The Martian Delivers

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 12.07.24 AM

FOD and I just returned from seeing The Martian, Ridley Scott’s film that adapts Any Weir’s novel of the same name to the big screen.

As you’ve come to expect from Airspeed, I won’t recap the film for you here, nor will I avoid spoilers. My only subjects are whether the film is worth seeing, whether it offends any scientific sensibilities, and – in this case – whether it faithfully follows the book.

Last things first. Why do I care so much about whether the film is faithful to the book?  For starters, the book is one of those rare things in science fiction: A well-researched and skillfully rendered story that gets all the science right and requires only minimal suspension of disbelief. I’ve been through the book twice, both times in the form of the award-winning audiobook performance by R. C. Bray. I really, really enjoyed the book.  Because of this, I walked into the theater with a large chip on my shoulder.  It’s not impossible to think that Hollywood might treat The Martian with the disdain that it did with Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

I’m pleased to report that the film is very faithful to the book.  There are minor differences.  Venkat Kapoor becomes Vincent Kapoor, presumably so that Chiwetel Ejiofor (a Nigerian-born actor raised on London) could play the originally Indian character.  The explosive loss of the airlock omits the part in which Watney pressurizes the lock and rolls it to where it needs to be.  The final retrieval of Watney from the MAV capsule involves Watney breaching his suit and executing a very unlikely Iron-Man self-propulsion to rendezvous with Commander Lewis, who has inexplicably left the bridge to suit up and go get him (despite the fact that two other crew members are already suited up and likely closer to Watney).

I was actually happy about three differences. The film omitted the the event in which a short-circuit kills the Sojourner, as well as both the the roll-over accident involving the rovers and the dust storm on the drive to Schiaparelli Crater.  Of those three, the dust storm was the only situation that produced an interesting solution, as opposed to brute force or lots of boring work to overcome. While all three events worked int he book, omitting them from the film made all kids of sense.

I liked that the film even kept many of the inside nerds-only jokes, such as the Lord of the Rings mention and the “steely-eyed missile man” reference. Movies need to quit worrying about whether a particular remark will go over the audience’s heads. Those who get the references will love you for including those elements.  Those who don’t get the references probably won’t notice them anyway and – in any case – who the hell cares what non-nerds think, anyway?

If there were other material differences, I’ll admit that I didn’t notice them much.  I consistently found myself remembering lines from the book as they were faithfully written or spoken on screen. I can’t think of another film that is as similar to its underlying book.

The science was pretty good.  From depictions of orbital mechanics and rendezvous to the botanical representations, just about everything was convincing.  I did see a few problems, though.

  • The zero-G kickoff and multiple pulls to pick up speed as the crew moves around the spacecraft are unrealistic.  When you pick up momentum, you have to get rid of it in one way or another.  Experienced astronauts rarely build up that much momentum because they’re liable to break stuff or get hurt.  I also saw several delta-vees (usually diving from a, axel tube into the spoke of a rotating section) that would have required thrusters to accomplish.
  • Mars surface gravity is less than half that of Earth (3.7 m/s² on Mars vs. 9.8 m/s² for Earth). Yet all of the action on the surface of Mars appears to be in Earth-normal gravity.  The atmosphere is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s atmosphere, which would have shown up in differences in the way the wind works and the effects on blown objects.
  • The circular patch of the airlock frame looked suspiciously flimsy.  (Am I the only guy who thought that all of the spare hab canvas looks exactly like faded visqueen?) And, in one scene, the wind makes the patch go concave into the hab.  With the 13 or so psi that all of the readouts indicate, it would seem impossible that wind could push a patch to the point of concavity.
  • FOD and I attended the film with fellow lawyer Don Crawford, who is also an active diver.  Don sad that some things about the atmosphere and the readouts made little or no sense, but we didn’t have time adequate to discuss them.

The film never blew the transmission delay between Mars and Earth in an obvious way, but it wasn’t always clear that many minutes had passed between transmission and receipt. Maybe this is brilliant, inasmuch as it lets the conversation happen in near-realtime for moviegoers who aren’t aware of the physics, but is always plausibly there for moviegoers who know about the delay.

Bottom line:  The film is very much worth seeing.  In fact, I might try to get out to see it one more time while it’s in theatrical release,  It’s that compelling and that pretty.  I think it’s going to be regarded as one of the best of the year.


Acro Camp Sneak Peek 04: With Friends Like These . . . – Video Episode Show Notes

Despite the aggressive schedule around here (glider training, trying to find a new acro ride, doing really cool legal work for the best clients on the planet, etc.), I managed to get some time this weekend to do some editing on the movie.  The result is this sneak peek, “With friends like these . . .”

The campers at both of the Acro Camp shoots were very collaborative and supportive of each other.  But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t at least a little laughter with (okay, at) each other when stuff went wrong.  And stuff is bound to go wrong when you’re learning to fly an aircraft whose center of gravity is behind the mains.

In the course of logging all of the footage, I’ve noted when both IPs were in aircraft and noted opportunities to synchronize the conversation across both cockpits.  Usually based on ATC calls or radio communication between the aircraft.  This was one such pair of sequences.  I loved the big bounce on Jim’s wheel landing and I loved the reaction that it got from Barry and Lynda.  I lined them up this evening and voila!  Tailwheel magic!

I’m actively working on putting together more time to get the film edited.  It hasn’t been easy, but I’m making some real progress.  Watch this space and the new Acro Camp web page (in development) for more news and updates!

Red Tails Disappoints

As a new-media and social-media guy, you build audience by getting excited about your subject matter and getting the audience excited, too. But you build credibility when you point out the ugly among the good. I really wish that this post wasn’t going to have to be about credibility. Or about ugly. But it is.

I just got home from seeing Red Tails. I had heard that the film had received less than stellar reviews, but I made it a point to avoid others’ opinions and go see the film for myself.

I’m so disappointed. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  Here’s what I saw. [Read more...]

ICAS 2010: Barnstorming Live

This is a regular blog entry. If you’re looking for show notes or links to show audio, please check out the other entries.

ICAS is having its first film festival. This evening, producer/writer/director Bryan Reichardt, producer/writer Paul Glenshaw, and musician Suzanne Brindamour presented the film Barnstorming in a new road-ready iteration called “Barnstorming Live.”

To crib shamelessly from the film’s website, Andrew King and Frank Pavliga “steered their planes toward a dark green plot of alfalfa on a dairy farm and landed to take some pictures, just for the fun of it. Matt Dirksen, the farmer, thought he had just seen two planes crash in his field, and went over to investigate. Andrew and Frank quickly made up a story about engine trouble. Almost immediately, they heard the approaching shouts of excitement from two young boys, and a slightly suspicious Matt himself. The past was suddenly reborn. In the old tradition, the pilots treated the boys to their first flights. Matt and his wife invited the pilots to come back someday for a home-cooked meal. The pilots returned the next year bringing a few friends with their own airplanes, and a new tradition was born.”

The film tells the story of the gathering in the context of the ninth such gathering at the Dirksens’ farm. With lots of aerial footage and an emphasis on letting the people come alive in their own words, the film captures the magic of what can happen when general aviation meets the non-aviating public.

Bryan and Paul introduced the film, Suzanne performed part of the music live, and all three did the Q&A afterward.

The film was shot over the course of four days split between two years of the event. Fortunately, the weather was nearly identical each year and, if there are continuity problems, I didn’t see them and they don’t interrupt the story.

With a film of my own allegedly in the can and much editing to do before it’s ready to go, I did more than my share of interrogating Paul and Bryan, both on the floor of the ICAS exhibit hall and at the showing. Paul in particular has been wonderfully forthcoming with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

There’s a growing network of aviation filmmakers. Much like the podsphere, these people freely share and help each other out. As Paul is quick to point out, the audience for these films will buy any decent film that comes out. The primary market is a focused and rabid group of the aviation faithful and it would be nearly impossible to saturate that market. There’s room for everyone and more than enough stories to tell.

I’ll be heading home with plenty of motivation to get Acro Camp edited. Don, Barry, and I go into the studio on Friday 17 December to record some of the music. I have everything I need to at least put together the trailer, so I think that’ll be out soon. And I’m sorely tempted to call in sick for most of January to really lower myself into the well. But that’s the kind of thing that makes one extraordinarily lucky, isn’t it? To have a big, honking, wonderful project to work on and people who want to see it when it’s done.

We already know that pilots are extraordinary people. I guess it follows that aviation filmmakers would be more of the same. It’s sure true of these folks.