Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. “The Martian” Is Thrilling, Surprisingly Funny, and Scientifically Accurate

 

The_Martian_film_posterThe Martian features Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who with a six-member crew including commanding officer Jessica Chastain, is on a month-long science mission on the beautifully desolate surface of Mars. Of course, one month is only the planned duration of their stay on the surface; the deep space transit to and from Mars takes several hundred days each way, which becomes important later in the film.

We enter the story partway into the surface mission. The crew is collecting Martian soil samples when NASA sends them an urgent message about an impending storm. The storm is apparently so severe that the rocket which is supposed to lift the crew back into space at the end of their mission won’t survive the harsh winds on the ground. So the crew is forced to abort their surface mission and perform a hasty emergency launch. In the rush and confusion, Watney is left behind, presumed dead. All of this introductory material is completed in a very breezy few minutes, plunging us right into the survival story.

Damon is charming, self-deprecating, full of creativity, and despite the all the rational reasons to believe himself doomed, he remains confident in his training and problem-solving abilities. He shows well-earned pride of accomplishment and just the kind of cockiness you’d expect from a flyboy as he conquers the litany of challenges thrown at him by the deserted red planet, including lack of breathing air, food shortages, transportation, weather, and communication. However, the film seems to gloss over his coming-to-grips with his extremely perilous situation. Instead, it jumps ahead several weeks, thereby depriving us of the opportunity to watch Damon experience the full range of emotions you’d expect from a marooned spaceman, including grief, denial, anger, resentment, loneliness, despair, and hopelessness — especially in light of the events that stranded him there. We see a lot of footage of Damon entertaining himself by making smart remarks into a camera, and he is often hilarious. But there is little sense that he feels alone or lonely at all (in contrast with, say, Sam Rockwell’s performance in Moon), which reduces the euphoria we should feel when he finally re-establishes communication with NASA. Perhaps it is this unworldly optimism that helped keep him alive.

The Martian has a lot in common with Apollo 13, the film that set the standard in the genre. The story alternates between scenes of the stranded Damon, the rest of his crew in long transit back to Earth, the NASA leadership (featuring a strong tension between the political appointee Jeff Daniels and the canny flight director Sean Bean, with some comic relief from PR head Kristen Wiig), and the crack teams of mostly faceless Jet Propulsion Lab engineers on the ground, pulling out all the stops to keep their man alive and put together a rescue plan, while sending up improvised plans and instructions to Watney so he can stretch his equipment far beyond its design limits.

I wish we could see more of Bean with his more sentimental approach to the problem, and his personal concern for the crew’s autonomy and right to be informed. After a while, Daniels’ executive style of snap decision-making seems just a way to move the plot forward.

Benedict Wong plays the JPL lead engineer, quite effectively portraying the burden every leader feels as he commits his team to meet the unrealistically short production schedule without compromising technical performance of a resupply craft — this time with an elevated purpose, because Watney’s life is on the line. He gives the sense that he is honored to accept the challenge before him, making him one of my favorite characters.

In contrast with Apollo 13, the focus is almost exclusively on the aforementioned people who are working the problem, and we see only a few short glimpses of anyone’s families. This doesn’t detract from the character development or the audience’s attachment to them, though, because there are several endearing scenes portraying the crew-as-family. Michael Peña in particular has a youthful optimism that somehow induces you to cheer for him as an underdog despite his being an extremely skilled astronaut and spacecraft pilot. And in fact, the “family of the crew” is used as part of a very satisfying plot twist.

There are two particularly relatable and inspiring characters. Mackenzie Davis portrays Mindy Park, a young female engineer whose job is to analyze Martian surface imagery for the planning of future missions. After making a discovery that confounds her superiors, she doesn’t let their alpha-male personalities steamroll her. She overcomes their skepticism by walking them through her data, after which she earns their respect and becomes an important member of the recovery team.

The second is the scatterbrained young aerospace engineer Rich Purnell, played by Donald Glover. True to the stereotype, he has below-average communication skills and easily gets lost in his work. He has a bolt of inspiration and works out, all on his own, an unorthodox plan to execute a rescue mission that just might fit within their ever-shrinking window of opportunity. Oblivious to protocol or rank, he barges into the office of a higher-up whom he’s never met, demands that he hang up the phone, and explains his plan. Then he stages a goofy and highly entertaining demonstration in a conference room, using Daniels and Wiig as human props to illustrate his proposed orbital maneuvers with a flying stapler. Purnell later receives a high compliment that will put a smile on the face of anyone familiar with the (link contains minor spoiler) hotshot jargon of the Apollo era.

From start to finish, the science and engineering of the movie is of a very high quality. It has just the right balance of technical jargon and explanatory dialogue, so it’s neither inaccessible nor tedious. The crew convincingly discusses astronautical concepts like orbital rendezvous, gravity assist, and delta-V, while Damon demonstrates some impressive agronomy, inorganic chemistry, and electro-mechanical know-how down on the surface. There were a few times when my engineer’s ears perked up upon hearing a quantity expressed in the wrong units, for example, but it wasn’t enough to ruin my typically fragile suspension of disbelief.

In terms of the plot, it’s a straightforward survival-and-rescue movie, although heavy on engineering rather than backwoods techniques, with only a few unexpected twists and turns. The launch sequences and space rendezvous scenes are gripping and sometimes breathtaking. One of the twists, in my opinion, is poorly executed because it’s too telegraphed, but you can be the judge.

The space scenes seem to have used true zero-gravity filming techniques such as the Vomit Comet, with nifty transitions to 1-g as the astronauts “descend” the ladders out to the rim of the spinning section of their interplanetary craft. At the very beginning of the movie there seems to have been an effort to portray the lower Martian gravity (1/3 of Earth’s) in the way Damon walks in his spacesuit, but after a while you stop noticing, or they stopped trying to portray it. Either way it’s just a nit.

The Martian runs a fast 141 minutes, with no lulls or slow sequences that I can remember. It’s a fantastic aerospace showcase that couldn’t have had better timing with its release to theaters, given real-world events.

Update: See also John Walker’s review of the original book from last year.

There are 46 comments.

  1. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member

    Thanks so much!

    • #1
    • October 3, 2015, at 2:00 AM PST
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  2. Chris Member

    Just listened to “The Federalist Radio Hour” podcast which had an entire episode devoted to the book and movie. Seems to be a story with reading and a film worth seeing – thanks for your two cents.

    • #2
    • October 3, 2015, at 2:04 AM PST
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  3. Dan Hanson Thatcher

    Great review! I just saw it tonight, and it was fantastic. Matt Damon was great as Watney.

    The only thing I might take exception with in your review is this:

    However, the film seems to gloss over his coming-to-grips with his extremely perilous situation. Instead, it jumps ahead several weeks, thereby depriving us of the opportunity to watch Damon experience the emotions you’d expect from a marooned spaceman, including grief, denial, anger, resentment, loneliness, despair, and hopelessness — especially in light of the events that stranded him there. 

    I think that’s a misreading of Watney’s character – and those of the mission in general. They were selected to be exactly the kind of people who don’t do those things – they just work the problem. Watney copes with the emotional aspect of it all by masking it in humor. Only once in a while does he let himself show negative emotions. I thought the few hours where he sat and moped were just about right.

    • #3
    • October 3, 2015, at 3:10 AM PST
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  4. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson Post author

    Thanks Dan, that means a lot coming from you.

    MINOR SPOILER

    Here are my thoughts on the section you quoted. I agree the crew selection process would screen for people who are very resilient as portrayed in the movie. And ideally he would react exactly as he did, which maximized his chances for survival.

    STILL SPOILER

    However, no matter how smart the psychologists are, they can never know how a person will react to certain doom until he is actually subjected to it. I think it would have been perfectly plausible for him to have a stronger than expected emotional reaction to his situation. Specifically the writers could have exploited the fact of some kind of miscommunication about the decision to launch as an aggravating circumstance. The emotional journey from resentment to despair to forgiveness to hope could have been a better arc for his character and possibly more enjoyable for the general audience, who is not as likely to get their kicks solely from the engineering.

    STILL SPOILER

    It also would have added more emotional weight to Jessica Chastain’s character, who rather than receiving Watney’s immediate forgiveness, struggles more with her decision before finally redeeming it.

    END SPOILER

    • #4
    • October 3, 2015, at 3:35 AM PST
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  5. Larry3435 Member

    The same movie, but with Sandra Bullock in her underwear, is more to my taste; but hey, that’s just me. I’m sure there are differently-gendered viewers who watch Matt Damon with the same interest. Also, I don’t care how many google posts say that Bullock should have been wearing nappies. Sometimes authenticity should give way to dramatic license. Nappies my foot.

    • #5
    • October 3, 2015, at 3:57 AM PST
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  6. Seawriter Member

    My oldest son got me the book for my birthday. Books are a dangerous present to buy me, because my tastes are eclectic, and I get a lot of them myself. (Nothing worse than buying a book for someone when they already have the book, right?)

    He hit it out of the park (which is what happens with dangerous gifts – when they work, they work).

    It was one of the best SF novels I have read all year, and maybe the best one of the decade. I am afraid to see the movie, because I do not see how they match, much less top, the book.

    My recommendation: see the movie, then read the book. But read the book.

    Seawriter

    • #6
    • October 3, 2015, at 4:21 AM PST
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  7. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    As some on the interwebs have already noted, between “Saving Private Ryan”, “Interstellar” and now this, hasn’t enough been spent in lives and treasure to save Matt Damon’s hinnie?

    (I did love the book and looking forward to seeing the movie.)

    • #7
    • October 3, 2015, at 4:28 AM PST
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  8. Pony Convertible Member

    A coworker who read the book said he was really disappointed. Major pieces of the story left out. Based on his review and Matt Damon’s political lobbying, I will pass on the movie.
    Read the book. It’s good.

    • #8
    • October 3, 2015, at 4:46 AM PST
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  9. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    damon

    • #9
    • October 3, 2015, at 5:04 AM PST
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  10. Shelley Nolan Inactive

    If you get a chance watch author Andy Weir at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory explain the evolution of the book. Very funny.

    • #10
    • October 3, 2015, at 5:29 AM PST
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  11. Tommy De Seno Contributor

    Thanks for this. Gravity required so much suspension of reality and science it may have well been a superhero movie.

    • #11
    • October 3, 2015, at 5:31 AM PST
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  12. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    It’s Matt Damon.

    LEAVE HIM THERE.

    • #12
    • October 3, 2015, at 5:58 AM PST
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  13. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    Tommy De Seno:Thanks for this. Gravity required so much suspension of reality and science it may have well been a superhero movie.

    I like how the “every 90 minutes” thing happened because magically apparently they stopped orbiting.

    • #13
    • October 3, 2015, at 6:00 AM PST
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  14. Frank Monaldo Member

    Mark – Thank you for the review. I am about to see the movie in a couple of hours. I listened to interview of Andy Weir, the author of the book on which the movie is based. The only stretch he apologized for was that the atmosphere is so thin on Mars that a storm would not have as much an effect as displayed in the movie.

    Pony – I read the book but do not remember anything political that Damon would have objected to. Did I miss something?

    • #14
    • October 3, 2015, at 6:12 AM PST
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  15. ctlaw Coolidge

    Mark Wilson: Scientifically Accurate

    Huh? Let’s start with atmospheric pressure.

    The atmospheric pressure on Mars is 1% of Earth’s. Virtually no scene on the planet where oxygen was mentioned was possible. The suit punctures and helmet cracks would have been instantly fatal. He put a poly tarp across a 6 foot diameter hole. That’s 3.14*72in*72in = 16k sqin which results in about 240,000 pounds of force if internal pressure is 1 atm. A duct taped poly tarp can’t handle that. THe reason we know the internal pressure has to be about 1 atm is we see oxygen levels displayed that would require nearly 1 atm.

    The only points where they got pressure right were that the hab. pressure could easily blow off the airlock (yet not blow off the tarp?) and that there would be low aerodynamic pressure exerted on the MAV.

    Next, let’s hit the slingshot.

    Hollywood writers think mentioning slingshots in scifi makes them seem more intelligent than they really are. It’s as cheap as the glasses Rick Perry adopted and only slightly more effective. If the Chinese supply rocket was able to rendezvous with Hermes, it could have independently made it to mars in no more time and likely less.

    • #15
    • October 3, 2015, at 6:28 AM PST
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  16. PHCheese Member

    I think it was John Walker who reviewed the book sometime back. It was a great read. Read it on my kindle for cheap. I’ll wait for it to be on TV to see the movie.

    • #16
    • October 3, 2015, at 8:13 AM PST
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  17. Brandon Phelps Inactive

    ctlaw:

    Mark Wilson: Scientifically Accurate

    Huh? Let’s start with atmospheric pressure.

    The atmospheric pressure on Mars is 1% of Earth’s. Virtually no scene on the planet where oxygen was mentioned was possible. The suit punctures and helmet cracks would have been instantly fatal.

    Not instantly fatal. People have survived catastrophic decompression to a near vacuum, and can live in a vacuum for up to about a minute before irreversible injury occurs.

    • #17
    • October 3, 2015, at 9:43 AM PST
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  18. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson Post author

    ctlaw, please consider labeling your comment with the SPOILER ALERT.

    ctlaw: The suit punctures and helmet cracks would have been instantly fatal. He put a poly tarp across a 6 foot diameter hole. That’s 3.14*72in*72in = 16k sqin which results in about 240,000 pounds of force if internal pressure is 1 atm. A duct taped poly tarp can’t handle that.

    I didn’t see the particular oxygen detail you’re talking about on the screens that pegs it at 1 atm, but I think that’s a pretty minor error.

    Things like suit punctures and helmet cracks are always visually enlarged to the audience can see them. Assuming they actually were much smaller, choked flow exiting through a small hole is flow-rate limited and the pressure would not instantly drop but rather exponentially decay.

    We don’t know what material the tarp was made of nor the metallic tape he used to reinforce it; he also secured it to the metal structure using ratchet straps around the circumference. Suppose it’s not 1 atm but rather 5 psi like the Apollo LM. You mistakenly used the diameter instead of the radius; the pressure load is actually only 20,000 lb distributed around the 19 ft circumference of the tarp. Assuming the tarp+tape is, say, 0.02″ thick, the tensile stress is only about 650 ksi or 4,500 MPa. There are materials, especially boron nitride or carbon nanotubes, that could withstand it.

    • #18
    • October 3, 2015, at 10:30 AM PST
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  19. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson Post author

    SPOILER ALERT

    ctlaw: If the … supply rocket was able to rendezvous with Hermes, it could have independently made it to mars in no more time and likely less.

    Yes, since it rendezvoused with Hermes in an escape orbit we can infer that it could alternately have injected into a direct escape orbit to Mars, but it is only speculation on your part that the supply vessel could get to Mars faster, since the Hermes can continue to apply delta-V as it slingshots around the Earth. Besides, if the supply craft was only a rendezvous-and-docking vessel it couldn’t reenter on Mars, let alone perform a precision reentry that would be required to put the supplies within an accessible range of Watney. Plus, they knew they needed to send a manned mission to rescue him anyway. At the point in time when the Hermes was passing by Earth and already on its escape trajectory to Mars there was: 1) no need to send a Mars resupply, and 2) a requirement to resupply Hermes. Since they only had one rocket, they had to choose option 2. This reasoning was explicitly spelled out by Chastain’s character.

    END SPOILERS

    • #19
    • October 3, 2015, at 10:43 AM PST
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  20. ctlaw Coolidge

    Mark Wilson:SPOILER ALERT

    ctlaw: If the … supply rocket was able to rendezvous with Hermes, it could have independently made it to mars in no more time and likely less.

    Yes, since it rendezvoused with Hermes in an escape orbit we can infer that it could alternately have injected into a direct escape orbit to Mars, but it is only speculation on your part that the supply vessel could get to Mars faster, since the Hermes can continue to apply delta-V as it slingshots around the Earth.

    Unless in an amazing coincidence the Chinese booster had exactly the needed fuel to rendezvous, it would have had more. The size of Hermes relative to any propuslion we saw indicates its contribution would be minimal.

    Also, they oddly skipped the possibility of sending sequential supply missions.

    Besides, if the supply craft was only a rendezvous-and-docking vessel it couldn’t reenter on Mars, let alone perform a precision reentry that would be required to put the supplies within an accessible range of Watney.

    They addressed that when discussing the NASA launch that blew up.

    Plus, they knew they needed to send a manned mission to rescue him anyway. At the point in time when the Hermes was passing by Earth and already on its escape trajectory to Mars there was: 1) no need to send a Mars resupply, and 2) a requirement to resupply Hermes. Since they only had one rocket, they had to choose option 2. This reasoning was explicitly spelled out by Chastain’s character.

    Again without Hermes, the Chinese could have done an initial resupply. That could have bought time for a second resupply if needed.

    END SPOILERS

    • #20
    • October 3, 2015, at 11:17 AM PST
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  21. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson Post author

    MORE SPOILERS

    ctlaw: Unless in an amazing coincidence the Chinese booster had exactly the needed fuel to rendezvous, it would have had more.

    For all we know, they had to scrimp on weight just to be able to reach the rendezvous orbit. They increased their payload mass from supplies for Watney alone to supplies for the entire crew, there and back. In that case it wouldn’t be an “amazing coincidence” but a deliberate result of the design process.

    ctlaw: The size of Hermes relative to any propuslion we saw indicates its contribution would be minimal.

    Disagree. It had enough propulsion to execute its nominal mission and then some; namely, turn a hyperbolic return orbit into an elliptical transfer orbit, and then presumably circularize it. That’s plenty of delta-V.

    ctlaw: Also, they oddly skipped the possibility of sending sequential supply missions. … Again without Hermes, the Chinese could have done an initial resupply. That could have bought time for a second resupply if needed.

    I would argue that time was of the essence. Multi-month turnaround between Mars supply missions would only increase the chances of a catastrophic technical failure that kills Watney while he waits for a further-delayed manned rescue. Their best choice was to rescue him as soon as possible.

    END SPOILERS

    • #21
    • October 3, 2015, at 11:26 AM PST
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  22. Ford Penney Inactive

    2 Cents worth: Haven’t seen the movie, yet.

    But the audio book is fabulous and at times hilarious.

    If anyone wants almost 11 hours of sc-fi space story, drama, humor and the ‘Martian McGyver’ get the audio book… and RC Bray is a great narrator.

    • #22
    • October 3, 2015, at 1:22 PM PST
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  23. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson Post author

    Frank Monaldo: Mark – Thank you for the review. I am about to see the movie in a couple of hours.

    Let us know what you thought of it!

    • #23
    • October 3, 2015, at 1:38 PM PST
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  24. KayBee Inactive

    I wish we could see more of Bean with his more sentimental approach to the problem, and his personal concern for the crew’s autonomy and right to be informed. After a while, Daniels’ executive style of snap decision-making seems just a way to move the plot forward.

    Just came back from seeing the movie, and I agree that the movie needed a lot more Sean Bean and a lot less Jeff Daniels.

    • #24
    • October 3, 2015, at 1:45 PM PST
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  25. Tommy De Seno Contributor

    Ball Diamond Ball:

    Tommy De Seno:Thanks for this. Gravity required so much suspension of reality and science it may have well been a superhero movie.

    I like how the “every 90 minutes” thing happened because magically apparently they stopped orbiting.

    And Sandra Bullock seemed unaffected by G-forces. No matter how fast a ship was spinning out of control, she could grab a piece of it and not be hurled into space when whipped around to the far side. One handed. That’s some kung fu grip.

    But for a woman my age she looked great, so I was ok with all of it.

    • #25
    • October 3, 2015, at 2:30 PM PST
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  26. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson Post author

    Tommy De Seno: And Sandra Bullock seemed unaffected by G-forces. No matter how fast a ship was spinning out of control, she could grab a piece of it and not be hurled into space when whipped around to the far side. One handed. That’s some kung fu grip.

    The one time g-forces did come into play was also the precise moment they shouldn’t have, when George Clooney was inexplicably suspended and the end of a taut cable and had to be “cut loose” because suddenly he was falling out of orbit even though he was traveling the same speed as Bullock and all the debris around them.

    • #26
    • October 3, 2015, at 2:43 PM PST
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  27. MACHO GRANDE' (aka - Chri… Coolidge

    Easy, nerds – movies and stories are made to be enjoyed.

    • #27
    • October 3, 2015, at 4:04 PM PST
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  28. Gary Robbins Reagan

    A great, great movie, not unlike Apollo 13, where the emphasis is on working the problem. I can’t wait to see it a second time.

    Other than a gratuitous picture of Matt Damon’s butt, and several f-bombs, it is totally great for kids over the age of 8. (What kids have not seen a butt, and/or heard the “f” word? When you are marooned on Mars and think you are doomed to die, you are kinda entitled to use the “f” word. If your kids feel that this is license to use that word, point out that they are not doomed to die a horrible death in a relatively short period of time.)

    An amazingly inspiring movie. See it soon. And take the kids.

    • #28
    • October 3, 2015, at 4:12 PM PST
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  29. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson Post author

    Gary Robbins: Other than a gratuitous picture of Matt Damon’s butt, and several f-bombs, it is totally great for kids over the age of 8.

    But caution with children. When I saw it there were several R-rated previews for very creepy horror movies. Maybe plan to show up late.

    • #29
    • October 3, 2015, at 4:25 PM PST
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  30. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    Tommy DeSeno:
    “And Sandra Bullock seemed unaffected by G-forces. ”

    Long may she wave.

    • #30
    • October 3, 2015, at 4:32 PM PST
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