At last count, Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic The Martian had earned $55m at the US box office last weekend only narrowly missing out on Gravity’s record for the highest October opening in history.
The interesting thing that links the two movies is that both are firmly steeped in the genre of hard sci-fi, an area where scientific accuracy and technical detail are key. In fact, famed TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has heaped praise on the film, stating that it got the crucial science right—The Martian is a movie “where fluency in Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math rule all decisions of survival”, “where you learn all the ways that being Scientifically Literate can save your life”, and “where the protagonist survives not on Wit, Prayer, or Hope, but by “Sciencing the Shit” out of everything.”
You see, although Scott has explored space before with the incredible Alien, he’s never relied so much on real science to put across his ideas, and I think the film benefits from it massively. The way Matt Damon’s Mark Watney makes water; Rich Purnell’s gravity-based escape plan; the fact that a team had made it to Mars at all—many of the things depicted in the film are possible now or will be in the next decade.
It’s a trend that I don’t think is going to die down any time soon either. Gravity was praised by the audiences and scientists alike for its realistic portrayal of space travel, even if it is in a rather fantastical context. Alfonso Cuarón and the team made sure to adhere to the laws of physics and, most importantly, to make the primary antagonist space itself; there was no monster or evil character waiting to jump out from the wings. The characters had to fight for survival against space junk and debris, a genuine concern for astronauts exploring the vastness of space, as posited by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978.
The same can be said of recent blockbusters Interstellar and Moon, both of which use real science as a basis for exploring speculative themes.
What does this tell us about cinema today? Are audiences getting more intelligent and craving something more challenging? Not necessarily. Although hard sci-fi movies seem a lot more prominent these days, they’ve been around for certainly as long as I can remember. For every Star Wars there’s a 2001: A Space Odyssey, for every Event Horizon there’s a Silent Running.
After a few years in unfamiliar territory, I’m glad Ridley Scott has gone back to his roots with The Martian. And if recent history is anything to go by, we’re in for a few years of truly epic sci-fi.