Monday, October 19, 2015

Random Thoughts on The Martian (the Movie, not the Book)

I saw The Martian over the weekend and enjoyed it a lot. I particularly appreciated the fact that the plot did not lurch from one heart-stopping crisis to another. I won't belabor the science issues in the movie, since those have already been widely discussed on the Internet. The biggest one has to do with the Martian "storms." The atmosphere on Mars is so thin that it wouldn't be capable of the kind of death and destruction you see at the beginning of the movie.

Also, the gravity on Mars is much lower than on Earth, but this only becomes apparent near the end of the movie, when Matt Damon begins bouncing around a lot more. Or maybe he just lost a lot of weight from his starvation rations.

My biggest issues regarding realism have more to do with sociology than science. Why didn't NASA put communications equipment in the Mars habitat?  This is a common feature of science fiction: the Technology that Must be Unrealistically Defective in order to advance the plot. The most famous example of this is in the short story "The Cold Equations," in which we are led to believe that a spaceship has such a low tolerance for extra weight that a small stowaway would make the planned flight impossible. When this is done well, of course, the reader doesn't even notice the swindle.

The other implausibility is the fact that only a low-level scientist, working on his own (with the aid of excessive coffee consumption) would come up with a new trajectory for the ship, one that evaded all of the best minds at NASA.  NASA might do a lot of things wrong, but one thing they know exceptionally well is orbital mechanics, and they are intimately familiar with slingshot orbits.  The only realistic thing about this is the excessive coffee consumption.  I have been there (and still am).

Update:  Several of you have pointed out that the poky thing sticking out of Matt Damon's abdomen was, in fact, the radio antenna, which was destroyed in the storm.  So I stand corrected.


Kathy said...

IMO for unrealistically defective technology, nothing beats the Holodeck on the Enterprise and on Voyager.

Not only did it fail often, but it did so spectacularly, almost inevitably putting the ship and/or the crew in mortal peril. One wondered why Starfleet didn't just order them all shut down and removed.

Robert Scherrer said...

Actually, I would vote for the transporter in the original Star Trek. Would you get on an airplane if there was a significant chance that you would
1. Be split into two distinct persons?
2. Be transported into a parallel universe?
3. Be turned inside out?
I'd rather take a bus.

Kathy said...

I would take a transporter to a parallel universe! :)

It's caused major problems, yes, but it never came close to destroying the ship or killing off the crew (not that I recall offhand). It's also saved numerous non-red shirt crew, often in dramatic fashion at the last possible instant. I think that makes up for merging Neelix and Tuvok.

Legend has it Roddenberry made it up because he couldn't figure out how to land the Enterprise.

Unknown said...

I believe there was communcations for the Habitat, however it was the communications tower/dish that was destroyed in the storm, part of which injured our intrepid hero. That's why he had to go to the trouble of finding Pathfinger etc.

Robert Scherrer said...

Thanks! Apparently this was explained more clearly in the book (which I haven't read) than in the movie. Although it's also not clear why he couldn't just repair the radio dish. Duct tape works wonders.

Bobby B said...

The book is well worth reading - significantly better than the movie in my opinion. The communications problem was explained quite well in the book in a plausible way.