The film adaptation of Andy Weir's breakout novel "The Martian" isn't just awesome, it might also be one of the most realistic space exploration movies that's ever graced the silver screen.
Whenever a new science fiction movie comes out, there's often a lot of talk about how "accurate" it is, and this is usually in reference to the science: Can dinosaur DNA really come from a preserved mosquito? Can an asteroid really be deflected with a nuclear bomb? There's even an organization called the Science and Entertainment Exchange in Los Angeles that connects science-fiction writers with real scientists to consult on their work.
But a science-fiction film's "accuracy" or "realism" shouldn't hinge only on the science and technology, but also on the presentation of scientists and their culture. With that in mind, "The Martian" might be the most realistic (but fictional) space movie of all time. Like Andy Weir's book of the same name, the movie captures the culture of science — the way scientists talk, the way they interact, their motivations and their response to extreme failure. And the fact that a lot of them are real smart asses. (The movie may have actually have been too realistic, judging by the number of people who wondered if it was based on a true story.)
(Warning: This article discusses some specific plot points about the movie, but mostly sticks to information that can be gathered from the trailer. There is no reveal about how the story ends.) [Photos from 'The Martian']
Scientists are funny (and not robots)
A scientist — as portrayed in most big-budget movies — usually resembles a robot more than a human. These caricatures of scientists show them as dorky, calculating, anti-social, almost never cool or confident, and rarely funny (and if they are, they usually crack jokes about "Star Wars.")
Mark Watney, the lead character in "The Martian," is an antidote to that tired trope. He's funny, and his humor may be what saves him from losing hope — and his mental stability — when he gets stranded alone on Mars. And Watney isn't alone — many of the scientists and engineers in the movie (and even more of them in the book) match him in wits and humor.
The other scientists and engineers in the movie also run counter to the typical "scientist" stereotype. Commander Lewis, played by Jessica Chastain, is a no-nonsense, Navy-trained geologist leading a human mission to Mars, who also loves disco and TV shows from the 1970s. It'd be tough to break the stereotype of a scientist much more than that. To be fair, the movie does feature one strange, somewhat robotlike scientist, Rich Purnell, but that character feels more real (not just excusable) because he is an exception, not the rule.
Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay for "The Martian," grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico — a town that was literally built around a national science laboratory and is populated "entirely [by] rocket scientists," according to Goddard. At a panel discussion following a screening of the movie in New York, Goddard spoke about how the book captured the reality of the scientific culture that he recognized from his upbringing.
"Andy [Weir] really captured in his book the way scientists sound," Goddard said. "It wasn't just about the technical stuff being right. I don't want to say it's the 'easy part,' but we can look that stuff up. The tricky part is getting the way [scientists] talk, and that is usually what I find that Hollywood films get wrong." [Andy Weir: How To Kill – Or Save – A Martian (Exclusive Interview with the Author ) ]
Compared to scientists depicted in most movies, Goddard says he remembers scientists being "much funnier." He continued by saying, "And there's this collegial atmosphere that happens when smart people are trying to work together. And that's what the book captured and it was important to me to protect that, Goddard said. "To me, it was all about protecting that soul, that soul of scientists working together to solve a problem and not knowing how to solve a problem but trusting their instincts on what to do." [Matt Damon – Making 'The Martian' Was Amazing (Exclusive Interview ) ]
It takes a lot of people to pull off a trip to space
Who knew the construction schedules for space probes could be so fascinating? Of course, it adds quite a bit of drama when those schedules determine whether an astronaut lives or dies, as is the case in "The Martian."
In so much of futuristic science fiction, spaceflight is almost taken for granted: People hop into rockets and start them up with the ease of turning on a car engine. Getting into and out of a spacesuit takes a matter of seconds. In modern-day spaceflight, these things require hours, days, weeks of preparation, no matter how many times they've been done before. And that means there are dozens or hundreds of engineers, project leaders and other staffers who are all essential for getting probes into space — not to mention astronauts.
While Mark Watney is without a doubt the star of the movie, it's impressive how much credit "The Martian" gives to the people who are supporting him. It lays out the struggles of the people trying to build a probe to send food to Watney, and the many, many things that can go wrong during a rocket launch. (Movies like "Apollo 13" are notable because they demonstrate the importance of the people on the ground.)
This also makes for a delightful couple of Easter eggs for fans of real-world spaceflight and space-related science. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is practically a character all on its own (even though the lab shown in the movie is not actually the JPL campus).
Space is dangerous, even without a freak accident
There are many, many, many movie plots that revolve around something terrible happening in space. An asteroid is headed toward Earth, the core of the Earth stops spinning, the sun starts radiating too many particles, there's another asteroid behind the first one, there's deadly space debris, there's a monster that lives on the moon, there's a monster that lives on Mars, there's a monster that lives on an old spaceship, people live in space too long and they turn into monsters, oh, and there's another asteroid.
"The Martian" begins with an extraordinary circumstance: An astronaut is mistaken for dead, and is left behind on Mars. But beyond that, the only obstacles that Watney faces are the normal, ever-present challenges of living on the Red Planet — things like maintaining a habitat when the surface has almost no atmosphere, or growing plants where there is no water, no soil microbes and extreme temperature fluctuations. In other words, it's a survival story in space that doesn't need asteroids or monsters or any of that stuff, because space is a hard enough place in which to survive as it is. [How Director Ridley Scott Made 'The Martian' (Exclusive Interview ) ]
Many filmmakers would probably worry that a story without the crazy disasters (just the "normal" stuff) would be boring for an audience. Huge applause should go to the creators of "The Martian" for recognizing just how untrue that is. The story is well-told, the audience cares about Watney and watching someone try to live on Mars is freaking awesome. (Leroy Chiao, he AstroCritic,, weighed in on what else the movie got right about astronauts.)
By using real obstacles as Watney's enemy, the movie is also able to not only stick to real science, but also to make it extremely fascinating (once again, boring science problems become interesting when they are part of a great story). Major struggles arise because of how cold Mars is, and because it has a different atmospheric pressure than Earth (and Watney's artificial habitat). NASA struggles to communicate with Watney and send him supplies because Earth and Mars are really, really, really far away from each other. Overcoming these types of problems are what Weir says got him started writing the book, and the movie maintains the science extremely well. ['The Martian' Shows 9 Ways NASA Tech Is Headed to Mars]
Space is not the enemy
With so many space movies centered on a terrible catastrophe, it's no wonder that most movie astronauts often end up seriously regretting ever leaving Earth. These films also leave audiences with the feeling that space itself is a kind of monster that should inspire nothing but fear. (The 2013 movie "Gravity" literally used a disaster in space as a metaphor for a dead child, and the struggle to get back to Earth as the emotional recovery from that trauma.)
This fear, or even hatred, of space might be the single biggest inaccuracy in most space-related movies.
The history of spaceflight contains fatalities, some of which arose out of horrible, preventable circumstances. While these events initiate action, reflection and mourning, they have never made people stop wanting to explore space.
"The Martian" captures this extremely well. Even when NASA thinks Watney is dead, it continues to push into the unknown. People keep thinking about the next human trip to Mars. There is an acknowledgement that despite every effort to keep astronauts alive, spaceflight and space exploration carry with them the risk of death, and astronauts willingly accept that.
Even when Watney finds himself at one of his lowest points, when he's drafting a letter to his parents knowing that they may very well outlive him, he tells them, "I love what I do."
It's fantastic to see a movie finally capture that attitude. That passion is hardwired into enough people that humanity is now making serious plans to land people on another planet. Nature will trip up those hard and again, but that's an expected part of the journey