Time to take a break from the historical fails and successes of real spaceflight to look at cinema’s attempt to make space themed fail into movie success.

I wanted to shine a light on four space-fiction films that try to illustrate an attempt at interplanetary trips and critique how close they were consistent to science fact as well as whether their plot was sufficiently entertaining, even if marginally plausible. Often enough, the resulting story is a fail because the science or characterization simply doesn’t make enough sense or isn’t fortified enough by the world-building nature of fiction.

Before you read on, be warned that I’ll significantly make spoilers ahead in the review. It can’t be helped.

Red Planet (2000) and Mission to Mars (2000)

For some unfathomable reason, two films arrived in the same year that involved a fateful exploration of Mars. Both hinge on implausible plot devices found on the surface, but let’s get to the micro-synopsis of both first.

Could the SFX make Mars redder? I’m just asking, ’cause it’s really red. Like blood. Perhaps that’s a metaphor.

In Red Planet, ecological crises on Earth lead to a desperate mission to Mars to find anything to save Earth there. Yeah. Because barren, lifeless, cold Martian deserts are bound to hold the salvation of Earth. The six-member crew make it to Mars only for their mothership to be waylaid by some solar storm thingie, which causes all but the ship’s commander to evacuate the ship, making a rough landing on the planet. Lost and running low on air, the crew locate their habitat, only to find it completely destroyed. The Martian version of “Ten Little Indians” begins as one crewmember after another dies as they try to communicate with their mothership and find a way off the planet.

In Mission to Mars, a Martian expedition discovers something very powerful that appears to kill several crew and leave the fate of others in doubt. Because NASA has lots of money when rescuing astronauts, a rescue mission arrives and is waylaid by a meteoroid storm. It’s surviving crew barely make it to the surface because of a random problem to find a lone survivor and (uh) an amazing secret.

Despite some decent acting and great special effects, both of these films bit the big one in box office payouts. Here’s one possible reason for both failures: Aliens.

Yep. In Red Planet, the convenient salvation of the Earth (and the inadvertent primary antagonist) are little Martian beetles, dormant for eons until Earth seeded the planet with algae in homes of terraforming the planet, giving the beasties food and a population explosion that eats their habitat and threatens to kill the last of the crew. Oh, yeah.

The beetle’s mass consumption of the algae also created sufficient oxygen and atmospheric pressure for the crew to breathe. Funny that the crew’s instruments, in orbit or below, cannot detect this until everyone is wheezing from hypoxia and pulls open their space suit visors in desperation.

Gallagher (the ship’s resourceful “janitor,” played by Val Kilmer) manages to get off Mars using a derelict Russian lander’s sample return container, with the mission commander catching him before the ship manages enough power to leave for home.

Mission to Mars goes one step weirder. The rescue crew discover that the “face of Mars” mountain really is a face–and a marker to a structure built by an ancient Martian civilization, which left their world when it became inhabitable. It’s security system creates hostile programmed windstorms (yes) that nearly kill the initial expedition. The structure later explains (after all the deaths) that the humans were part of a life-seeding from the Martians and that Earthlings are relations. Gary Sinise (no stranger to space rescues) accepts an invite to visit the Martians at their new digs, wherever they are, flying away from Mars in some space gelatin.

If I had a favorite of the two, it would be Red Planet since the beetles plot device was far more digestible than the surviving intelligent aliens bit of Mission. Also, Red Planet tried to play with some harder science in its transportation with centripetal gravity on its mothership and some decent science on how shipboard fires work when the ship goes back to micro-gravity. Also, Carrie-Anne Moss resembles my future wife and was easy on the eyes.


Interstellar (2014)

After completing his magnum opus film (Inception) and wrapping up a well-received trilogy of Batman films (which convinced studios to fund Inception), director Christopher Nolan and his brother took on writing and filming a space adventure.

The plot is a bit meandering in complexity, although not so impossible to understand that it made a very respectable profit at the box office. Perhaps as well, hey, it’s a Christopher Nolan film, so promotional materials made it clear that this thing came from the Batman director.

The Earth is dying (again). NASA (now more of a black-ops governmental operation that deliberately hides its past to make it easier to work on crazy ideas) makes space ventures to find another world for humanity to survive via transplanted embryos, or solve a special gravitational equation that would allow a mass exodus of humanity.

Surprisingly, Mars isn’t the setting for any of the film’s events. No, no.

Conveniently, a wormhole appears near Saturn (never mind the time it would take for a human to reach that planet from Earth, or the radiation danger) to use to move from extrasolar planet to planet. Failure after failure occurs (including rescuing a stranded Matt Damon from a planet) until the central character realizes that he’s been in some kind of stable space/time loop that allows him to communicate to his daughter on Earth (after falling into a black hole, naturally). She realizes that there isn’t a descent planet yet but Dad helps her resolve the gravitational equation and Earth is saved. Yay.

Interstellar, while entertaining enough and containing sufficiently realistic technologies, relies more on space fantasy than fact, generating devices in space for the plot rather than using so many existing challenges and advantages that space travel and the planets already possess. It’s watchable, although only once for me: The film is nearly 3 hours long. Wormholes? That’s Star Trek stuff, especially since the film implies that the survivors of humanity evolve and become their own savior. It’s not that mixing space with fantasy is bad (there’s Star Wars as one of many examples), but that fantasy is an easy out for film without supporting stronger, although admittedly more complicated science in fiction.

This leads to my favorite, which shows what science fiction can be in film.

The Martian (2015)

I’m sure that Andy Weir (writer of the book from which this film was adapted) had seen the films above. That didn’t stop him from casually writing a better version of Red Planet or, better, a Robinson Crusoe on Mars (which was also made long ago).

Stop me if this is familiar. A Mars expedition is forced to leave prematurely. One member is left behind, presumed dead, and is left with only a limited food supply, no means to get home, some leftover equipment, and his wits. That plot’s been done before, too, I’m sure. Ecclesiastes 1:10-12, my friends.

What makes The Martian interesting, plausible and certainly the most entertaining of the lot? Let’s break it down.

1) No one dies.

The central character is threatened with death a few times. But he’s also surrounded by realistic technologies and a very keen intellect that keeps him alive. Machines that clean water and air. A habitat that is built strong (enough) and shields from solar radiation that will kill a man if left exposed for too long. Filters and valves and connectors that are standard (“Apollo 13 taught us important lessons”, says the character). And science. Lots and lots of science.

Yeah, and Matt Damon is stranded on yet another planet, as in Interstellar.

2) No, really! Science.

The movie adaptation is actually much weaker than the novel in explaining the character’s creative but very plausible processes that keep himself alive. Breaking down rocket fuel to make water is quite doable (albeit dangerous). Spacecraft that make their own fuels from the Martian atmosphere? Doable. (This is why the next-generation rockets are developing engines that burn methane, which you can synthesize from a Martian atmosphere). Growing food in Martian soil? Mostly doable, although Weir didn’t know at the time that much of the Martian soil has salts that would make crops taste bad, if not make them toxic.

Yes, the idea of a resourceful stranded Martian astronaut appears in Red Planet earlier. The plausibility of using old Mars probes in rescue also appeared there first. But The Martian goes deeper with characterization.

The book takes the central character through several more calamities than his film counterpart must endure. Understandable omissions that, if added, might have made the film longer than needed.

The only flub in science was intentional: the sandstorm that strands the astronaut. The very low atmospheric pressure of Mars would make its version of a gale hardly move anything, much less a multi-ton spacecraft. Weir admitted he had to figure out something to start off the plot. The rest of the story stays firmly on the side of hard science fiction.

3) No aliens or wormholes or other fantasy doohickeys.

None. Zilch. No ancient artifacts. No space wedgies. No bugs. Just a man and his will to survive. Eye of the tiger, baby.

While the real National Aeronautics and Space Administration never officially endorses any film, a sign of a great film is when the agency offers some support for it. Apollo 13 gained use of the microgravity-creating and lunch-returning KC-135 “Vomit Comet” aircraft, and a few old faces offered to show the actors the ropes in both ground and space training. Likewise, The Martian had access to NASA people who served effectively as science consultants for the film. In return, NASA used the film’s debut as publicity that tied it into their actual development of space vehicles and plans that could put a real expedition on Mars, some day.

As thanks and as part of the collaboration, the front page of the script was flown on the test Orion spacecraft during the EFT-1 mission.

4) Humor and a hint of NASA’s greatest glory days.

Mission to Mars, Red Planet and Interstellar could be made a movie bundle and be collectively titled as: Grim, More Grim and Just Kill Us Already.

Mark Watney, the central character, speaks to the reader through logs he leaves as a journal in case he doesn’t make it. While Watney isn’t too dissimilar from Red Planet’s Gallagher (also with mechanical expertise), you learn to quickly care about Watney because he keeps his humor in a very terrible situation. He’s completely alone, believed dead (and knows that everyone on Earth assumes this), has limited food, no communication home, and has to devise a way to keep himself alive for four years until the next Mars expedition arrives, while figuring out a way to travel to their landing site over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away.

The strength of the plot of the film (and especially the book) are the characters. Like the Apollo 13 film (based on real people, of course) the film adaptation of The Martian works because there is a reason to care. While the characters are fictitious (the story is set in 2035), we learn of them as real people to whom we can relate. The events are futuristic but hardly unfamiliar. NASA and the planet don’t appear to be cancelling the Mars space project over a death. They grieve and move on, like the real folks did after Challenger and other tragedies.

It doesn’t hurt that The Martian remains, by far, the most humorous of the four films. Watney is a wise-cracker. One of the reasons why he was selected for the Ares 3 crew is because his humor created a greater rapport and durability against stress for himself and the rest of the crew. The more challenging the events, the greater that Watney’s humor shined. The characters on Earth are fully aware of past history and strive to be like the flight controllers and managers of 70 years before that saved other crews.

If you enjoy the film first, reading Andy Weir’s novelization afterwards will feel greater than epic. It’s clearly the best story of the lot.

The Martian and all other films are available on iTunes and certainly other online resources, if not gathering dust at your local video store.