Ridley Scott’s The Martian has been dominating the domestic box office for the last two weeks, but does the science in the film hold up to any scrutiny whatsoever? Astrophysicist and college professor Andy Howell decided to investigate this topic as part of his newly launched YouTube series, Science Vs. Cinema. Due to its proximity to Earth, Mars has received more attention from sci-fi filmmakers than any other planet in the solar system, leading to such efforts as 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, which may have taken one or two liberties with science in its quest to tell an entertaining Yuletide story. Over a half century later, the scientific community has much more information about Mars, since the Red Planet is practically crawling with rovers, snooping around in every last crater. Scott, whose résumé includes such sci-fi classics as Alien and Blade Runner, was attracted to the screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian because of the story’s inherent realism and wanted to put all that new-found information to use. Science Vs. Cinema runs a few experiments and talks with some real-life scientists and NASA employees, as well as members of The Martian’s own cast and crew, to see how successful Scott was.
Happily, Howell finds that The Martian is not a complete slap in the face of science. Sure, the movie fudges the facts when it comes to little trivialities like gravity, that eternal bugaboo of sci-fi flicks. And the movie’s ferocious Martian dust storm is mostly a plot contrivance with little resemblance to reality, as dust storms on Mars are actually kind of lame. But there is good news, too, as Howell gives the film high marks in its portrayal of Mars rovers, space travel, and what the host calls “scientific MacGyver-ing.” Best of all, Howell says, is the positive and realistic way in which The Martian portrays astronauts as normal, level-headed, even-tempered team players, not socially maladroit nerds or risk-taking hotheads. “Hollywood always tries to inject artificial drama,” says Howell, “by making their astronauts both crazy and stupid.” Among the worst offenders cited by the host is star Matt Damon’s previous film, Interstellar, and Scott’s Prometheus. For the most part, The Martian gets it right when portraying the men and women in the field of space exploration. Meanwhile, comic relief in the episode is provided by Jeff Daniels, who happily admits that he flunked science and did not bother to read the book upon which The Martian is based.