintelligible to the average viewer. These problems, though varied, all tend to be in the general spirit of the classic “Survival on the Moon” exercise compiled by NASA, in which different options have to be weighed against each other in a way that in a way that could tip the otherwise dismal odds of survival in your favor.
There are frequent references and homages to NASA themes. The “Rich Purnell manoeuvre” that ultimately enabled Watney’s survival is a direct nod to NASA mathematician Michael Minovitch’s idea of a gravity assist to propel Voyager past all four of the gas giants and into deep space (though the theoretical basis for it had been as early as the 1930s in the Soviet Union).
The film appears to be faithful to NASA culture, down to the contrast between the formal and besuited setting of NASA HQ and the more casual setting of its Jet Propulsion Laboratories. As in real world space exploration, duct tape is the solution to a lot of problems. The “no duct tape on Mars” trope is most decidedly averted.
Most of the challenges faced appear to be technically accurate. This is not surprising, since the book by Andy Weir that the film is based on was rigorously researched and initially published chapter by chapter on his website, where space nerds with encyclopedic knowledge on everything space related continuously corrected him.
There are certainly errors now and then. (I have not read the book and probably will not anytime soon, so these apply exclusively to the film). Gravity on Mars appears a bit too Earth like, with astronauts having to really physically apply themselves to scramble up ladders. Although Mars has the occasional storm, the much thinner atmosphere means that even the most furious tempests will be perceived as a light breeze; certainly nowhere near strong enough to uproot a pole and spear it into Watney. For a novel ostensibly set in 2035, comms systems act as if they are half a century out of date, just to serve a couple of plot points (if otherwise very elegant and clever ones). An astronaut propels himself around the outside of a spacecraft without a tether, while making an appearance in the one case in which a teether would have actually been redundant.
Another criticism of the film is that the astronauts should be all dying of cancer by the end of the film because of all the cosmic radiation (there are no obvious attempts to shield them from it). I am rather skeptical of this. The radiation dose Mars explorers receive will only be 3x as great as that received by astronauts who spend half a year on the International Space Station. But those guys aren’t keeling over dead. Theoretical research shows that the lifetime risk of cancer will only increase by three percentage points over baseline for astronauts who go to Mars, and in real life perhaps outcomes will if anything be even less dire because of the hormetic effects of radiation exposure.
But all these are ultimately minor triffles. At its root, it is a highly optimistic, positive, and inspirational story about the victory of technology and human ingenuity over the challenges posed by the last frontier. There should be more of these kinds of cultural products for civilization to continue to flourish.
The Martian is an excellent film, by far the best sci-fi flick this year along with Ex Machina, and incomparably better than the banal Hollywood fare that was Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and by all indications, the final Hunger Games movie.