How Real is ‘The Martian’?

Science fiction, or fictional science?

by Dave Taylor | Updated 08 Oct 2015 at 7:49 AM

Based on a best-selling book by Andy Weir, “The Martian” is dominating the box office with its mix of science, adventure and humor.

If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat as stranded Martian researcher Mark Watney (Matt Damon) struggles to survive on the hostile planet as he waits years for a rescue attempt to be launched from Earth.

While the film has the aura of hard science, it's still a movie. Is it accurate? Despina Kakoudaki, a professor at American University, is the author of the fascinating new book "Anatomy of a Robot," and LifeZette went directly to the expert for answers.

Question: One thing that differentiates the most recent crop of "space mishap" movies (notably "Gravity" and "The Martian") is the lack of an artificial intelligence presence. No omniscient computer like HAL as in "2001: A Space Odyssey," no creepy synthetic like "David" (Michael Fassbender) from "Prometheus." Just people and the dark void of space. What do you make of this?

Answer: We now have a more everyday understanding of robots and their abilities and limits, and so the omniscient robot seems more fictional, and the evil robot villain is not believable in the same way anymore. The more we understand the technology behind robots, the less prone we are to make them into totally outrageous fictional entities.

We also have experiences of very good, very smart technological applications (our cellphones, for example), and we depend on them, but our familiarity also means that we won't fall for "my cellphone is out to kill me" because we have a sense of the abilities of the technology. So I think this explains why we don't see the villainous robot or AI in films as much any more, especially these kinds of films like 'Gravity' or 'The Martian' that want to stay within realistic representations of technology.

There are no spaces on Earth that are completely without life.

The second issue is that actually we see less of an overt relationship with computers in these films than we have in everyday life. We look up a lot more, we Google things, we carry our phones with us all the time, we consult with them for our schedule, our appointments, our contact information, our travel plans, etc.

If I imagine myself stranded in another planet, I would not only miss the presence of other people, but I would also miss the archive of ideas and solutions that the Internet now represents for me. I think part of the effect here is that in 'The Martian' we have a real focus on self-reliance and knowledge and being able to do things on your own, based on intelligence, training and know-how and engineering capabilities.

So showing him without a constant AI presence accentuates his alone-ness and the requirement that he has to figure things out for himself. His suit and his rovers and his habitat actually contain a lot of AI. They are keeping him alive, constantly monitoring and adapting and recalibrating his environment, constantly scanning for problems.

Q: On a more scientific bent, Watney takes sterile Martian soil, adds human waste and water he's generated by separating out and recombining hydrogen and oxygen. Would that really create a sufficiently fertile soil that potatoes — or anything else — would grow?

A. They explain some of that in the book as a kind of composting, that Martian soil is sterile, but he adds some earth soil that he has brought with him, and it has Earth bacteria and microorganisms, and then his own body bacteria also work to activate the Martian soil. It is like a composting process, and the book mentions the old definition of using human waste as fertilizer that was described as "night soil."

There are lots of historical examples of how that works, but I don't know if it would be enough on Mars. We have such a wealth of microorganisms on Earth, the whole planet is alive at a microscopic level, and I don't know what would be enough in the absolute absence of all that life on Mars. There are no spaces on Earth that are completely without life, even the most extreme spaces have what are called "extremophile" bacteria that can live in boiling water and inside volcanoes or inside rocks.

Q: ​More generally, "The Martian" is gaining rave reviews for its (ostensible) realism. What did you find most realistic and most unbelievable about the film?

A: Both for this film and for ​"​Gravity,​"​ I love the use of special effects to create believable sequences of space travel. I think it is such a great use of the CGI technology, and it is so inspiring. I was a space-obsessed kid when I was growing up and now I am a film scholar. For me, these sequences allow such visual pleasure, to see things that are impossible, the ​E​arth from above, the surface of Mars, in such definition and with such realism, it is really transporting.

The evil robot villain is not believable in the same way any more.

These are different heroic narratives because they reward both formal specialization and training, being a scientist or a specialist in a field, and also more general qualities such as curiosity, scientific understanding, mechanical handiness and adaptability.

Again, note that I am not just saying these are about the individual, because the film does not depict a purely individualistic narrative. It has a lot of teamwork, a lot of international and cross-cultural communication, and a lot of knowledge and specialization. As an educator, I love the depiction of expertise, that it is worth it to know things, to be curious and driven about things.

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