‘The Martian’ isn’t for everyone, but it’s really good if you love science



It’s no fun being an illegal alien.  On Mars.

A few months ago my teenage nephew suggested I read Andy Weir’s book “The Martian.”  The book draws you in from the first line: “I’m pretty much f—-d.”  That’s an apt description of being stuck on Mars alone.  I devoured the whole 368 pages in about 2 days (of course I was on vacation at the beach so I had plenty of time to read).

The book was fantastic, and when I read it, I had no idea the movie was even coming out.  When I saw it opened October 1, I had to be there, so my father-in-law and I went to the IMAX 3D showing.  My greatest hope was that the movie would live up to the book.

It did.

The book isn’t for everyone.  It’s written by a science geek for science geeks.  In fact, it was published on Weir’s blog serially, with lots of opportunity for other science geeks to pick it apart.  That only made it more accurate.  For a Ridley Scott movie, this is about the most non-fictional fiction you can get.

There are two main points here:  First, “science” can solve lots of problems—knowing your assets, liabilities and your odds (Mars only gets to kill you once, but you have to live every time it tries) goes a long way.

Second, human nature is powerful, and people weren’t meant to live alone by themselves on a lifeless planet.  The movie portrayed the “science” part very well, but was somewhat weak on conveying the second point.

It’s possible that the book, having pages and pages of luxuriant prose to convey the sense of absolute aloneness to the reader, had an advantage over the movie, which really had to keep the plot moving (and at times it did drag—even with the help of several 70’s music montages to move things along).

Without offering too much of a spoiler, I’ll present a few facts:  it takes a really, REALLY long time to get to Mars.  Like months.  This isn’t Star Trek with a warp drive and boom, you’re there with cab fare left over.  It’s science.  Mars is freaking ridiculously far away, and depending on how its orbit aligns with Earth’s, it can be relatively close-freaking-far, or forget-about-it-freaking far.

Either way, even with the scientifically possible ion engines used by the trans-Mars ship Hermes, it takes months and months to get between Mars and Earth.  And once Hermes was gone with the rest of the crew (who thought astronaut Mark Watney—played by a newly buff Matt Damon—was killed during an emergency mission abort), it wasn’t coming back easily.

So the movie covers a long timeline.  As in years.

It’s kind of like Castaway without Wilson, but adding in NASA having plenty of “oh s–t” moments.  Half the story is Watney on Mars.  The other half is NASA chasing its own tail trying to get him home.

First, Watney’s dead.  NASA press conference.  Bad news.  Jeff Daniels did an admirable job portraying NASA administrator Teddy Sanders.  “Will you resign?” the press asked.  “No.”  Good answer.

Next, Watney’s alive.  Oops.  Our bad.

Then, Watney will probably starve to death before we can get him.  Except Watney’s a botanist.  And he’s pretty good at being able to “science the s–t” out of a problem.  That’s another theme of the movie.  Lots and lots of excrement.  Because Martian soil is sterile, dead.  And crops need fertilizer.  Well, you get it.

Then there’s a whole conflict over how to save Watney, which is pretty true to the book.  Government employees and bureaucrats being what they are, my guess is a lot of GS-level people contributed to the book when it was originally blogged, because having worked at Robins AFB for 4 years, I can tell you the attitudes are fairly accurate.

NASA gets an “A” for effort, but a “W” for typical government waffling.  The Chinese even get involved.  In fact, the whole world is watching to see if Watney can be saved. (Although CNN seems to be the only network in the world in this movie.)

As I said, the book does a much better job conveying the sense of loneliness and depression Watney feels being stranded on Mars.  When he finally leaves, he has a few choice words of graffiti for the planet that tried to kill him, over and over again.  At least in the book.  In the movie, he pens a more banal “for the person who finds this” letter.

Ridley just couldn’t stop himself from highlighting and gawking at the sheer grandness and wonder of being on another planet—Watney spends far too much time enjoying the vistas and sunsets.  Sorry Ridley, the book had it right:  he just wanted off the rock and did what he had to do.

Two things I liked:

First, the book wasn’t political—no message about global warming, or industrialization, or war, or Republicans, or religion (well a few asides about God but who wouldn’t pray if they were in Watney’s situation?).  The movie shared the same apolitical view.  There was no villain twirling a mustache or interlocking fingers trying to squeeze a few votes out.  If anything, both the book and the movie completely avoided what in real life would have been a political fiasco filled with accusations and recriminations and crass manipulation.

“The Martian” is not cynical, but you can watch it cynically and draw your own conclusions.  For that, I’m grateful.  I prefer my own cynicism to being force-fed.

Second, the science is real.  The book went into far more detail about things like water consumption and how the advanced space suits worked, but the movie didn’t stray from actual, real science.  In fact, my father-in-law remarked that the scene where Watney almost blows himself up trying to distill hydrazine into hydrogen and ammonia to synthesize water is chemically accurate.  Hydrazine is nasty stuff.

This movie isn’t for everyone.  It’s not “Alien” or “Prometheus” for those looking for science fiction.  Mark Watney is no hero like Russell Crowe’s Maximus in “Gladiator.”  And it’s not a “science vs. religion” movie like “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”  (All directed by Ridley Scott.)

But if you want to see what a few trillion dollars of really good engineering can build, and how the determination and pure brainpower of one man can keep himself alive in the most hostile place imaginable, against all odds and meddling bureaucrats, you’ll like “The Martian.”

It doesn’t disappoint.

(crossposted from sgberman.com)