Get your badastro to Mars!

By Phil Plait | August 11, 2012 7:00 am

My pal Annalee Newitz over at io9 asked me to come on her show "We Come From the Future" and talk about how Mars is treated in movies. The program aired on Friday, and is up on YouTube:

That was a lot of fun! I tried to think of a movie where Mars is actually depicted correctly as it is now: low gravity, cold, almost no air. I couldn’t think of a single movie where that happens. I went on Twitter and asked the folks who follow me what they thought, and got lots of suggestions. Unfortunately, no movie suggested that I had seen was entirely accurate.

"Mission to Mars" was close, but they had a dust devil pick up astronauts and even tear one in half. Granted, it’s implied that was an outcome of alien tech, but dust devils on Mars simply aren’t that strong. Also, that movie got so much science wrong I don’t really feel like cutting it much slack.

Most other movies forgo showing Mars’s 0.38 Earth gravity due to the difficulty in portraying it well. Some, like "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" – which I loved as a kid – gives Mars enough air to breathe if you take oxygen supplements. I’ll note that I also just saw "John Carter" and actually quite liked it. I knew it was epic, sweeping fantasy going in, so I was able to not worry too much about the scientific booboos.

Doctor Who has had several episodes take place on Mars including the recent "Waters of Mars". That too was close – the Doctor was in a spacesuit – but gravity was clearly Earth-normal. Sigh.

A lot of people suggested "Watchmen", but only a few minutes were on Mars, and the gravity was unclear. Also, I suspect that Dr. Manhattan could’ve manipulated the gravity, so it doesn’t really count.

At the end of the show, Annalee challenged HBO to make a good Mars series. The obvious place to start is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy. And unlike Game of Thrones, they wouldn’t have to wait for more books to be written!

Post Script: I’ve reviewed the science in lots of movies, including a few dealing with Mars. Here are my reviews of Red Planet and Mission to Mars.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Geekery, SciFi, TV/Movies

Comments (46)

  1. Chris

    Babylon 5 and Enterprise (which used comets for terraforming) also had episodes dealing with Mars. I don’t recall seeing any difference with the gravity and I actually forgive them for this since I have a feeling it would cost a lot and many people would think it looked fake. It’s hard to know how to act with 0.38 g if you’ve never experienced it. Not to mention hard to turn it off on a movie set.

    Which is why John Carter bugged me. Story line wasn’t so bad, however the jumping just drove me crazy. A normal person can jump 1 meter. Let’s say he was very athletic and could jump 2 meters on Earth. That would translate to about 6 meters on Mars or about a one story building. But they showed him jumping at least 10 stories. It was like a bouncy ball and very distracting.

  2. Jim Saul

    In Cruseo, didn’t he burn rocks to release oxygen to replenish his supplement tanks? I don’t recall how he pressurized them. Playing it like an Everest climber was pretty clever, for the time.

    Have any gotten the blue sunset right?

  3. john

    In the Babylon 5 episode “Into the Fire” they showed the gang scrambling around in spacesuits and modified the playrate to attempt to make the gravity look different.

  4. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    It seems unfair to dock points for not showing reduced gravity when it’s not really relevant to the plot. It’s a needless expense that few will appreciate, especially when you’re talking about a TV show with a tight budget. A movie would be better positioned to pull it off, but it’s still a lot to get right (it’s not just the actors on wires — anything that falls has to be slowed down), and the inevitable mistakes will pull some people out of the story more than just forcing them to pretend (if they care) from the outset.

    Off-topic (since it’s about the Moon, not Mars), but has anyone seen Plymouth?

  5. Phil

    Not sure if you have ever seen the series, Defying Gravity, it is a Canadian/US series, that is now cancelled.

    Anyway, it made it a season, and although the series is mostly a drama, it does take place on board humanities first inter-system space craft. Imagine Voyager but with people on board. Tour of the solar system.

    WIKI: “Defying Gravity is a multi-nationally produced space travel television science fiction drama series, first aired on August 2, 2009 on ABC and CTV and canceled in the autumn of 2009. Set in the year 2052, the series follows eight astronauts[2] (four women and four men) from four countries on a six-year space mission through the Solar System,[3] during which they are monitored from Earth via a real-time communication system.[4] The series was pitched to networks as “Grey’s Anatomy in space” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defying_Gravity_(TV_series))

    Anyway, the first season shows Venus and flashbacks to humanities first landing on Mars. I remember the portrayal to be fairly realistic. The thing I remember standing out as not realistic was the crew. They don’t act like scientists at all.

    Also, I remember from the Mars Trilogy them saying the hardest thing about Teraforming Mars would be not getting oxygen or water, but instead getting a filler gas for the atmosphere and fertilizer for the soil. IE Mars has not nitrogen.

  6. Scott

    Typical of an atmospheric scientist, I know, but when I watch all these movies and shows, I factor in the errors with atmospheric pressure, but I always neglect gravity (heh).

    Seriously, though, when I think back to the shows and movies mentioned (although I didn’t see John Carter), I always think “Oh right… everyone was moving around under normal gravity. Oops.”

    My wife and I consider Mission to Mars to be the ‘cradle of our love’, since that’s the first movie we went to see together where we both knew it was actually a date. heh. I was cutting it to ribbons after we left, though (“You don’t instantly freeze and die by popping your helmet seal in space!!” and “Why is the greenhouse tent attached to the lander sagging due to gravity and flapping in the Martian breeze, when the atmospheric pressure difference between the inside and outside would have it puffed out like a balloon??”).

    Still, Dr. Pepper (our favourite drink) saved the day, so we forgave it after all. :)

  7. carbonUnit

    I note a copy of

    HTAED
    EHT MORF
    !SEIKS

    strategically placed on your bookshelf.
    Something wrong with your webcam?? :P

  8. pete

    #1 (Chris) – I agree with Phil – “John Carter” is not a realistic film, so the inaccurate effect of Earth muscles in Mars gravity is ok – at least Burroughs had a difference.

    And low-G is a bitch to portray consistently, as the Mythbusters showed in their Moon Hoax episode

  9. So, did you concentrate strictly on fairly revent movies, or were movies taking place on Mars from any era eligible?

    I ask because of one movie that sticks out in my mind, a favorite old stinkburger from the early ’50s called Rocketship X-M, featured in an early season of MST3K:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApHN034XrNI

  10. Tehanu

    The gravity problem is a subset of the larger problem with any science fiction film or TV show: how do you effectively make things look real? Once at a Trek convention I asked one of the producers why the aliens were always humanoid. She gave me a pitying look and said “Because the only actors available are humans.”

  11. Kurt Erlenbach

    But the absolute worst movie about going to Mars was Capricorn One, which was the height of OJ Simpson’s acting career, which shows how bad it was. It’s about NASA faking a mission to Mars, and then trying to kill the crew so they wouldn’t reveal the plot. Lots of stars (other than OJ), but what an awful movie.

  12. Das Boese

    I’m not holding out any hope for theatrical movies to ever get it right, but there was a TV miniseries that I greatly enjoyed called “Race to Mars” which was IMO extremely well done, not just the Mars part but also the spaceflight aspect.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_to_Mars

  13. “Stranded” was surprisingly nice, a Spanish production I believe. But now you have me wondering about the gravity – I watch and rewatch most any Mars movie I can, even the bad ones, and have learned to ignore such “trivial” things as gravity and atmospheric pressure and just go for the story (well, the ones that have one). Ah well, an excuse to watch Stranded again.

  14. To Mr. Erlenbach – while Capricorn One is most definitely a contender for worst Mars movie ever, I would respectfully submit, for your inspection (but not enjoyment) Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

  15. I tend to give Doctor Who’s “The Waters of Mars” a pass on the gravity issue, because it’s just too hard to do 0.38g on their budget. Particularly since that was during the specials year, so there was less money to go around, and clearly a good chunk of it was spent on special FX already.

  16. Nyetwerke

    Mission to Mars featuring a REAL atronaut, Story Musgrave! It was fiction with some science in it.

  17. Glenn

    Does anyone know if any video games set on Mars have gotten the physics right? If not, that would be a good project for someone to try.

  18. Chris

    Santa Claus Conquers the Martians – Best Christmas movie based on Mars EVER!!!!!

  19. Its not Mars but did anyone see this show called Escape from Jupiter http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sQvZYLyXE4 It was on TV over a decade ago.

    But then there was the second series which did see them on Mars I believe. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnegoBBebyk

  20. Grand Lunar

    @20 Chris,

    I’m surprised Phil hasn’t discussed that one yet, mockingly or otherwise.

    I find it too bad that the original “War of the Worlds” didn’t feature much ON Mars.
    All the action is Earth based! Closest Wells got was in “First Men on the Moon”.

    Anyway, neat video though I’m surprised you didn’t go into “Total Recall’s” depiction of humans in near vaccum. But I suppose there was only so much that you could cram into the segment.

  21. Hemo_jr
  22. Dr.Sid

    I tell you a secret .. scientific fiction is not scientific. Now get over it.

  23. MedievalSingularity

    @Defying Gravity

    Too bad it quickly devolves into 99% pro-life agitprop.

  24. Brett Mashado

    I asked Kim Stanley Robinson at the Melbourne Sci-fi convention about the prospects of making Red Mars Trilogy into a series and he confirmed that James Cameron of(Avatar)
    owns the filming rights . Can someone ask Mr Cameron to get a little move on I am sure he would do a great job .

  25. @20. Chris
    You only say that because it was Pia Zadora´s film debut.
    But what the heck, I´ll download it for research purposes.

  26. Artor

    Dr. Sid- Crappy science fiction is not scientific, but good sci-fi at least tries for an illusion of plausibility. Try reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series- it’s some of the best science fiction I’ve ever read, and the science therein is fascinating.

  27. Richard

    Oh man, bringing Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy to the big screen (or TV), now that would be *really* great! I would seriously love that!!

  28. #1 Chris:
    A human on Mars couldn’t even jump quite as high as you say – i.e. three times as high as on Earth. It’s not as simple as that; it’s a question of how far he raises his centre of gravity.
    The world high jump record is somewhere around 8 feet, I believe. When a 6-foot tall man is standing up, his centre of gravity is about 4 feet above the ground. When a high jumper clears an 8-foot bar, in a horizontal position, his centre of gravity is about 8.5 feet above the ground – so he has raised his centre of gravity by 4.5 feet. So in one-third gravity, he would be able to raise his centre of gravity by 3 x 4.5 = 13.5 feet – so he could clear a bar at about 17 feet.
    In the case of the Moon, with 1/6 gravity, this makes a far bigger difference. A lunar high jumper would only be able to clear about 31 feet, rather than the naive answer of 48 feet.

  29. DavidC

    How about Ben Bova’s “Mars” being turned into a movie? @ Naked Bunny, “Plymouth” was very good and I hope it gets attention that it deserves.

  30. Seconded (or thirded, or fourthed, or whatever) by me, the idea of adapting Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to the screen. Unfortunately, I just can’t see a movie doing it justice – not only do the books cover many decades of time, but given what we know about Hollywood movie studios, they’d probably condense the hell out of the original plot and add some crappy sub-plot about ancient martian cities and a Mars Police Force that chases criminals around in rocket hovercars. A TV series might work, but it’d need to have some really good casting and direction. So much of the books are really about the human element – first your basic political maneuvering, and also people and societies adapting to a rapidly changing reality on both Mars and Earth.

  31. Ashley H

    This might surprise some, but I thought “Mars Needs Moms” actually treated the air and gravity issues very well. It’s an animated film, created using live actors in special suits (usually dangling from wires when dealing with the lighter gravity of Mars), and the air issue got its own special plot moment towards the end. The “cold” issue was the one depiction I had problems with, but I suppose it’s possible the characters were in a very temperate region of Mars which wouldn’t have caused freezing, etc, in those minutes where they ran/bounced around on the surface with only high-tech space helmets and street clothes.

    There were a few plot holes in that movie (due to the fact that it’s a kids’ movie with the requisite singing/dancing/happy ending/etc) but its treatment of the surface of another planet seemed surprisingly spot-on considering the medium, and the tech used to replicate it was nothing short of amazing. I enjoyed it, especially the credits. ;)

  32. Well, those are all very well – here’s an attempt I made to at least try to render Martian life partially accurate in song. It ain’t no movie… Enjoy!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2-i9EPxpWo

  33. Joseph Slomka

    Phil,
    I have a favorite “movie”: The Red Planet Mars. It was released about 1953.
    Radio astronomers are trying to measure the distance to Mars by bouncing radar signals off of the Red Planet.
    However, Mars seems to be replying. In short order, we find out that Mars has an ideal society with benefits for
    all citizens. Then, we find out that God is alive and living on Mars, quoting from the King James version no less.
    World -wide upset, including the fall of Communist Russia.
    BTW, it stars Peter Graves, of Mission Impossible fame.
    I like it for several reasons. First, it features the new branch of astronomy, Radio Astronomy, which was just starting up at the time.
    Second, the scientists use supercooled gasses (in this case hydrogen) to cool the detector. Hydrogen plays an
    important part in the film’s climax.
    I am trying to track down a DVD of the film.
    It made an impression on me, even when I was a kid living in light polluted NYC.
    Clear Skies
    Joe Slomka
    Albany Area Amateur Astronomers

  34. Nigel Depledge

    Re Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy:

    Although it contained some great ideas, I gave up after the first book, because I just wanted all the characters to die. I didn’t like any of them, which made finishing even the first book a struggle.

  35. Nigel Depledge

    Neil Haggath (30) said:

    When a high jumper clears an 8-foot bar, in a horizontal position, his centre of gravity is about 8.5 feet above the ground – so he has raised his centre of gravity by 4.5 feet.

    This is not quite right.

    The reason the Fosbury flop is universally used by high-jumpers is that it allows the jumper’s CoG to pass below the bar, whereas all previous techniques required the jumper’s CoG to pass above the bar.

    Thus, when a high-jumper clears an 8-foot bar, he has not raised his CoG by more than about 3.5 (ish) feet.

  36. Nigel Depledge

    Medievel Singularity (25) said:

    @Defying Gravity

    Too bad it quickly devolves into 99% pro-life agitprop.

    Wait, what? 99%? I thought it was about 40%.

  37. Nigel Depledge

    Dr Sid (24) said:

    I tell you a secret .. scientific fiction is not scientific. Now get over it.

    You’ve obviously never read any Larry Niven.

  38. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    I tried to think of a movie where Mars is actually depicted correctly as it is now: low gravity, cold, almost no air. I couldn’t think of a single movie where that happens.

    Wait, you mean Total Recall wasn’t an accurate depiction??

    Aw, man!

  39. atkinson

    What about BBC’s “Space Odyssey”? The Mars segment looks good to me!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Odyssey_(TV_series)

  40. amphiox

    Babylon 5 and Enterprise (which used comets for terraforming) also had episodes dealing with Mars.

    Well, B5 depicted a Mars that, by the 2260′s had been sufficiently terraformed that you could walk on the surface wearing no more protection than an oxygen mask and a parka.

    On the big-picture scale of things, that’s not actually significantly different from Total Recall’s oxygenation-of-the-entire-atmosphere-to-earth-like-levels-in-30-seconds.

  41. amphiox

    I tell you a secret .. scientific fiction is not scientific. Now get over it.

    Wrong.

    Science fiction, by definition must be scientific. If it isn’t, its futuristic fantasy.

    Science fiction, by definition, must be an extrapolation of real science, and the extrapolation itself must be compatible with scientific principles. And the reasonableness of the extrapolation (not accuracy necessarily – there is a subtle but important distinction) is one of the critical criteria upon which the quality of science fiction as SCIENCE fiction is and must be judged.

  42. Silentbob

    I second atkinson @41.

    Space Odyssey a.k.a. Voyage to the Planets is a “docudrama”, so I don’t know if it counts as a “movie”, but the depictions of astronauts on Mars seem quite realistic. Check it out:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MS2ikK9_AQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBWC3RTfJmM

  43. Nigel Depledge

    @ Amphiox (43) -
    Seconded!

    All of the Star Wars films, for example, are fantasy, not sci-fi. Star Wars is straight swords ‘n’ sorcery, with spaceships. That’s why it sold so well.

  44. John Powell

    The Mars TV show I’d like to see would be called something like “Being Martian” and would star a teenage girl who has emigrated with her family to a Martian colony. The show would deal with her family and social life on station and her desires to be a writer, against the wishes of her scientist/pioneer parents. The main story would alternate with an epic fantasy story of being a Princess of Mars. Events in her reality would affect her fantasy story and vice versa.

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