Friday, October 23, 2015

The Martian Review

A couple of years back I heard book podcasts ranting and raving about Andy Weir's novel The Martian. I had intended to read it, but the queue of other book titles before it prevented me from getting to The Martian before the 2015 movie was released. The movie was most impressive. There were times it was downright stressful to watch, but you just couldn't take your eyes from it.
During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, director of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring "the Martian" home, while Watney's crewmates and their Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney's safe return.
The structure of The Martian is outstanding. Really, it could have been a cross between Cast Away and Gravity. In some regards it is; there's a lot of Watney trying to survive in an inhospitable environment all by himself, must like Tom Hanks' character did in Cast Away. It also has a great deal of peril from unfamiliar, though natural circumstances like Sandra Bullock's character had to endure and survive in Gravity. Heck, we've even got Matt Damon as an astronaut for the second time since Interstellar. Unlike Gravity, which was nearly non-stop peril, The Martian features lots of ups and downs in terms of action. There are times when Watney is on the brink of death and times when he is doing pretty well under the circumstances. But there is also a great deal of urgency on earth for NASA to develop something to get to Mars as fast as possible to rescue Watney; deadlines for designing a spacecraft that are not met means that someone literally dies while the whole world watches. Also, what Watney's crewmates are going though as they struggle over whether or not to take great risk to themselves to turn around and save Watney is also tense and interesting. The story is not about Watney poking around Mars, making video logs, and waiting to be saved. There is a lot of tension in this movie and there are times it becomes downright stressful to watch, but it's so good, well written, and exciting that you can't pull yourself away for anything!
Long ago the term "Science Fiction" meant a work of fiction that incorporated theoretical science, but that has evolved into our modern definition that is basically something akin to "a fantasy in space." The Martian despenses with so much of the standard violent-action fare we have come to expect from the Science Fiction genre and instead returns to the genre roots in the thrill of exploration and the wonders of science. I admit that I am not much of an expert when it comes to matters of physical science. However, as I understand it, Mars has too little atmosphere to create weather conditions intense enough do much damage to anything. The atmospheric pressure on the Martian surface averages 600 Pa (0.087 psi), about 0.6% of Earth's mean sea level pressure of 100 kPa (14.69 psi). It is so low that a "fierce storm", as they put it, would be something akin to a very light breeze messing up your hair. Author Andy Weir admitted this was his biggest inaccuracy in the story. But as far as I can tell, that and ignoring Mars' gravitational difference were about the only major stretches the movie takes. The story takes place in the near future and the technology used doesn't look very far off at all from what we currently have. The story and science is so well grounded that you can't help believe what you see happening on screen. I've even heard that the mission to Mars in The Martian movie emulates actual missions that NASA is planning for the future.
The Martian is an excellent film, with spectacular visual effects and is infused with Matt Damon's charm. It dares to go where only a few modern science fiction films go: optimism. The cast is spectacular, the characters are great, the story is absorbing, the visual effects are remarkable, the overall message was inspiring, and the pacing and structure are marvelously arranged in the framework of the story. I can't honestly think of a single negative thing to say about this movie. It's positively fantastic! This is a major step up from the other substandard films director Ridley Scott has done in the last few years. This is certainly worth seeing in theaters, and worth the price to own on home video.

I found this interesting bit of trivia about The Martian book: The writer of the novel, Andy Weir, first published his book for free on his own blog for fun. Then people asked him to put it in a downloadable form, then to put it on Amazon for Kindle download which he did at the then minimum price of $0.99.

What is your favorite science fiction movie or book? Not the "fantasy in space" sci-fi, but real, classic science fiction. Comment below and tell me why!

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