Mon Oct 5th, 2015 at 03:38:44 PM EST
After Gravity two years ago and Interstellar last year, the recently released The Martian is the third big-budget hard sci-fi movie with an ambition to show more than escapist fantasy. The more so as this story of a Martian Robinsonade and an interplanetary rescue mission was based on a hard sci-fi novel in which the calm application of the scientific method is the key to survival. So I watched with even higher expectations on scientific realism. But, while the film is spectacular and relatively well-acted, and there was plenty of applied science – from growing plants to establishing communication with Earth –, unfortunately, director Ridley Scott played more fast and loose than the creators of the previous two films.
Film-makers must be given some room for bending realism to make images more accessible or to advance the story, but here are two examples when lack of scientific realism served no narrative purpose.
On several occasions, it is emphasized to the viewer that the pressure of the Martian atmosphere is way too low for humans, but the stuff flying in sandstorms can act like projectiles. So at one point the hero seals the opening of a habitation module with a plastic bag, which bulges outward when he restores human-tolerable high pressure inside. So what happens when a sandstorm arrives? Nothing punctures the (left unprotected) plastic bag ‐ but, two orders of magnitude pressure difference be damned, the first gust makes the bulge flip inwards.
Later on, when it comes to the escape vehicle, the fact that a spaceship's acceleration is the higher the lower mass it has (in other words, Newton's Second Law of Motion) is made a central plot point. So what happens when our hero leaves Mars? He turns unconscious from maximum acceleration right after launch (when the mass of spaceship+rocket+fuel is at its maximum...), then stuff floats in front of him in weightlessness seconds before the rocket burns out...
As for lack of realism with a purpose, some of that bugged me for other reasons. Above all, topography. Mars does have some spectacular topography (especially around Valles Marineris), but Scott put steep-sided rocky mountains with sedimentary layers just about everywhere, even at well-known spots (like the landing site of Pathfinder). This film obviously aims to reinvigorate public support for manned spaceflight, but it defeats the purpose that reality can't compete with such flights of fancy.
Finally, a lack of realism of a different kind was the Chinese sub-plot. I don't know how prominent that was in the book, but in the film, the total lack of depth of the Chinese characters gave all the appearance of an uninspired and unenthusiastic plot element added solely as a sop to the large potential movie audience in China. (More in the seed comment.)
:: :: :: :: ::
Two other films I saw in recent months left lasting impressions.
One was the Norwegian dark comedy Here is Harold. In this tale about old people, parents and sons and Scandinavian alcoholism, a furniture shop owner who loses everything after an IKEA store opens next door sets out to take revenge by kidnapping Ingvar Kamprad (the founder of IKEA), in which he succeeds, but in the least satisfying fashion.
I was particularly impressed by the portrayal of Kamprad as an absolutely insufferable old buffoon, one who preaches simplicity but doesn't live it and dismisses the significance of his Nazi past and can't be made to see his responsibility for anything. After reading up on the real Kamprad, it seems that this acidic negative portrayal was absolutely spot-on. Considering that the film also slagged off the quality of IKEA products and put IKEA business practices in negative light at every opportunity, I am still perplexed that IKEA, far from suing the film-makers, even allowed them to film in one of their stores. There is the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but if so IKEA took it to a whole new level.
The other film that impressed me was Mad Max: Fury Road. And not just for the non-CGI action and madness like the guitar man. I read in advance some claim that actress Charlize Theron's performance eclipsed that of Tom Hardy as the title character, but then found the truth that the director had the guts to relegate the title character to a supporting role in what is the first feminist post-apocalyptic movie (even behind the scenes, with a 78-year-old actress doing her own stunts). Later I read that this attack on the patriarchate triggered a boycott call from misogynists, and a blog dedicated to the sublime feminist messages.