There have been countless films in recent times that claim to be science fiction. However, only a very few can actually make the claim that their movie is fiction with legitimately grounded science. This week 20th Century Fox releases The Martian and director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) has crafted a movie that truly puts the science, in the phrase "science fiction." No movie in recent memory, or perhaps ever, has such an extraordinary feat on film been attempted while being held within the confines of real world physics and logic. In his latest film, The Martian, Scott is reclaiming the science fiction banner from past films such as Interstellar and Gravity, while setting the bar higher for those in the future looking to craft a scientific adventure.
In the film, Matt Damon plays marooned astronaut Mark Watney, who over the course of the film's running time demonstrates the peak of human ingenuity and determination. Watney is alone, stranded on Mars, and faced with seemingly impossible odds to survive his time on the barren planet. What sets The Martian apart and above from other similar movies of its genre, is its insistence in portraying real science - explained in a way that the viewer can comprehend and be entertained by. In fact, the movie feels so grounded that it's easier to compare it to films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 - which were based on real events - than the standard popcorn movie. Here are a few ways that The Martian sets itself apart from the competition and puts the science back in "science fiction."
Master of the Science of Communication
Great science fiction is able to tell a great story and explain the technicalities in layman's terms, so the entire audience feels included, educated, and entertained. No sequence exemplifies this more than when Watney faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge to contact home...from another planet....with no cell phone. The marooned astronaut is able to utilize a still frame camera to establish a visual and then takes it one step further by creating an entire language based on the camera's perspective. Heck, Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity was able to to have a phone conversation with an Earthling (albeit an Eskimo who didn't speak English) and still couldn't get the job done.
The Science and Theories Don't Always Work
A shortcut that many filmmakers use, is to skip over the trial and error that is involved in scientific experimentation. Typically in sci-fi movies, a problem is stated and the protagonist solves it effortlessly in order to progress the story. However, much of the drama created in The Martian, is born from the many failures in the scientific theories of Watney and the other onscreen geniuses who work for NASA. The result is a much more rewarding conclusion than a movie like Interstellar, where the astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey, is literally given the scientific equations from the future...or a different dimension...or a bookshelf...or whatever that ending was all about.
No Ordinary Astronaut
Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard took great care to show that Mark Watney is not just some generic astronaut. He has a specialization that is both practical and utilized during specific scientific experimentation. Watney is a Botanist and his talents become invaluable as he fertilizes soil, creates water, and ultimately grows food on what is thought to be an inhabitable planet on Mars. All the while, each step of his scientific method is energetically explained by the affable Damon. In a movie such as Gravity, Dr. Stone self-identifies as a Biomedical Engineer, however, her specific knowledge and skill set is barely used in the narrative. In fact, it's unclear throughout the course of her story what her specific function in space is at all. This added layer of functionality to Damon's character is another reason why the science and plausibility of the overall story holds up and puts the film in an elite class.
There are many other daring examples of how The Martian puts the science back into the science fiction genre, but that's why we go to the movies, right?
You can check it out for yourself when The Martian opens on October 2nd, 2015