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Silver screen science

by DoDo Mon Oct 5th, 2015 at 03:38:44 PM EST

After Gravity two years ago and Interstellar last year, the recently released The Martian is the third big-budget hard sci-fi movie with an ambition to show more than escapist fantasy. The more so as this story of a Martian Robinsonade and an interplanetary rescue mission was based on a hard sci-fi novel in which the calm application of the scientific method is the key to survival. So I watched with even higher expectations on scientific realism. But, while the film is spectacular and relatively well-acted, and there was plenty of applied science – from growing plants to establishing communication with Earth –, unfortunately, director Ridley Scott played more fast and loose than the creators of the previous two films.


Film-makers must be given some room for bending realism to make images more accessible or to advance the story, but here are two examples when lack of scientific realism served no narrative purpose.

On several occasions, it is emphasized to the viewer that the pressure of the Martian atmosphere is way too low for humans, but the stuff flying in sandstorms can act like projectiles. So at one point the hero seals the opening of a habitation module with a plastic bag, which bulges outward when he restores human-tolerable high pressure inside. So what happens when a sandstorm arrives? Nothing punctures the (left unprotected) plastic bag ‐ but, two orders of magnitude pressure difference be damned, the first gust makes the bulge flip inwards.

Later on, when it comes to the escape vehicle, the fact that a spaceship's acceleration is the higher the lower mass it has (in other words, Newton's Second Law of Motion) is made a central plot point. So what happens when our hero leaves Mars? He turns unconscious from maximum acceleration right after launch (when the mass of spaceship+rocket+fuel is at its maximum...), then stuff floats in front of him in weightlessness seconds before the rocket burns out...

As for lack of realism with a purpose, some of that bugged me for other reasons. Above all, topography. Mars does have some spectacular topography (especially around Valles Marineris), but Scott put steep-sided rocky mountains with sedimentary layers just about everywhere, even at well-known spots (like the landing site of Pathfinder). This film obviously aims to reinvigorate public support for manned spaceflight, but it defeats the purpose that reality can't compete with such flights of fancy.

Finally, a lack of realism of a different kind was the Chinese sub-plot. I don't know how prominent that was in the book, but in the film, the total lack of depth of the Chinese characters gave all the appearance of an uninspired and unenthusiastic plot element added solely as a sop to the large potential movie audience in China. (More in the seed comment.)

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Two other films I saw in recent months left lasting impressions.

One was the Norwegian dark comedy Here is Harold. In this tale about old people, parents and sons and Scandinavian alcoholism, a furniture shop owner who loses everything after an IKEA store opens next door sets out to take revenge by kidnapping Ingvar Kamprad (the founder of IKEA), in which he succeeds, but in the least satisfying fashion.

I was particularly impressed by the portrayal of Kamprad as an absolutely insufferable old buffoon, one who preaches simplicity but doesn't live it and dismisses the significance of his Nazi past and can't be made to see his responsibility for anything. After reading up on the real Kamprad, it seems that this acidic negative portrayal was absolutely spot-on. Considering that the film also slagged off the quality of IKEA products and put IKEA business practices in negative light at every opportunity, I am still perplexed that IKEA, far from suing the film-makers, even allowed them to film in one of their stores. There is the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but if so IKEA took it to a whole new level.

The other film that impressed me was Mad Max: Fury Road. And not just for the non-CGI action and madness like the guitar man. I read in advance some claim that actress Charlize Theron's performance eclipsed that of Tom Hardy as the title character, but then found the truth that the director had the guts to relegate the title character to a supporting role in what is the first feminist post-apocalyptic movie (even behind the scenes, with a 78-year-old actress doing her own stunts). Later I read that this attack on the patriarchate triggered a boycott call from misogynists, and a blog dedicated to the sublime feminist messages.

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Regarding the Chinese scenes in The Martian, it didn't help when I recognised the filming location: Budapest's ugly new Palace of Arts doubled as China's space centre. It says something of outdated American notions of China that they thought the 40-year-old East German trains running on the nearby suburban line are a fitting background, and that not even for the present (when China's metros are already the most modern in the world) but at least 15 years in the future.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Oct 5th, 2015 at 03:47:03 PM EST
Martian Science?

The article was written by an advocate for an immediate voyage however.


The US space programme today is frozen in its tracks. Nasa talks about sending humans to Mars in 2043, but that's just postponing it for another generation. We're much closer today to being able to send people to Mars than we were to sending people to the Moon in 1961. If Barack Obama's successor were to commit the nation, in the spring of 2017, with the same kind of courage and determination that JFK did in 1961, we could be on Mars before the end of his or her second term. It's a question of political will to me. That's the real positive message of The Martian. It's saying, "we can do it. If we use our minds, we can take on all these challenges".


"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Tue Oct 6th, 2015 at 01:39:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How scientifically accurate is The Martian? | Film | The Guardian
...the ship was so big and elaborate and expensive-looking. Going to Mars is not about realising the vision of a giant science-fiction spaceship, it is about sending a payload from Earth to Mars that is capable of supporting a small group of people, and then sending that or a comparable payload back. There'll be ships like that some day, just like there were ocean liners a few hundred years after Columbus made his voyage. But if Columbus had waited for ocean liners, or even clipper ships, he never would have gone anywhere.

On this one, I am less negative, for two reasons. First, the spaceship in the film seemed to have an ion drive, which makes a much lower fuel mass per payload mass ratio possible, plus almost all of the spaceship can be re-usable (as in the film). So, if the technology is available by the time of a Mars mission, it could be cost-effective. Second, the greatest danger to astronauts on a Mars mission is cosmic rays (the film said little about this BTW), which you can deal with if you have an on-board magnetic field, and methinks you need a larger spaceship for that, too.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Oct 7th, 2015 at 06:51:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Too powerful to be an ion drive. Most likely something like this: https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/718391main_Werka_2011_PhI_FFRE.pdf

First you take a dozen nuclear warheads, then you take them apart, and grind the cores into nano-scale dust. Radioactive decay will make this dust very highly electrically charged, which means you can - in low gravities - suspend it in magnetic fields. So you take a magnetic bottle, expose it to vaccum, surround it with a moderator, and pour in bombdust until it goes critical. Since this reactor core is mostly vaccuum, each atom that splits mostly doesn't turn into heat - instead the halves of the former fissile atom try to leave the magnetic bottle going at 4-5 percent of the speed of light. Use more magnets to point this stream of particles out the back, and it's a rocket. An absurdly good rocket. I mean, you can't take off from anything bigger than ceres using it, and you should avoid pointing the exhaust directly at planet earth (as long as you point it even slightly away from any planets, the exhaust will be leaving the solar system shortly. So, no this isn't a polluting engine...) but.. the isp's and the masses it allows you to move are very impressive.
Space exploration fueled by disarmament, what's not to like?

by Thomas on Sun Oct 11th, 2015 at 09:07:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For what it's worth, Ridley Scott is British. Anyway, he is a very visually-oriented director but can be quite relaxed about details. The Counselor is set in the Texan-Mexico borderlands, but was mostly filmed in Spain and the UK. Scott passed off Canada Square in Canary Wharf as downtown El Paso, and there's also a nightclub where the exterior is a modern industrial unit in Spain and the interior is "underneath the arches" of a Victorian railway viaduct. There are even a few scenes where inconvenient backgrounds are blocked by red London buses...
by Gag Halfrunt on Wed Oct 7th, 2015 at 07:07:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ridley Scott is British

Yeah I know, but by now he is thoroughly Americanised...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Oct 7th, 2015 at 08:33:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That reminds me, CSR Zhouzhou is building EMUs and DMUs for Macedonia, which are low floor and compliant with TSI requirements. I dare say the first order for Chinese passenger trains from an EU operator will come in the next few years, if it hasn't already happened.
by Gag Halfrunt on Mon Oct 12th, 2015 at 07:21:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the movie tips, in particular Her er Harold.

European Tribune - Silver screen science

I was particularly impressed by the portrayal of Kamprad as an absolutely insufferable old buffoon, one who preaches simplicity but doesn't live it and dismisses the significance of his Nazi past and can't be made to see his responsibility for anything. After reading up on the real Kamprad, it seems that this acidic negative portrayal was absolutely spot-on.

Sounds indeed spot on.

European Tribune - Silver screen science

Considering that the film also slagged off the quality of IKEA products and put IKEA business practices in negative light at every opportunity, I am still perplexed that IKEA, far from suing the film-makers, even allowed them to film in one of their stores.

I can't find any reaction from IKEA. Based on that I filming in the store may or may not have been an oversight in not shecking the script, but it also fits a general policy of being accessible. Not suing fits their general communication strategy of avoiding public conflicts. When they have to comment on Kamprad's nazi ties or shoddy practises in third world factories they have a standard script that they deliver well and then stops commenting. Eventually they roll out their next commercial which takes up a much larger piece of the publics awareness then the critique that already has been stuffed in the memory hole.

by fjallstrom on Tue Oct 6th, 2015 at 03:57:33 PM EST
Your diary made me go and watch it tonight, I just came back 15 minutes ago. So this comment might look a little over the top after I have properly cooled off and got my rationale back.

Because: damn. When in South Africa, a friend of mine who works in film himself, would often exit these blockbusters shaking his head and muttering, 'Damn those Americans.' I felt much alike walking back - the movie is a cinematic triumph, indeed in line with Gravity and Interstellar.

As a story, I think The Martian ultimately works better than Interstellar - like you, I got put off by the mumbo jumbo in the latter to resolve the narrative. While this movie stretches our science towards a nearby horizon still within reach. That, and the way how the movie celebrates scientific achievement, it is no wonder people start wondering, so how come we did pause the space programme? If it takes movies to inspire people thinking and dreaming positively big again, I'm all for it.

I watched all three movies in the local cinema. Each time, also tonight, it was packed. Delft hosts a technical university, complete with a Space Engineering department. Or put differently, this is nerd-city central. Just like the previous movies, people around me began discussing science and physics bloopers, straight when credits began to roll. Your pique on the Martian atmosphere, and particularly what this means for the Martian storms, was noted. I wondered about it myself briefly, but not knowing the numbers, I went along with the story and bought it.

What I immediately didn't buy were the low detailed maps people were using (more people noticed). As rock person, I was rooting all movie long for only one shot of a volcanic edifice - alas. Though I even went along with all the focus on sedimentary rocks. I guess it's just too tantalizing for Hollywood with the recent pictures suggestive of stromatolites.

On a whole different tangent, I don't know if it was already in the book, though I suspect the injection of disco in this movie was either a nod to (or directly ripped from) the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy. Then again, just like it worked there to great effects, it worked here too. Yeah 70s.

More, please.

by Bjinse on Wed Oct 7th, 2015 at 07:28:13 PM EST


A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Oct 19th, 2015 at 06:03:22 AM EST


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