Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Martian is a Scientifically Sound Oscar Contender - Almost

If you have ever read a sci-fi film review on my blog, you are perhaps accustomed to the complete thrashing of the impossible events portrayed therein.  In the recent film, "The Martian", however, there will be no such thrashing - at least, not from me.  It is my favourite film of this past year, and yes, I saw "Star Wars, the Force Awakens" (and yes, it too was awesome).

The Martian is reminiscent of another great film, Castaway, in which a deserted human must survive on his own for multiple years.  Although the conditions are harsher on Mars than any island on Earth, Matt Damon's astronaut character did eventually establish contact with others, while poor Tom Hanks was stuck alone with "Wilson".

My primary issue with the science of The Martian is with regard to this communication.  It is said in the film that, due to the speed of electromagnetic wave travel (300,000 km/s), each transmission from Mars to Earth or vice versa takes about fourteen minutes.  This is true, though the particular amount of time depends on the distance between the planets, which varies considerably.

Most of the audience hears of this time lag, but does not quite grasp how critical it is.  The film-makers could and should have reinforced it by giving clear indications of the passage of time between transmissions.  Once the Martian presses 'send' to a message, there is no way that a response could arrive back at him before, say, thirty minutes have elapsed (14 minutes to Earth, 2 minutes to read/write response, 14 minute to Mars).  Thirty minutes is enough time to eat a meal or perform some other task.  The scenes typically have the Martian sitting at his console as though he were chatting normally.

Had it been me at the director's chair instead of Ridley Scott, the film would have been terrible, but, everyone in the audience would understand the limitations of light speed.  My Martian would sit down with a plate of food by his side.  He would send a message.  By the time the response gets back to him, he would have an empty plate in front of him.  Just doing that one time would give the audience a proper appreciation for one major challenge that will eventually confront our first visitors to Mars.

As far as the rest of the film goes, it really is a masterpiece.  It deserved accolades so badly, that it won a golden globe for best comedy, despite it being a drama.  The best film for engineers, before this one, was perhaps "Apollo 13".  But The Martian surpasses it - solutions to the many problems faced by the secluded astronaut are presented coherently, often with flare.

The Martian did as he set out to do: he "scienced the sh*t" out of his predicament.  And, in so doing, the film captivated the audience in a story that real life will soon catch up to.  

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