Written by Ben Casey. Media by Bekah Dothager.
Stranded 33.9 million miles from home, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) must find a way to survive the inhospitable landscape of Mars. The Martian is basically Castaway in space – not that it’s a bad thing! The movie captures a sort of isolation that is almost numbing in its emptiness and distance from everything we know through the gorgeous backdrops of the empty Mars. It also manages to give a kind of desperation to every single thing Mark tries to survive. The movie keeps a constant tension that builds as Mark gets closer and closer to both rescue and death.
The movie also happens to be one of the most accurate sci-fi films of recent memory while refusing to belittle or talk down to its audience. The film explains scientific concepts as if the audience already has some idea of what’s going on and just needs to be filled in on some details. The result is that the film doesn’t feel condescending or “too smart” and also is not dumbed down to the point where science is being treated as magic duct tape that fixes everything without trouble.
However, as a result of this being a movie, it’s next to impossible for it to be 100% scientifically accurate. So what were some of the scientific liberties taken by the film? Where should the astronauts be space dust? Where should they have not had any issues? Let’s take a look.
This article contains spoilers! I suggest you see the movie before reading!
The movie begins with the astronauts on Mars being caught in a dust storm. The storm is absolutely terrifying. Large pockets of dust are thrown around everywhere as visibility is cut to only a foot or two in front of them. This storm is what causes Mark to be left behind as he is hit and knocked away by debris.
In reality, though, while Mars does have dust storms with winds greater than 100 mph, Mars’s atmosphere is so thin, 38% of Earth’s, that the wind would feel like a 10 mph breeze to the astronauts.
While a lot of the movie takes place inside a kind of makeshift space station on Mars called the “HAB,” or Mars Lander Habitat, most of the time we see Mark hopping around the surface of Mars, going on week-long trips and generally enjoying being the only person on a planet as much as you really can.
The movie goes over most of the dangers of Mars quite well but misses one big issue of being on the red planet. The radiation is so intense on Mars that 6 months there would probably give you a healthy dose of fatal cancer. Although you probably wouldn’t have to worry about the cancer because the heart attack and lung problems from the radiation would probably kill you first. Now, it is possible that in the time the movie takes place in, NASA made sure to have some way to counteract this. The movie doesn’t mention this, however, and Mark is hopping around in his space suit on Mars for nearly two years. Really, the radioactive isotope he has in the back of his Mars rover doesn’t seem all that bad when you realize all of Mars is more or less just as bad.
The astronauts in The Martian hang out in space, without gravity, a lot. In addition to this, on Mars you’re only ⅓ of your weight on Earth. The astronauts even take a vote later in the film to stay in space longer!
Imagine zero-gravity as a drug. The effects include bone loss of 1% a month, fainting spells upon reentering gravity, Alzheimer-like symptoms, cardiovascular weakness, and muscle atrophy. The movie implies the astronauts spend a minimum of 16 months in space. This is more than enough time for all of these to become very serious problems. Zero-gravity: not even once.
In the film, Mark goes through a lot of troubles, nearly blowing himself up, in order to make himself water to survive and allow him to grow more food using a combination of martian soil and homemade manure (yeah, it was his own poop).
Although the fact that Mars has water was only revealed by NASA after the film came out, it’s a known fact that Mars has pockets of ice everywhere below the surface as well as glaciers wrapping around it. A simpler way for Mark to survive that involved less blowing up and more surviving would have been digging up some of that. Of course, that would mean we would get one less explosion, so I understand the writer’s choice.