Imagine you are stranded on Mars, fifty million miles from the nearest Starbucks. You can recycle water and oxygen (if the equipment doesn’t fail) but you only have enough food for maybe 200 days, and the earliest possible rescue (if they even figure out you’re alive) would be in something like 500 days. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the only music you have to listen to is ‘80s disco. Holy John Travolta!
This may be the most accurate space travel movie made since 2001: A Space Odyssey. The author of the book, Andy Weir, took great pains to make sure all the orbital elements and such were accurate and would work. In this, the real world, no one is going to pile Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones and others into a spare spaceship that just happens to be lying around and blast off in twenty-four hours, getting to Mars a day later. The words “Hohmann orbit” are actually uttered, a term for the most economical but quite slow path to Mars that will be familiar to readers of Heinlein’s space stories of the 1950s. The big ship uses an ion drive. The rules of space travel are hard and fast and unforgiving, and unless you have a radical new means of propulsion (see my novels in the Thunder and Lightning series), it is going to take a lot of time to get from Earth to Mars, and a lot of waiting time for the planets to reposition themselves for the trip back.
It is so accurate, in fact, that I worry that a lot of people will find it boring, since there isn’t and cannot be any slam-bang action to get things moving. You just have to wait. Yes, there are moments of great tension as bad things happen or as risky maneuvers are tried, but can this kind of story really compete with The Avengers? I sure hope so. Opening weekend numbers have been quite good, so maybe there is a market for a movie about how hard but interesting it is to grow potatoes in your own shit. Another disadvantage is that there are no bad guys here. The Martian’s closest relative is Apollo 13, where a lot of tech people get together and try to solve a lot of problems. There can be conflict concerning how to go about it, but we’re all on the same side, really. We want to get him home.
And yes, no film is perfect. There are small cheats along the way, and one real big one right out of the gate. The air on Mars is so thin that even a hell of a gale could not work up enough energy to blow over an ascent vehicle. But I didn’t mind, because there are plenty of other scenarios I can see that could have the same result, one man left behind, and hell … it was an exciting scene. And there was one excruciatingly silly scene I could have done without, when the mathematical genius is explaining how to use a gravitational slingshot orbit by positioning people and using staplers and stuff to be Earth, Mars, and the ship. Come on, please! These people would know exactly what he was talking about, and would want to see the numbers on a screen, not flying staplers with a guy making rocket noises with his mouth. Other than that, though, it is a terrific story, well told.
BTW: We paid extra to see it in 3D, something we seldom do. It paid off. This is not in-your-face 3D, nor is it whiplash 3D. The effect simply gives all the scenes great depth, as it should. So even if you are not a big fan of the process, you might want to give this one a try.