Guest column: Former Mars One candidate, Dr Joseph Roche, reviews The Martian

9 Oct 2015

Matt Damon plays Mark Watney in The Martian. Image via 20th Century Fox

Once in line to be a potential Martian himself, astrophysicist Dr Joseph Roche gives his review of Ridley Scott’s latest film, The Martian, citing it as one of the best efforts of scientific accuracy in Hollywood in some years.

For those who have not yet seen The Martian, this review contains numerous references to the film’s plot. Spoilers ahead… –

It has become increasingly lucrative to make movies that are scientifically accurate. In recent years, both Gravity and Interstellar (which I reviewed here on have captured the imagination of audiences that wish to see science fiction taken seriously. The Martian completes the trifecta of Hollywood’s big budget space epics that have achieved both critical and box office success. What distinguishes The Martian is its source material.

While Gravity and Interstellar were based on stories written by their visionary directors (and son and brother respectively), The Martian is a faithful adaption of the bestselling book of the same name by Andy Weir. One of the reasons credited for its success is the attention to technical detail that is so clearly loved by its author. Weir was a computer programmer and self-proclaimed “science nerd” before he found fame as a bestselling novelist. The Martian is directed by Ridley Scott who, perhaps having learned from his previous attempt to set a coherent story in space, wisely stays faithful to Weir’s tale.

For most big budget sci-fi movies, it is easier to list the impossibilities rather than trying to find some shred of scientific accuracy. Refreshingly, this is not the case with The Martian. There are very few glaring ‘mistakes’ and each of them was knowingly made for generally understandable reasons.

In order to create an atmosphere of suspense, a disaster occurs at the start of the movie. Just as Gravity utilised the improbable chain reaction of space debris collisions as the catastrophe that set the events of that movie in motion, The Martian required a cataclysmic event that resulted in the protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney, being marooned on Mars while his crewmates abandon their base. The event they are fleeing is a Martian dust storm with 100mph winds, which on Earth would be a hurricane.

The Martian hurricane

The Martian hurricane. Image via 20th Century Fox

Forgiving scientific inaccuracies for good storytelling

The Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner than the atmosphere on Earth, so a 100mph wind on Mars would feel like a brisk breeze rather than the tempest shown on screen. Weir himself admits that he knew he was treading into scientific inaccuracies by having the mission scrubbed by strong winds.

His argument is that he wanted to create a story about man vs nature, and he wanted nature to land the first blow. It is certainly not the worst scientific inaccuracy to appear in a Hollywood movie. Interestingly, Weir has since revealed that if he had known about the destructive force of lightning on Mars he might have considered using that as a more realistic natural disaster.

Another curious implausibility is Mark Watney’s skills profile. In Weir’s book, Watney is a botanist, but he is also a mechanical engineer. In the movie, he seems to be relying primarily on his training as a botanist without ever explicitly mentioning other specialist skills he might have brought to the mission. It is unlikely that a member of a Mars mission would have been solely a botany expert. It is far more likely that they would have trained to have a vital secondary role, such as a pilot or a surgeon.

The Martian botany

Mark Watney growing crops on Mars. Image via 20th Century Fox

The technology impresses

Perhaps this reduction in expertise and skills was an attempt to make it easier for the audience to identify with the protagonist. This would tally with the casting of Matt Damon as Mark Watney. One of Matt Damon’s most marketable qualities is his ability to appear as an everyman that audiences can relate to, though in the past month he has unintentionally come close to destroying that image by courting controversy with his comments on gay actors, and by inadvertently spawning the #damonsplaining hashtag on Twitter for his remarks on diversity in film.

Other peculiarities associated with the astronauts include their movements on the Martian surface, which seem to require more effort than would be necessary on a planet with only a third of the gravitational force of Earth. They also seem to be protected from harmful cosmic radiation by some unseen ability, but these are forgivable fallacies.

In terms of what was portrayed accurately in the movie, The Martian is even more impressive than Gravity and Interstellar. The depiction of the spacecraft, the rovers and the habitat are all based on sound concepts. The emergency methods of growing food and making water from rocket fuel also hold up to scrutiny.

The NASA command centre. Image via 20th Century Fox

The NASA command centre. Image via 20th Century Fox

There is plenty of attention to detail, too, like having the moons of Mars appear as irregular objects rather than the perfect spheres of most movies set on the planet. The inclusion of the Mars Pathfinder is a nice touch, although it would probably have been coated in only a few layers of Martian dust, rather than being completely buried. The gravity assist that is used to slingshot the Hermes spacecraft back to Mars is another accurate concept, and has been used to send probes like Voyager towards the edge of the solar system.

Even the orbital paths discussed in the movie were calculated for the original story using software that Weir himself wrote especially to track constant-thrust trajectories.

Visually, the movie is a masterpiece. When it comes to Mars, I am probably a little more biased than most, but I cannot imagine anyone who watches this movie failing to be impressed by how breathtaking the Martian landscapes look.

Could help encourage crewed mission to Mars

I loathe happy endings in movies. I especially hate when big budget sci-fi movies sacrifice credibility for an unrealistic ‘happily ever after’. But, when it comes to The Martian, I am willing to make an exception. The biggest strength of the movie is its depiction of the resourcefulness of humankind and how seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome with teamwork and determination. More than anything, it casts NASA and its vision for space exploration in such a positive light that it could directly lead to increased public support.

With the recent announcement of flowing liquid water on the surface of Mars (immediately followed by Irish scientists revealing water flowing beneath Martian glaciers), there has been even more attention focused on the red planet than usual. A fascinating subplot of the ‘Water on Mars’ announcement was that Ridley Scott was informed about it before it was made public knowledge. Does a Hollywood director deserve to have the inside scoop on such a discovery?

Hermes The Martian

The Hermes spacecraft. Image via 20th Century Fox

NASA clearly recognised the positive effect a movie like The Martian could have on their work, and offered him every support they could.

It is not the first time a movie has been harnessed to further scientific progress. Jurassic Park resulted in scientists receiving funding from the National Science Foundation to investigate securing dinosaur DNA, and the vast budget and subsequent computational power at the disposal of scientists rendering the visuals for Interstellar were used to generate new scientific results.

It is difficult to estimate the long-term impact a movie like The Martian might have, but it could well prove vital to sustaining public support for space exploration. And, if a movie can simultaneously be used to generate public support for science as well as leveraging additional funding for research, while also managing to be a critical and commercial box office success… well then that truly is a happy ending.

Dr Joseph Roche (@joeboating) is an astrophysicist and lecturer at Trinity College Dublin. He was one of the final 100 candidates shortlisted by Mars One for their planned one-way mission to Mars before he was dismissed for calling into question the scientific standards of the mission. He is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at Trinity’s School of Education, where his research area is the role of science in society.