Mars has always been viewed as the most exotic of planets in the realm of movies. No other planet besides Earth is featured more prominently in science fiction. Perhaps it’s because it seems the most habitable of planets in our solar system or maybe it just looks the most visually appealing as the red planet.
For whatever reason, it’s become the go-to planet for a handful of science fiction films. Sometimes it appears as a desolate planet of dust (“Stranded”). Sometimes it’s a suitable place for a futuristic colony (“The Space Between Us”). And sometimes aliens live there who come to zap our planet to a crisp (“Mars Attacks”).
No film depicts a more astute representation of the planet than the tactile sci-fi of “The Martian”, the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his struggle to survive on Mars while awaiting rescue. The film was based on the novel by Andy Weir, an author who aimed to make his story as realistically believable as possible. Having studied computer science, Weir studied up on everything to make the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars feel believable, researching everything from orbital mechanics to astronomy to the history of human spaceflight.
Director Ridley Scott became interested in directing such a project as he felt there was a bridge to be made here between entertaining tales of adventure and scientific education. Much like Weir, Scott also worked with cooperation from NASA to provide insight and information on depicting a space mission to Mars. NASA was on board for the production seeing as it would be a great opportunity to not only promote their space program but also make a case for human survival on the red planet.
The interior shots for the film were in Budapest, Hungary, notable for featuring one of the largest sound stages in the world. The many stages became not only suitable for everything from space stations to the Mars colony but also for growing the potatoes that Mark grew for his survival. Yes, those were real potatoes in the film that were grown at different stages for the most accurate representation of the tubers.
To depict the surface of Mars in “The Martian”, however, required some clever choices in the shooting. For the many external shots of the planet, the Wadi Rum in Jordan, better known as the Valley of the Moon, was chosen as a suitable spot to replicate the landscape of Mars. Due to the deep red of the valley with its mountain and sand, the location had become a staple for depicting Mars. Wadi Rum has been used as a location to replicate the planet in other such films as “Mission to Mars” (2000), “Red Planet” (2000), and “The Last Days on Mars” (2013).
Of course, the Valley of the Moon will not be a 100% accurate recreation of the craters and chasms of Mars with just the right levels of elevation and details. That being said, it’s a close enough stand-in for the likes of “The Martian” to represent a more personal and relatable experience. There’s enough iconic imagery within such settings that don’t require a heavy amount of computer graphics to duplicate. It’s also less of a hassle for a film that is trying to present as much believability as possible without relying on computer graphics that are too obvious.
The advent of computer graphics, however, has allowed for firmer depictions of Mars without reliance on built sound stages for accuracy or just giving up on accuracy to shoot in any area (see “Ghosts of Mars”). When locations can be assembled with computer-generated effects, more astute representations can come about in films. The accuracy can be so on-point that audiences who have become accustomed to seeing Mars as little more than Wadi Rum may be astonished at such updated depictions.
It can sometimes be hard to believe what’s actually on Mars through certain media. One misconception that some may have about it comes from the film “Watchmen”, as well as the comic book it was based on. There’s a scene where Doctor Manhattan and Silk Spectre speak on Mars, contemplating how random life can be sometimes. The shot pulls out to reveal a smiley face on Mars, relating to how unlikely such a crater could form on the planet.
For those not familiar with the geography of Mars, this scene may just seem like more of the film’s iconography, a literal stamp of the Watchmen brand. The happy face button of The Comedian is the first object seen in the film and has become notable on the comic book covers. The truth is that there really is a crater on Mars that looks like a smiley face, complete with the eyes, mouth, and circle face. It’s referred to as the Galle Crater, named after German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle.
It just seems so unlikely, however, that some audiences might not believe it’s real for being a part of a fictional comic book and movie. Even the Watchmen comic book creator of Dave Gibbons had his doubts about the inclusion. He spoke frankly about including the Galle Crater, stating “I worried that if we put it in, people would never believe it.”
But, believe it or not, a second smiley-faced crater was also discovered in the Nereidum Montes mountain area by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008. So not only is there a happy face on Mars but there are now two of them.
The more hard science fiction of National Geographic’s “Mars” TV series has proved to be one of the most astounding depictions of the planet yet. Based on the book How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen Petranek, the series depicts a speculative future about establishing colonies on Mars. Part fiction and part documentary, the series provides a wealth of details in laying out just what life would be like on Mars beyond what we’ve seen in movies.
Computer graphics have also aided in depicting a more accurate setting, given the more upfront insight of the experts on the topic. It’s very similar to how “The Martian” was assembled, given that much of the story is centered around what we know and what would most likely happen if humans attempted to live on such a planet. Also like “The Martian”, the series was also filmed in Hungary.
There’s certainly a lot of interest in space and our place within our solar system beyond our blue rock. NASA continues to provide more fascinating photos of Mars that further our understanding of the planet with exciting information. Elon Musk has kept the conversation going through boasting his hype surrounding SpaceX, his talks on colonization, and his pop-culture piercing of such programs as Saturday Night Live to increase awareness.
It’s an intriguing time to learn about one of the most interesting planets in our solar system and fathom just what the future may hold for our media that views such wonders beyond the stars.