I remember in 1994 when I saw Stargate with a group of exchange students from Universiteit Twente in the Netherlands. I was a Computer Science student, whilst the Dutch group were a mix of Mechanical Engineering, Electronic Engineering and Chemical Engineering students. When we got out of the theatre, we were positive with the movie and were excited with the visual effects and the storyline. However, on the way home in the bus, we dissected the movie through various lenses and we found a lot of things that did not make sense. By the time we arrived home, our recommendation had changed and told our dormmates not to bother with the movie.
That’s the issue with science fiction – as it still needs to make sense (or at least possible) scientifically whilst creatively expanding what could or could not happen with that level of science. The Martian does not disappoint in that sense. The story is set in 2035 when NASA has managed to send austronauts to Mars. Ares III manned mission is led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) as the mission commander, with five other astronauts. A major sandstorm forces the crew to abort their mission and return to earth. An austronaut – Mark Watney (Matt Damon) – is struck by flying debris and presumed dead by the crew. Mark is actually alive and left alone in a planet that is millions of miles away from earth, he has to rely on his survival knowledge to stay alive – before help is sent from earth.
In making the story as logical as possible, Mark has to explain what he’s doing in a manner that still makes sense to the storyline. It’s annoying when movies explicitly state what is happening as a lazy way to inform the viewers of the story – however, the director – Ridley Scott – weaves the scientific processes finely into the story, so we get what is happening without feeling lectured. We are also on the same page about the rescue process and we learn more about the challenges about sending people to Mars and keeping them alive on the hostile planet. The movie does feel like a 141-minute ad for NASA and Mars, but hey, who’s complaining when we are all infatuated with our next-door neighbour?
As the movie focuses to be as scientifically realistic and accurate as possible, there are some aspects of the story that have to be sacrificed. We learn that Mark Watney is a tough-cookie botanist who also has a healthy sense of humour, is good with tools and electronics (well, he must be – he is an astronaut!), and has elderly parents. Beyond these, we know very little on how he survives all those years before he is rescued (sorry for the spoiler!). However, with 141 minutes of movie already, it may be a true epic if we include the psychological aspects and other (un)necessary details. So, I believe Ridley Scott has made a nice balance of the two.