The Martian: Is This A STEM Movie?

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When Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, appeared in 2011, the concept was already going against the flow. In an age when smartphones and tablets have reduced the average attention span to 10 seconds or less, here was a story in which science—real, serious and plausible, if not entirely always accurate science—was the star vehicle to tell a story of survival in space. It had the math to back it up. Would people who click on 10 Things You Eat That Are Killing You have the patience for such a thing? Indeed they did. The Martian has spent 48 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

I’m sure you’ve seen the trailers so you know the film version opened this weekend. I doubt if a spoiler alert is needed, since everyone knows The Martian is a survival story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and his struggle to be rescued on a planet that is, at best, nearly a year’s travel time from Earth.

I read the book last year and found that as these things go, the film is about as true to the original story as you can reasonably expect. Screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Ridley Scott seemed to have grasped Weir’s intent and hewed to it in concept and detail. Well, many of the details, anyway. Adapting a book to film is an enormous challenge and at every turn, there’s opportunity to run the thing off a cliff. Thankfully, they didn’t.

That’s not to suggest that all the science is entirely accurate. Far from it, starting from the opening scene in which an intensifying wind storm chases a Mars crew off the planet, stranding protagonist Mark Watney on the surface as his colleagues rocket back to Earth, believing him to be dead. Mars’ atmosphere is about 100 times less dense than Earth’s and although it kicks up some impressive dust storms, NASA probes haven’t found winds over about 60 MPH. But it’s a quibble, for when you’re handed your 3D glasses, suspension of disbelief comes along with them.

As with 2013’s Gravity, the visuals and CGI work are stunning and largely indistinguishable from set piece shots in the Jordanian Wadi Rum desert, which appears to be as red as I imagine Mars is. With one or two exceptions, I thought the 3D was largely unimpressive. But one of those exceptions was the bits and pieces of loose hardware floating around during the Martian launch sequence after Watney—played by Matt Damon—chopped his vehicle up to make it light enough to achieve the necessary orbital altitude and velocity to intercept the rescue ship. That was a nice touch, for even spacecraft carefully prepared on earth have FOD floating around in zero G. If you were doing it on the fly in a hurry, there would be junk everywhere. As did Gravity with the fire extinguisher scene, The Martian improvises EVA propulsion by having Watney puncture a glove to create an impromptu thruster. Since Newtonian physics are the same on Mars and Earth, this would certainly work, but the guidance would be a bitch.

But again, idle quibbles, for what this story is about is the process of using science and engineering to solve existential problems, not the veracity of the solutions themselves. And it’s at this juncture where the book’s detail paints a rich portrait to the film’s flyby if colorful sketch. I recently read one author comparing the movie to the book complain that Weir’s tedious calculations and explanations were eye-glazing. But I think just the opposite. Weir’s detailed grasp of the science, while not always entirely accurate, is the core of the story because it describes both the dimension of the challenge and how it can be solved by rational analysis, improvisation and application of available resources. In other words, it’s the definition of aerospace technology writ large in determined, optimistic problem solving. It’s Apollo 13 and the glory days of NASA.

This is why I recommend reading the book whether you see the film or not. While Goddard and Scott crammed in as much scientific detail as they could, some of it just whizzes by. One example: When a hurry-up emergency supply mission to Mars is launched, to save time, NASA skips the usual safety checks. The launch fails because the food packs liquefy at 9G during the boost phase, shifting the CG and destroying the vehicle. That’s well-covered in the book, but a throwaway in the film. It’s quite illustrative of the harsh risks involved in space travel and the price paid for cutting corners, proving that Murphy’s Law is not justapocryphalmusing. And I’m pretty sure some in the audience I was in missed it entirely. The reason I say that is when we were walking out of the theater, I heard someone say to a companion that he couldn’t understand how NASA could get a spaceship to a planet 600 light years away in just 30 days. Seriously…

And that gets me to the STEM discussion. Such that kids read books these days, the novel version of this story might ignite some imaginations to learn more about the science in ways that the film probably would not. Understandably, the film’s MacGyver-lost-in-space feel lacks the book’s mathematical underpinning.As the comment I overhead indicates, Americans are alarmingly scientifically illiterate without even realizing it. I think the really smart and motivated kids will seek science learning on their own; they always have, smartphones and video games notwithstanding. But there’s another class of intellect here: the naturally curious people who just like to read and learn stuff, adults or not. For them, The Martian will be a real treat and I recommend it highly. Then go see the movie again and revel in what you missed. Or just don’t saddle it with any STEM baggage at all and just enjoy an entertaining two hours.

And just for fun and as an example of that curious mind, here’s an interviewwith Andy Weir by Adam Savage of MythBusters fame.

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