We're years, if not decades, away from being able to send humans to Mars, but that hasn't stopped the entertainment industry from imagining what humans might encounter on the red planet.
In the 1960s film The Angry Red Planet, Mars is redder than you've ever seen and inhabited by an unfriendly giant bat-spider. In Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990) the red planet is a colony on the brink of war with a strong population of mutants. If we learned anything from the film John Carter, a 2012 adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel, it's that humans have almost unlimited abilities on Mars and human-looking Martians/Barsoomians speak with a British accent.
But Hollywood's most recent portrayals of Mars or even its colonization have been less about the green-skinned, head-exploding creatures of Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (1996) and more about what the planet would realistically look like after we arrive and terraform it.
I'm talking about movies like James Gray's Ad Astra, where Brad Pitt, en route to Neptune, finds himself making a pit stop at an oppressive and charmless Martian colony. Or TV shows like MARS, a National Geographic docudrama that blends interviews with real scientists, astronauts and other Mars experts with the fictional story of the first crew that lands on Mars, in 2033. These kinds of titles, while leaning on fiction, also confer an idea of what the future of Mars colonization could end up looking like.
"You can't portray Mars in purely fanciful ways anymore without straining suspension of disbelief," Andy Weir, author of the 2011 best seller The Martian, tells me. He says modern-day people are too well-educated about the realities of the planet.
More science in science fiction
That increased authenticity, and increasingly more educated audience, could be due in part to the collaboration filmmakers seek with space agencies like NASA. Last year alone, NASA worked with the makers of 30 television programs and 19 feature films, including Ad Astra, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Star Trek: Picard.
The agency even vets scripts, working back and forth with filmmakers. "Not everything becomes accurate, but it's at least a bit more accurate than it would have been had they not contacted us," Bert Ulrich, NASA's Multimedia Liaison, tells me during a phone conversation. NASA gives production teams access to footage and imagery.
"I think it's definitely possible to make a story that's 100% correct in terms of science," Weir tells me when I ask if it's fair to say Hollywood stories about space are always going to contain some scientific imprecisions. Weir's book was the source material for a 2015 Ridley Scott movie with a star-packed cast led by Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain.
His initially self-published book was lauded for its scientific accuracy and research. "I try to stick with real science as much as I possibly can," Weir said. "Sometimes I'll hand-wave, but only if there's no other option." The Martian's protagonist, Mark Watney, popularized the catchphrase "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."
Both the book and its cinematic adaptation take dramatic license, though. As Ulrich points out, there are no sandstorms on Mars like the one shown at the beginning of The Martian, which initially strands Watney on the planet. NASA suggested the filmmakers opt for a lightning strike instead, but Ridley Scott decided to stick to the story of the sandstorm. "We were fine with that. We understand that artists are artists," says Ulrich.
The Martian isn't the only offender. Former NASA astronaut and USC Professor Garrett Reisman tells me about the teardrop that rolls down Brad Pitt's face in Ad Astra. James Gray, the movie's director, was perfectly aware that's not possible in zero gravity, but he decided to leave it and ignore the laws of physics because it looked good. "Brad Pitt was expressing such amazing emotion," Reisman, who was a consultant for the film, explains in a phone conversation. "Nobody ever goes to a movie for the orbital mechanics. They go for the story."
And stories need to be appealing, thought-provoking and human in a way that resonates with the audience and piques people's interest.
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During the presentation of the second season of MARS in front of the Television Critics Association, executive producer Ron Howard spoke about the need for a balance between facts versus storytelling in the show. "Our desire is to deal with science in as accurate a way as we could, as well-researched a way as we could. But also to make a great show," he said. "We're not unwilling to take a few leaps."
He was referring to the fact that the show toys with the idea of life on Mars, even though no definitive proof has been found. MARS also broaches the subject of death and loss, and one of its characters becomes pregnant, too. And here's where human relationships and good old-fashioned drama come into the science fiction equation.
Sex in space
Not everything in Hollywood's new wave of Mars and space representations is necessarily naturalistic. As author Mary Roach describes in her book Packing for Mars, "[t]ake away or greatly reduce the force of gravity, and thrusting just pushes the object of one's affections away." That's to say that sex in space isn't necessarily what we're used to experiencing on Earth.
"If you want to see some hilariously lame zero-g sex scenes, check out the porno film (The Uranus Experiment)," Roach recommends via email after I inquire whether she's seen the sex scenes from The Expanse. I'm curious about their accuracy. The Expanse is based on the series of novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck and is set in a future where the solar system has been colonized by humans.
Roach hasn't watched The Expanse, but she throws more light on the subject of weightless intercourse and its practicability in her book, implying that it's hard to imagine that absolutely every astronaut has resisted the urge when given the opportunity.
"I don't think there's any question that it's physically possible," Reisman says when I inquire about the subject of sex in space, but he notes he hasn't tried it or talked to anyone who has. "Just based on the sheer kinematics and mechanics involved ... There's no reason why it couldn't work."
Or, as astronaut Roger Crouch told Roach for her book, sex in space is a matter of the imagination of the participants. "The Kama Sutra couldn't start to cover all the possibilities."
Those words would tickle any Hollywood producer.
A boring affair?
The thing is, when we finally make it to Mars, it remains to be seen how much the planet will look like what Hollywood has represented. The astronauts probably won't look as dazzling and perfectly bearded as Pitt's character did in Ad Astra after a long journey back to Earth inside a spaceship. It's unlikely they'll sound half as witty as Mark Watney did in The Martian. And hopefully, no human feces will be used as potato fertilizer.
Weir tells me the first settlers on Mars will take things very seriously and nothing will be left to chance. "There will be setbacks, but it'll probably be a boring, successful affair," he says.
Reisman doesn't necessarily agree. For the former astronaut, something as complex as going to another planet always comes with the element of surprise and challenges. "It's never going to be as predictable as you might think," he says.
However close to a Hollywood production Mars ends up being, Reisman says there are signs the story will keep going, and he highlights the money, resources and time devoted to Mars by people such as Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.
"They want to make science fiction real," Reisman says. And space tourism sounds like the perfect sequel for this story.