Movie poster for The Martian from 20th Century Fox

 If you’ve read the bestselling SF novel The Martian by Marty Weir, you’ll know it’s not a stretch or an insult to describe it as MacGyver On Mars—the plot depends on stranded astronaut Mark Watney using every piece of available technology, biology, and chemistry in creative ways to help him survive the hostile Martian environment. Weir does it brilliantly, with just enough human touches to keep the reader fully invested in Watney’s survival in spite of numerous technical descriptions that some will find dry. Translating such a science-heavy story into glossy Hollywood entertainment for today’s average moviegoer would seem to be as daunting a challenge as surviving on Mars.

Congratulations to Ridley Scott & Co. for pulling it off with flying colours. I hope Hollywood will take the movie version of The Martian not only as proof that science movies can be successful but as a model for how to do them well.

When a ferocious sandstorm forces a crew of NASA astronauts to cut short their stay on Mars, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is injured and thought to be dead. The crew is forced to leave him behind and return to Earth. The next Mars mission can’t happen for another four years—Watney has enough food and water for a couple of months. His personal survival and any attempt by NASA to rescue him appear to be impossible. Both will require the utmost in human determination and ability to achieve.

In The Martian nearly every character is a scientist—Watney himself is a botanist as well as an astronaut—yet the movie shows that they can be every bit as committed, stubborn, inventive, defiant, funny, sweaty, and courageous as any spy, cop, or soldier. They’re not superhuman, instead they show the best qualities of real human beings and the astonishing things we can achieve. The story isn’t about great feats of daring and stamina (though there’s certainly some of that), but using human ingenuity to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems one step at a time. As the implacable universe throws up each new roadblock, Watney, or the NASA team trying to bring him home, uses brainpower to figure out a way around it.

The scientific explanations are necessarily brief but not absent. When a risky course of action is suggested, the pros and cons are explored honestly. The unpleasant realities of both physics and economics are given fair representation and, true to the book, The Martian escapes being propaganda for the USA by giving an important role to the Chinese space program. I’m deeply impressed by how Ridley Scott has crafted a slick and suspenseful Hollywood offering while keeping it so well balanced. Others have pointed out that it is a rare movie full of optimism. Sure, it has moments of carefully-crafted theatre, but it’s inspirational in a true sense and not just emotionally manipulative.

I can’t talk about a movie like this without mentioning the special effects and they are terrific—eye-popping and authentic (OK, we wouldn’t hear rocket engines in space and the Hermes spacecraft wouldn’t have such big windows, but otherwise…). The Martian vistas are stunning, well worth the extra price of seeing them in 3D. The movie reportedly cost $108 million USD to make and it shows on the screen. Not all of that is Matt Damon’s salary, though he certainly earns his pay by giving Watney just the right amounts of stoicism and nerdiness to grab the audience and hold them—it could so easily have failed in the hands of another actor.

The Martian is a movie without any killing, martial arts, fleets of helicopters, contrived romance, explosions meant to destroy or terrorize, inane humour, super powers or supervillains. So it’s truly a breath of fresh air. I hope box office numbers will show Hollywood that there’s an appetite for this kind of movie and at least one director who knows how to make them.


A scene from The Martian from 20th Century Fox

If you follow the news at all, you’ll have heard the big news from NASA this week:

They’ve confirmed evidence that liquid water sometimes flows on Mars.

The evidence relates to certain kinds of darks streaks that have been observed down mountainous slopes in a number of locations. The streaks appear to ebb and flow according to the Martian season. The NASA scientists are convinced that the streaks are flows of liquid water just beneath the surface which occur when the temperature rises above minus 23 Celsius. Obviously that’s a lot colder than the freezing point of fresh water, but this Martian water thaws and stays liquid at that temperature because its full of various perchlorate salts (the same principle as the ice melting stuff you might sprinkle on your driveway in the winter).

Why is it important? Because liquid water is considered to be a prime requirement to support life. Mind you, this Martian water is probably too salty to support life as we know it, but never count life out—it’s constantly surprising us. So this is the best evidence yet that there has been/is now/could someday be life on the Red Planet (take your pick).

We’re eager to know if Earth is the only home of life in the universe. And there are many reasons we might want to establish a permanent presence there—if we do, we’ll want to take some of our plants with us. A planet with the means to support life just might be coaxed into supporting our kind of life.

The timing of the NASA announcement happens to coincide with the release this week of the movie The Martianstarring Matt Damon and based on the novel by Andy Weir. The story is about an astronaut accidentally left behind on a Mars mission who has to survive using only what he has on hand and a vast amount of ingenuity. The book was great—I hope the movie will be too. Once you go see it you’ll no doubt want to read about the nine real NASA technologies featured in the film.

Perhaps to capitalize on all this interest (and why shouldn’t they?) NASA has also begun a series of articles about NASA technologies that have been spun off for useful purposes here on Earth, and I’m not talking about Tang or Space Food Sticks. The developments include sensors that attach to plants and help farmers give their crops the optimal amount of water without wasting it, a radar water-detection system that was used to locate a huge reservoir in one of the world’s driest inhabited areas in northern Kenya, and an oxygen recovery system that’s used in refuge shelters for miners in the event they’re trapped underground.

A research paper from a NASA-led team published last month also got some attention by making a thorough scientific case for the use of cyanobacteria in efforts to colonize Mars. Different varieties of the bacteria could be used to pull nitrogen out of the air and into the soil where it would help plants to grow, mine desirable minerals from rocks, produce oxygen for us to breathe, create hydrogen fuels or biofuels, provide the basis for synthetic manufacturing compounds, and even feed the colonists. Terraforming Mars with bacteria might take a very long time, but it would be a whole lot easier and cheaper to transport there than the end products we’d use it to make.

To fully answer why we care about all of this, you’d have to answer why Mars has fascinated humans for thousands of years. It has, and will continue to do so.

Let’s be honest: we’re messing up Earth in a big hurry. We need somewhere else to go, for the sake of our home planet and for the sake of our descendants. Mars is relatively close and available. The Mars Express has begun to gather steam. Let’s hope it really gets rolling soon.