Saturday, 21 May 2016

Film: The Martian (2015)

The Martian is one of those films with a simple and straightforward plot about which not a lot can be said. There are obvious comparisons with Gravity, the 2013 film which also concentrated on a single astronaut's efforts to get home after a disaster in space. That film concentrated on the experience of being in space – the silence, the awkwardness in a bulky space suit, the disorientation of having no "up" or "down", the sharp clarity of the stations in the airless sunlight, the jaw-dropping views. The Martian is rather more conventional in that most of it takes place on Mars or on Earth. The views of "Mars" are spectacular but not that alien (they were shot in Jordan) so the focus is more on the human and scientific story of how the hero (Matt Damon) manages to stay alive when accidentally left behind on the planet while desperate attempts are made to send a rescue mission.

This is an involving story, one for adults to appreciate. A couple of technical aspects bothered me – maybe they were explained, but if so I missed them. First, although there is much emphasis on the shortage of food and water, oxygen seems in plentiful supply. Huge quantities of it are lost every time the airlock or rover vehicle is opened, and more when hydrazine is burned to create water, but there seem to be no worries about running out of it, so where is it all coming from? The requirement is far more than could feasibly be met by carrying it on the lander.

The second point concerns the decision to send the spacecraft back to collect the stranded man. The huge increase in the time the other astronauts would spend in space is discussed, but only in terms of the length of time they would spend away from their families – the problem of exposure to radiation is not mentioned. Every recent analysis of the practical problems of manned missions to Mars I have read focuses on the danger of radiation as the most difficult to tackle; the background levels of radiation in space and on Mars are much higher than they are on Earth, and one solar flare sweeping though the craft could prove fatal. Genetic damage seems almost inevitable and the cancer risk increased, leading to suggestions that only pensioners should be sent on such missions. Despite this, two of the astronauts are shown at the end of the film, married and with a baby, which made me wince a bit.

More generally, I couldn't help thinking that the feelgood ending was more than a little unlikely. As with Gravity, the likely consequences of any such disasters would be a complete lack of survivors! Despite these niggles it is an enjoyable film, well worth seeing.

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