For the Annual Review we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment. From NASA finding water on Mars to packed-out theaters across the country for The Martian, our love affair with outer space continues. Here we speak with The Martian screenwriter, Drew Goddard, along with planetary physicist and Hollywood science consultant, Kevin Grazier, about our increasing appetite for hard science.
A few months ago, a very important question was posted on the Q&A website Quora: exactly how much money has America spent rescuing Matt Damon?
Swiss scientist Kynan Eng decided to work out the answer. Between Saving Private Ryan, Titan AE, Elysium, Interstellar, The Martian, and all the other movies where Damon finds himself in a pickle, Eng estimated that movie studios have spent a collective $729 million trying to save him. If those movies happened in real life, Damon would have cost the United States around $900 billion.
That’s not too big of a problem. Getting Matt Damon out alive is a profitable exercise. Take The Martian, a story about an astronaut stranded on Mars when his crew thinks him dead. The 2015 movie cost $108 million to produce and grossed over $500 million worldwide. This happened not just because the movie kicked ass, but also because the creators weren’t afraid to hit the audience with some hard science. In the scene where Damon lays out his obstacles to surviving in his one-man Mars hab, proclaiming he was “going to have to science the shit out of this,” the speech was met with audience cheers and a cascade of money slamming into studio coffers.
It’s tempting to see The Martian as the start of a trend: the return of science to science fiction, a movement that started with films like Interstellar and Gravity. But is it really a trend, and if it does continue, is that necessarily good?
Screenwriter Drew Goddard—who adapted The Martian from Andy Weir’s fantastic novel to the big screen—is enthusiastic about it. (Goddard’s credits also include Cloverfield, World War Z, Cabin In The Woods, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.) “It felt like we had such a gap in the last two decades before this in science fiction,” he says. “I remember when the biggest breakthrough in sci-fi was when Joss Whedon was doing [the 2002 TV series] Firefly, and he had no sound in space. That felt revolutionary!” he says. “We’d gotten used to a language that had started with Star Wars. We got used to the way jets sounded and lasers sounded. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the way lasers sound, and I think there’s room for both.”
More importantly, says Goddard, studios are finally treating audiences with respect. “One of the adages I follow in screenwriting is that people like to learn. The common thought in Hollywood is the opposite, that people don’t like to learn. But my experience sitting with audiences is that they do,” He says. “They don’t have to understand certain properties of physics, [but] it’s okay! We’ll make it work!”
It certainly didn’t hurt The Martian that 2015 was one of the most exciting years for human space exploration, and that’s no hyperbole: We found liquid water on Mars; we had a probe fly past Pluto and send back the pics to prove it; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos put a rocket into orbit, then landed it safely back on Earth. All of these events stoked our appetites for space exploration and the science behind it. Obviously Goddard and director Ridley Scott couldn’t have predicted that climate—finding water on Mars a few days after the film’s release is the kind of serendipity that probably had its publicists punching the air—but it definitely helped.
Even before The Martian, audiences were already craving science in entertainment. The wildly popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory rakes in millions of viewers every week, scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bryan Cox have become megastars, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has seen a record number of visitors this year. Thus, when it comes to big- budget films, studios and directors can’t get away with faulty science anymore. They can only fudge something so much before social media reacts.
Planetary physicist Kevin Grazier has strong opinions about faulty science. Having worked on various NASA missions—like the Cassini/Huygens probe sent to Saturn—he’s also a die-hard sci-fi geek who is obsessed with Battlestar Galactica. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s become a go-to guy for TV and film producers who are looking to get their science right. As a consultant on Gravity, Grazier had to answer for logical missteps, like what the hell George Clooney thought he was doing trying to get all the way to the International Space Station with a single space jetpack. “The average Joe today knows what the surface of Mars looks like a lot better than the top scientists in 1955,” says Grazier, with something like resignation. “So there are many more ways to pull people out of the story. People have gotten very picky. There used to be an implied bargain between the screenwriter and the audience: go with me, suspend your disbelief, and I will sell this world to you,” he says. “Look at The Martian. The dust storm [which instigates the events stranding Matt Damon’s character] could simply not be that intense on Mars. But you buy into that, because it sells the rest of the story. If you don’t, then you don’t buy into anything that follows.”
According to Grazier, getting the science right is important but it should always be with the goal of telling great stories. “[It’s] all about creating moments that make you go ‘Oh, wow’ and about making fewer moments that make you go ‘Oh, please.’ If you get the science wrong, it can be an ‘Oh, please’ moment. You forcibly eject the person from the narrative. You don’t want do that. So the science is in service to the story.”
It’s important to note that space travel is very slow. NASA is planning to get us to Mars, but our Neil Armstrong moment will come around 2030. Currently, most of NASA’s energy is focused on studying the long-term effects of space travel on astronauts aboard the International Space Station—important, but not exactly headline-grabbing. Hollywood, though? Hollywood isn’t going to wait around. Hollywood is a sugar- loaded kid with ADHD. While audiences are currently interested in space films packed full of science, it won’t be enough to keep the momentum—not if another, more profitable trend comes along.
Matt Osterman is the director of the upcoming sci-fi, horror film 400 Days, in which astronauts are conditioned for long- distance space travel by being locked in a sealed environment together. “It comes down to what the market wants,” says Osterman. “If space movies continue to have legs and people keep showing up, Hollywood is in business. It’s a commodity business. Of course, you can only have so many movies about people going to Mars, but I don’t think we’ve reached that peak. If we do settle on Mars, and that’s our next step, then yeah, there’ll be a lot more stories about that.”
“It’s probably cyclical,” says Philip Gelatt, who wrote 2013’s Europa Report, which is still considered an example of how to get the science right while telling a killer story. “Think back to when 2001: A Space Odyssey came out [in 1968],” he says. “The science was super exciting at the time, and so was the idea of space travel, and I think you can view it as a genre cycle. By the time we got Star Wars [in 1977], we were still interested in it but it wasn’t as exciting as X-Wings or whatever. I would like the cycle of the genre to last as long as possible, because I think it’s important for our fiction to be scientifically grounded, but I think we’ll go through another cycle.”
Unlike the Star Wars films—and not even the most obsessed, midnight-camp-out-for-tickets fan would call them scientifically accurate—at least The Martian, which came out a few months before the sci-fi mega-franchise’s reboot, aimed for scientific accuracy. Regardless, the new Star Wars trilogy may lay the smackdown on sci-fi for years to come.
Scientific accuracy has told great stories and helped us ask big questions about space exploration—both where we’re going and how we’re getting there. If Hollywood makes more movies like The Martian, everybody wins. Hopefully the Star Wars film will be an anomaly for science’s forward progress in entertainment, so that 2015 won’t be the year when the trend peaks.
“We have to do our best to keep these things in the public discourse,” says Drew Goddard. “That’s easier said than done. I do believe the excitement that started with Gravity and Interstellar and The Martian actually helped spur the public interest in space exploration. You talk to NASA, you talk to JPL, and they’ll tell you that there is so much more attention in the last few years. Hopefully that will lead to better things, and other filmmakers will continue on with that.”
This article was originally posted in Moviepilot Magazine – Annual Review where we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment.
This article was originally posted in the Moviepilot Magazine – Annual Review.