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Bringing science back to sci-fi: why you should watch The Martian

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:48 IST

There were a lot of jokes this week when NASA announced that its scientists had found definitive signs of water on Mars.

"Is it to promote Ridley Scott's The Martian?" people wondered on social media.

The timing does seem a little too perfect. And then Scott himself told Yahoo Movies that he knew about it months ago. He later clarified to the New York Times that he only learned about Martian water after the film went into production.

In reality, Scott knew about it before the rest of the world because he worked closely with NASA on the making of The Martian - based on Andy Weir's hard-sci-fi novel about an American astronaut (played by Matt Damon) who is stranded on Mars after a fierce storm forces his crewmate to abandon him, on the assumption that he's dead.

The Martian is quite different from Scott's recent films (Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings), which have been grand-scale spectacles of their own standing, but were rather long and dramatic.

It's clear that Scott dialled back after the excess of those two films. The landscapes are awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time, but there isn't much in terms of the stylistic flourishes we've come to expect.

Not a slow moment

In many ways, The Martian plays like two entirely different movies. One follows NASA's director of Mars missions, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as he learns that Watney is alive, and then tussles support from the agency's director (Jeff Daniels) and head of media relations (Kristen Wiig).

The other is Damon's one-man show.

You'll expect and wait for Damon's character to brood infinitely at the fate that stares him in the face, considering he's completely alone on a distant planet that isn't the least bit human-friendly.

You'll expect any number of grim, white-knuckle-tense scenes, focusing on Watney's isolation and rising panic.

Instead, the movie does something far more unexpected. It embraces comedy.

Watney begins to keep meticulous video logs of his thought processes and progress on the main computer and various cameras set up throughout base camp.

Like any good vlogger, Watney is just as entertaining as he is informative. After laying out how long his food supply can last, the time it would take for another mission to get to him (four years) and the fact that he has no existing communicative pathway to NASA anymore, he sits back in his chair, brow furrowed.

Then he shrugs and, with beleaguered optimism, says, "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."

The line has already been quoted often, and for good reason. It perfectly sums up the character's approach to a seemingly impossible situation, and how the film's story rejects standard disaster narratives, instead blindsiding its audience with cleverly deployed jokes.

Like any good vlogger, Matt Damon's character is just as entertaining as he is informative

The nearest he comes to losing it is growing a great big long beard. Which he quickly shaves off. There is no unwholesome or unhealthy brooding. Watney just gets on with it.

Then something fantastic happens - spoilers follow, of course - by using the human waste left behind in vacuum-sealed packs by him and his crew mates, he manages to grow enough potatoes to buy a few hundred more sols' (a few dozen days or what a rotation of the planet is referred to in NASA jargon) worth of food.

A scientific base

The book the movie's based on actually started as a thought experiment by Andy Weir, a longtime computer programmer. He began by imagining what a real mission to Mars might be like and the potential problems the astronauts would need to plan for.

Three years later, the resulting book was a DIY internet success as Weir self-published it for the Kindle store on Amazon. And then, of course, Hollywood came calling.

The script, written by David Goddard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, manages to make Damon's character so funny, interesting and infallibly likable that you're invested in his predicament at every moment, whether he's tossing off trenchant one-liners to his video diary or fighting off despair when Mother Nature has her Martian way with the fruits of his ingenuity.

It's nerdy and full of details at least some will delight in. The book itself was an exercise in authenticity, with stretches discussing the calculations Watney would use to figure out how to make water, or map out how long it will take to trek across the Martian surface.

"To the level of detail that you see in the film and in the book," Dave Lavery from NASA's Solar System Exploration program told Popular Science, "it overall is actually pretty closely in line with what we've been thinking."

The plan for Watney's rescue was definitely sketchy (the use of tarps and tape, for instance), but most of the film does rely on solid science. And hell, at least the filmmakers didn't simply resort the 'power of love' a la Gravity and Interstellar.

It's that science with which The Martian has definitely earned its stripes to make a place for itself in science fiction canon.

First published: 2 October 2015, 8:10 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.