June 16, 2016
The Cast Away Martian
Hollywood's been on a hard science fiction binge of late, to varying degrees of success. The physics in Interstellar is more wishful thinking than science. Gravity turns the laws of orbital mechanics upside down. But The Martian, which maroons Matt Damon on Mars, is basically Apollo 13 and Cast Away (minus most of the angst) set a few years in the future.
In The Martian, man fights nature largely within the limits of current technology and without any bad guys out to purposely harm him. Oh, for a few minutes, they try to make Jeff Daniels into a villain to gin up some conflict. But two scenes later he goes back to playing a perfectly plausible NASA administrator.
The simple yet daunting goal of Damon's Astronaut Mark Watney is to survive until a rescue mission can return to rescue him. The problem is that with current technology, getting from the Earth to Mars takes six months at best. So he's got a lot of problem solving to do. A major motion picture that is about nothing but problem solving is a breath of fresh air.
Like, I'm willing to give the radiation thing a pass, because no manned mission is going to Mars in the first place without solving that vexing problem. They don't solve it in the movie either, they simply ignore it, the same way they mostly ignore the .38 Gs of gravity on Mars.
And unlike Tom Hanks shedding a real fifty pounds for Cast Away, Matt Damon didn't starve himself for the role; a scene toward the end showing us his gaunt frame (face hidden) is almost certainly a body double. He's wearing a space suit most of the time anyway.
Tacking down the Pathfinder lander, plugging it in and powering it on (interplanetary cable standardization at last!) a quarter century after it landed is an eye-roller. Still, I could roll with it just because it's such a cute idea.
And I loved the bit about digging up the RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) and using it as a plutonium-powered handwarmer (accompanied by Damon's wry "Don't try this at home!" narration).
No, what first suspended my suspension of disbelief was the implication (again, in order to create more obstacles to cleverly overcome) that the astronauts had only a single point of direct communication with Earth. In fact, the Mars landers use satellite uplinks to talk to the orbiters, which relay the signals to Earth ground stations.
Likewise, it is beyond belief that an ATV the size of a small truck would be limited to line-of-sight communication. All of the later Apollo missions left working equipment and experiments on the Moon. The vehicle and the habitat would be studded with transponders and satellite dishes humming along long after the humans left.
Equally improbable is that the inner hatch door of a habitat in a near-airless environment wouldn't be sealable and built into the superstructure. To quote NASA, the purpose of such a hatch is to "isolate the airlock from the crew cabin." I bet Astronaut Mark Watney sure wishes he had one of those. They were standard equipment on the Space Shuttle, after all.
The first failure of the NASA resupply rocket was awfully predicable (more conflict creation). While I did appreciate bringing in the Chinese (China should be part of the ISS), the movie ignores that Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency have comparable launch capabilities, not to mention ULA, Orbital ATK, and SpaceX.
Given the chance to save the day, Elon Musk would be all over this.
And yet I give it a solid A for effort. The Martian isn't one of those movies where the plot holes let all the air out of the suspense. It is a rousing Rubik's Cube of an adventure movie with a bunch of cheating aces tucked up its sleeve. Like the old Star Trek, it's often more interesting for its obvious flaws than for its dramatic successes.