Film Review: The Martian


RATING: 8/10. (Please note my ratings system is harsh and virtually no films get a 10).

In 2011, American sci-fi giant Neal Stephenson bewailed the pessimism prevalent in the genre and called for writers to start thinking more positively about the possibilities of technology in order to inspire new generations to “get big stuff done.”

Of course, he himself hardly set a great example in the next four years with his latest tome.

But the Martian most definitely did. In this hard sci-fi scenario, an astronaut stranded on Mars has to figure out how to survive until a rescue mission could be organized. To do this, he has to, in his own words, “science the shit” of the scarce oxygen and food resources at his disposal, while a NASA that is much better funded than in real life has to solve its own set of problems, which at first glance appear intractable.

Making the story of one solitary man’s struggle to survive is not a enviable task, but the creators pull it off with ample wit and verve. The protagonist Mark Watney is constantly cracking Nerd Lite jokes with himself and mission control in his struggle with the remorseless but indifferent main villain, the Red Planet itself.

nasa-survival-on-the-moonScientific and technical problems are explained in a way that is neither patronizing nor unintelligible to the average viewer. These problems, though varied, all tend to be in the general spirit of the classic “Survival on the Moon” exercise compiled by NASA, in which different options have to be weighed against each other in a way that in a way that could tip the otherwise dismal odds of survival in your favor.

There are frequent references and homages to NASA themes. The “Rich Purnell manoeuvre” that ultimately enabled Watney’s survival is a direct nod to NASA mathematician Michael Minovitch’s idea of a gravity assist to propel Voyager past all four of the gas giants and into deep space (though the theoretical basis for it had been as early as the 1930s in the Soviet Union).

The film appears to be faithful to NASA culture, down to the contrast between the formal and besuited setting of NASA HQ and the more casual setting of its Jet Propulsion Laboratories. As in real world space exploration, duct tape is the solution to a lot of problems. The “no duct tape on Mars” trope is most decidedly averted.

Most of the challenges faced appear to be technically accurate. This is not surprising, since the book by Andy Weir that the film is based on was rigorously researched and initially published chapter by chapter on his website, where space nerds with encyclopedic knowledge on everything space related continuously corrected him.

There are certainly errors now and then. (I have not read the book and probably will not anytime soon, so these apply exclusively to the film). Gravity on Mars appears a bit too Earth like, with astronauts having to really physically apply themselves to scramble up ladders. Although Mars has the occasional storm, the much thinner atmosphere means that even the most furious tempests will be perceived as a light breeze; certainly nowhere near strong enough to uproot a pole and spear it into Watney. For a novel ostensibly set in 2035, comms systems act as if they are half a century out of date, just to serve a couple of plot points (if otherwise very elegant and clever ones). An astronaut propels himself around the outside of a spacecraft without a tether, while making an appearance in the one case in which a teether would have actually been redundant.

mars-radiationAnother criticism of the film is that the astronauts should be all dying of cancer by the end of the film because of all the cosmic radiation (there are no obvious attempts to shield them from it). I am rather skeptical of this. The radiation dose Mars explorers receive will only be 3x as great as that received by astronauts who spend half a year on the International Space Station. But those guys aren’t keeling over dead. Theoretical research shows that the lifetime risk of cancer will only increase by three percentage points over baseline for astronauts who go to Mars, and in real life perhaps outcomes will if anything be even less dire because of the hormetic effects of radiation exposure.

Has anyone actually performed any concrete demographic studies of the death rate from cancer for astronauts (as opposed to theoretical projections)? Let me know in the comments.

But all these are ultimately minor triffles. At its root, it is a highly optimistic, positive, and inspirational story about the victory of technology and human ingenuity over the challenges posed by the last frontier. There should be more of these kinds of cultural products for civilization to continue to flourish.

The Martian is an excellent film, by far the best sci-fi flick this year along with Ex Machina, and incomparably better than the banal Hollywood fare that was Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and by all indications, the final Hunger Games movie.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Before reading the post or even the title, let me guess: this will be the long awaited blog post about the downing of Russian SU24 bomber jet at the Turkish-Syrian border. I’m sure I won’t be disappointed. And now I’m looking forward to reading it!

  2. in real life perhaps outcomes will if anything be even less dire because of the hormetic effects of radiation exposure.

    Astronauts are also more intelligent than average, and IQ means longevity. So even if there’s a negative effect from radiation, it could be cancelled out by the IQ effect.

  3. Seveneves sounds interesting.

    Anatoly, have you read the books by Peter Watts? I especially liked his Blindsight (and to a slightly lesser extent it’s sidequel Echopraxia), and I’d be interested in your view on it.

  4. Anatoly, since this is a Russia oriented blog, you should probably mention the fury that this movie was met with in Russia.

  5. Another, less angry, Russian reaction was, “Hey, it’s a typical Soviet sci-fi.” And it is! There are no bad guys, no evil empires or something. The only villain is the nature itself, a hostile environment of another planet being a common example. All humans work in a team toward the same goal (some are perhaps less efficient than others.) And the conclusion always involves an inspirational message.

    Neal Stephenson called for the new optimistic sci-fi, but perhaps all they have to do is to translate the old Soviet one. Such as the early Strugatsky brothers, Kir Bulychev, or, God help us, even Ivan Yefremov. 🙂

  6. Even though banal, mad max was highly entertaining, i would even say on par with the martian.jurrasic world was just sad. Btw did you catch the lawsuit of the russian martian against the film studio?the trailer looks horrible

  7. Anatoly, since this is a Russia oriented blog, you should probably mention the fury that this movie was met with in Russia.

    I’m not sure what that fury by Russians was, but as an American interested in technology and space flight I was astounded that they would use the Chinese space agency as the white knight. I mean, please, the U.S. still has a manned space program because of the Russian space program. I mean, I would put Bezos and Thiel’s space programs not too far behind China’s.

  8. The Russians are bombing the Free Syrian army around Aleppo which controls the main eastern crossing to Turkey, and where the FSA includes the Syrian Turk minority militia backed by Turkey.

    Russian sci fi

    John Gray wrote a book

  9. This movie is very popular in the US as it does 2 things all here just love:

    1) It (again) rescues Matt Damon see

    2) Sean Bean somehow survives.

  10. Anatoly Karlin says

    I’m not sure what that fury by Russians was, but as an American interested in technology and space flight I was astounded that they would use the Chinese space agency as the white knight. I mean, please, the U.S. still has a manned space program because of the Russian space program. I mean, I would put Bezos and Thiel’s space programs not too far behind China’s.

    A few considerations:

    (1) China’s box office market is now 5x+ the size of Russia’s. More and more films are going to cater to that, like it or not.

    (2) It is set in 2035, the (optimistically) projected time period for NASA’s manned Mars missions. It will not surprise me at all if CNSA was to become a clear second in the rankings of national space agencies by then.

    (3) I would say that CNSA is slightly behind ESA (third) but way way ahead of any private initiatives.×246.jpg

  11. I would say that CNSA is slightly behind ESA (third) but way way ahead of any private initiatives.

    I wish all of these tech billionaires who start space projects used their money to lobby and bribe politicians into increasing NASA’s funding instead. This would cost them less and the results would be more impressive.

    I’m guessing that they’re doing it all wrong for two reasons:

    1) Ego trips into space. Putting their name on the rocket, etc.

    2) Delusions about the free market.

  12. From what I heard, the movie was based on a book and followed the book pretty closely. So presumably the Chinese space agency thing was done because it was in the book, rather than for box office considerations. Although I haven’t read the book so I’m not positive.

  13. I disagree. Musk and Bezos are doing things much more cheaply and are making much more rapid progress than NASA ever did or could do, specifically towards rocket reusability, which is the primary obstacle to cheap access to space.

  14. I thought the black science genius characters in the movie were more implausible than the Chinese space agency thing. But it might have just been following the book on that.

    I thought it was a good movie, but the frequent verbose mini-lectures throughout the movie sort of dampened the realism and drama. Damon’s character is a serious, dire situation but is able to nonchalantly give all these mini science lectures explaining what he’s doing, as calmly as if he were lecturing in college course. On the other hand, they were sort of necessary for the audience to understand what was going on.

  15. Thank you for this review! I enjoyed this movie a lot. The only thing that bothered me about the movie was ironman scene towards the end. I was wondering if that could have been done differently to make it look less of a desperate “leap of faith”.

  16. Sean the Neon Caucasian says

    I’ll take their “delusions” of the free market and ego trips for the benefits privatized space programs brings. Sorry, but America doesn’t care about leading in science or space anymore.

  17. charles drake says

    ridley scott is not what he was or was once for a short time.
    van allen provided the proofs of belts.
    did ridley the riddler send matt demon to mars via a nazi rocket if so bull.
    did the rocket have tin foil radiation protection like apollo.
    after blade runner ridley could of become stanley kubrick but did not.

    if you put the universe into a tube with expansion the tube would be 2 times the size of the universe

    we are tool makers and agricultralists

  18. There is no Free Syrian army.

  19. I doubt that China will ever overtake Russia in space, unless the Russian state collapses again. In Russia, space program is not just a neat scientific project, it’s an expression of past glories, the best thing about the 70 Soviet years. It’s now a part of the national identity. Consequently, there is a tremendous grassroots support for returning to space. As Russia grows richer, I expect the spending on space to skyrocket (no pun intended.)

  20. According to the movie our space program is dependent on charismatic black geniuses and steely-eyed babes. The Asians were stereotyped as totally nerdy; I guess it’s safe to play to that. Totally unbelievable PC-BS which is way more unbelievable than the sci-fi aspects of the movie. Not only did it make the movie outlandish it was downright insulting to be subjected yet again to another PC-re-education exercise. The acting was mostly wooden and shallow, the casting rather poor, the science part trite. Booooring. Since the Chinese market is significant these days and the movie makes an obvious play towards it I wonder what the audience over there makes of what they see onscreen. Do they get suckered into thinking these people really are the front line of western civilization and technology moving the US forward?
    I can get insulted for free; no need to pay to get that.

  21. “Has anyone actually performed any concrete demographic studies of the death rate from cancer for astronauts (as opposed to theoretical projections)? Let me know in the comments.” – It has been done for Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, and while the number was noticeable, I don’t think it was that much greater of a cancer risk for them.

  22. 8/10 from a man who claims to be extraordinarily harsh? By that measure I should be expecting something close to the level of Solyaris, Alien or 2001
    I haven’t seen, and wasn’t previously interested considering the casting, but I’ll take the recommendation.

    I distinctly remember the previous year’s major space-film “Interstellar” being absolutely god-awful, despite some gushing praise from some otherwise intelligent people.

  23. But Lavrov said Russia now stood ready to provide air support to the Free Syrian Army if the United States would help it identify where it was.

    Looks like the Kremlin is as sceptical of the FSA as I am.

  24. As a gardener, I can say that those scrawny potato plants wouldn’t produce much. I haven’t read the book either but I’m guessing the author took the earthly per acre potato yield (40 t0 50,ooo calories worth) and adjusted it down for Mars’s distance from the sun.

    Here in Vermont, a plant a bit smaller than a washing machine produces about 5 lbs of potatoes in a summer. His plants have as much foliage in total as two of those plants.

    Also, I somehow doubt that NASA would be feeding people fresh potatoes on Mars. Dry pasta is a good substitute and is 5x as calorie dense, which matters because it costs $10,000 to put a pound in low earth orbit. Plus whatever it would cost to launch the extra fuel needed send the one pound spud to Mars and decelerate it.

    Let’s talk about Stanislaw Lem!

  25. Russia seems to be able to find the Free Syrian Army to bomb them. The Russian plane brought down by Turkey was bombing a FSA Turkoman militia.

  26. on-topic
    – i liked it, Damon was good

    – so Pooty Poot…

    how about calling for a conference on Kurdish self-determination?

    that would be mega trolling for realz

  27. do you have a daughter?

  28. Oops. Potatoes yield more like 20 million calories per acre.

  29. FSA is a brand (name), not an army.

  30. Pardon?

  31. I distinctly remember the previous year’s major space-film “Interstellar” being absolutely god-awful, despite some gushing praise from some otherwise intelligent people.

    I think you’ll find some of that correlates with having a daughter.

  32. Who are ISIS, if not a repackaging of what used to go by the name of Baathists? When the Russians arrived the first thing they did was bomb the Free Syrian army, who are Assad’s enemies at the gate in Aleppo, and along that border is where the Turks shot down a Russian plane. Aleppo was in danger of falling so the Russians came in to help their client, who can defeat a brand name but not an mass uprising led by military PROFESSIONALS. It is the FSA that has exhausted Assad. ISIS are never going to be allowed to win, AS I PREDICTED AND IS NOW OBVIOUS FROM THE BOMBING so they are who Assad wants to be his enemy.

  33. The most deplorable one says

    OT, but it seems the US needs to get in some practice:

    After all, Russia is getting plenty of practice in Syria.

  34. That’s interesting review.

    If you’re into movie culture, try the 2 Have-beens.

    SENNA is terrific.

    I don’t agree with the assessment of quality on some of these picks, but each film is accompanied with perceptive and erudite commentary.

    For example, I don’t think highly of MISHIMA, AFTER HOURS, and SECONDS, but the summary of themes and social context of the films are expert.

  35. The most deplorable one says

    Thanks for the analysis.

    I think my decision to pass on the movie is vindicated.

    I could get the same crap from some Chinese Wuxia movies but at least it would be entertaining.

  36. Islamists did exhaust the SAA.
    Aleppo was not in danger of falling.
    Daesh is Iraq’s rouge al-Qaida.

  37. Liked the movie, but the Martian soil is extremely poisonous, so no crop raising. Also, the air pressure is much lower than the shown in the film, and the temperature colder. The space hookup was also ridiculously hokey–they’d have all been dead at that velocity.

  38. Sean, this so-called “Free Syrian Army” that Russia was bombing (and that killed the parachuting Russian pilot) just happened to be led by a Turkish citizen and member of the neofascist “Grey Wolves” organization:
    So if anything, I think that skepticism that this “Free Syrian Army” exists in anything other than name is well-justified.

  39. The most deplorable one says

    It is interesting that the Western Press plays little attention to US-caused airline disasters:

    Perhaps it was payback for KAL007.

  40. There was a 100% indigenous 1982 uprising in Hama which Assad’s father and uncle besieged suppressed by a massacre of tens of thousands of the helpless population of that city. This time the whole county has risen against them and the Assad-Alawite dictatorship can’t win. The longer this goes on the more refugees Russia will have to use as a weapon against the west. Will Russia take the Alawites when they lose?

    Incidentally you may be wondering what Islamic Stae forces are in charge in Hama now ussia’s intervention in Syria “is intended to exterminate the Free Syrian Army—no, the Syrian people,” Captain Jameel a-Salih of the FSA-affiliated Tajammua al-Izza brigade in north Hama told Syria Direct Thursday, expressing a sentiment shared by pro-opposition activists and fighters present in the Syrian north.

    Russian warplanes struck the Tajammua al-Izza brigade’s base [مقر] twice on Wednesday and three times on Thursday, the head of the brigade’s media office told Syria Direct.

    The Tajammua brigade is one of the recipients of American training and military aid, says an Idlib-based journalist. “To be frank, America trains them and arms them with TOW missiles,” Ibrahim a-Shamali, with the pro-opposition Umayya Media Center, told Syria Direct Thursday.

    While it is still not clear how many strikes Russia has carried out, the total appears to stand at no less than two dozen in the past 48 hours. Most of Wednesday and Thursday’s air raids took aim at rebel-held areas in rural north Hama, southern Idlib and the northern Homs countryside, where IS has little to no presence. Other strikes have targeted Latakia province, where the Islamic State has no visible presence but the Russians do, including their own airbase in the southern Latakia countryside.

    Most of the Russian strikes have targeted locations close to the “critical areas” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he wants to preserve in a speech given in late July: The Syrian coast, Damascus, Homs and Hama, Ahrar a-Sham spokesman Ali al-Hafawi told Syria Direct on Thursday.

    In northern Homs, three of Russia’s targets Wednesday included the rebel-held cities of Rastan, Talbisa and a-Zafarana, where three FSA-affiliated brigades dominate: Harakat Tahrir Homs, Jaish a-Tawheed and Kataib Atbaa a-Rusul. “Keep in mind, IS has no presence at all in the northern Homs countryside,” Mohammed a-Daheek, a citizen journalist from Talbisa, told Syria Direct Thursday. On Wednesday, Moscow denied targeting FSA-affiliated, US-backed rebels since its bombing campaign began, saying it was conducting a campaign against the Islamic State.

    Most Syrians don’t want to be ruled by Assad, and will never accept him. All this killing is wasted motion and the responsibility is Assads and those encouraging him not to leave Syria and to cause refugee flows into the West in retaliation for complaints about him killing masses of his own people.

  41. reiner Tor says

    Actually, Assad’s government mostly consisted of (urban, secular) Sunni, and the Alawites only dominated the police and the armed forces, so it’s difficult to believe that the Sunni are unanimous against him. I’m sure a sizeable fraction of the Sunni are supporting him in a lukewarm manner. I’m also sure that basically all minorities (certainly the largest, like the Shia and the Christians) support him (with the exception of the Kurds), so that gives him support from at least 40% of the population. You certainly know that a popular slogan used during the Hama rising was “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave”.

    It’s certainly unreasonable to think that maybe 50 or 60% of the population against maybe 30% is “the whole country”, or that Assad is as bad as his adversaries. Because the Sunni have higher numbers, they will be more likely to exterminate the minorities than vice versa, and are less likely to compromise. (As I wrote, the Assad regime allowed Sunnis to the top echelons of government, in fact, Assad’s wife is a Sunni, too.) It must also be noted that the “moderate” rebels are clearly unable to govern, which is shown by the fact that the FSA is merely an umbrella organization consisting of several dozens of microscopic armed groups. Once they win, what else do you think these small groups are going to do but getting at each other’s throats? Just as has happened in Syria.

    It must also be noted that most internally displaced persons are fleeing to Assad’s territory from rebel-held areas and not the other way around. Clearly because the rebels are either Islamists (ISIS, al-Nusra) or totally disorganized marauding bands which cannot provide even a semblance of law and order and security.

  42. reiner Tor says

    that gives him support from at least 40% of the population

    I meant 30%.

  43. reiner Tor says

    as has happened in Syria.

    I mean Libya.

  44. Fleeing Islamic State the Sunnis may be, but I am yet to hear of Sunnis fleeing to Assad controlled areas. He is their enemy and they will never accept the man who killed their relatives. It is like that Guatemalan general said about counter insurgency, you kill a third, force a third to flee and you are left with a tractable remnant. But though starting with a massive ruthless army, Assad has become weaker over time . It is simple attrition and he can’t win, which is why he tried to make out he is up against IS, a FSA rival latecomer to the conflict as everyone knows. Anyway if the majority of the population want Syria to be ruled by Islamic State then it will be.

    Back to the technical aspect of the Martian. I think the current thinking on cosmic rays is to repel them with a magnetic field. There is less strong cosmic radiation around the equatorial regions of Earth because of gravitational field there

  45. Did Anatoly get assassinated by the SJWs?

  46. Unless someone impersonates him on his twitter account, no.