I went to the movies last night to see ‘The Martian,’ something I have been excited about for a long time. The theatre was packed, and the movie was amazing, both unsurprising facts. I had very few scientific issues with the film, even with low standards for a big screen pic, but mostly due to first thing the screen showed: ‘NASA was heavily consulted to ensure the science in this movie is accurate.’ Way to go Hollywood!
My favourite parts of the movie employed some hilarious use of technical definitions. For example, when Mark Watney grows potatoes on Mars, he says ‘I don’t want to sound arrogant here, but I am officially the greatest Bonanist on this planet.’ Then it goes a bit further ‘They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.’ I love that! He also does it later on when talking about commandeering another spaceship, and ends up calling himself a space pirate. The lighthearted look at the situation gives great relief from the dark reality of surviving on the harsh world.
I loved how the science was portrayed; That an understanding of the way things work allows us to use whatever we have at our disposal to solve a problem. There was a quote near the end, where the character Mark Watney says (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘You just solve one problem at a time….and if you solve enough of them, you get to come home.’ It’s a great way to look at life in general. It’s the ‘just figure out one thing, and then go onto the next’ mentality. We don’t have to solve all of our problems at once. More often than not, we just have to start with one problem and go from there.
I did have a couple of problems with the movie, though they are somewhat small.
- The top brass of decision makers at NASA seems to be made up of only a handful of people.
NASA is an organization that employs 18,000 people. Most major decisions in a government space organization are made by a collective group of many hundreds of people doing independent and verifiable calculations. The director of NASA has decision making power, but has many advisers to help make the best decisions possible based on the knowledge we have.
2. The astronauts make a lot of decisions
Again, with some of the most brilliant minds in the world helping the astronauts make big decisions, the astronaut team doesn’t need the military chain of command as much as is portrayed in the movie. I haven’t been to space, so I could be wrong on this one, but I see the flight commander’s job as more of a delegating job and collaborative effort once the objectives are handed down from mission control.
3.The project leaders in the movie talk about God
I’m all for freedom of religion. You can worship a chicken if you want to, as long as it doesn’t leave you closed off to new ideas and the opinions of others. In the movie, right before the rocket launch, two of the main support actors talk about how they hope God is on their side. I was surprised at this since we are watching a movie that makes science accessible to everyone. It then goes to give the highest-ranking characters a base religious motive. It just didn’t need to be in there.
4. Wonky Science catching Watney in Space
In the final scene where the commander catches Watney in space, I was skeptical of how Watney depressurized his suit and used it to control his trajectory toward the tethered commander. If he cut a hole in his suit and it de-pressurized, it would be very hard to control, very damaging to his ability to breathe, and he would not be able to control the direction or block the flow with just his fingers. It went a bit too far for me.
The other part of this scene where they are spinning around each other and pull in to the centre violates the conservation of angular momentum. If they moved closer while spinning they would speed up until the centripetal force would push them away from each other again. The way it should have worked is the commander should have used her Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU) to slow the spin, and Mark would have spun into her gently, at which point she could slow them down further.
All in all the movie was a fun adventure with some excellent science concepts and hilarious dialogue. I recommend seeing it so you can get a sense of where humanity hopes to be in 20-30 years: Sending astronauts to Mars.