It's that time again - time for our monthly Monday science movie nights to commence in the CxC Studio at LSU! Once a month, LSU's Communication across the Curriculum hosts a movie night with scientists, to engage us in the science behind the films that inspire us. First up is The Space Between Us with LSU's Planetary Science Lab (PSL) group including LSU Geology & Geophysics Ph.D. student Don Hood!
PSL Ph.D. alum David Susko went to see The Space Between Us in theaters and wrote a review for us about the science that the film got right, and wrong. Enjoy his review below! And if you are on campus on Monday, September 18, come join us in LSU CxC Studio 151 (Coates 151) to learn more about Martian science (and enjoy a bit of teen romance on screen along the way!)
by David Susko
Riding on the coat-tails of the recent successful space-based thrillers such as Interstellar, The Martian, and Passengers, The Space Between Us seeks to bring the space-movie genre to the teen-romance audience. But in its attempt to combine a family-friendly teen drama with the excitement of space and planetary exploration, The Space Between Us sacrifices scientific integrity in order to focus on a romance between two orphaned teenagers from different worlds [more below on the science!]. To its credit, the movie does ask some very important questions about the ethical dilemma of raising children on Mars, but unfortunately fails to provide any satisfactory answers.
British actor Asa Butterfield plays a 16-year-old Gardner Elliot whose mother was an astronaut who found out she was pregnant halfway through her 9-month journey to start a colony on Mars. In the opening act, the audience gets a brief explanation that the colony was founded by the "Genesis Program," led by visionary Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), in partnership with NASA.
Gardner’s mother gives birth shortly after landing in the partially established martian colony of "East Texas" before passing away and leaving the child orphaned on Mars. Shepard makes the executive decision to keep the existence of the new-born a secret from the world for fear of public outrage which could lead to the end of colonization efforts. Instead of exploring the difficulties of raising a newborn baby on Mars or, for that matter, how to keep it a secret from everyone on earth, we fast-forward 16-years to Gardner as a teen.
During this time, he has grown into an intellectual prodigy (“raised by scientists!”) who yearns for a normal life on Earth and to contact his unidentified father, whom he only has a single picture of. He has also started an online friendship with Earth teenager, “Tulsa” (Britt Robertson), and explains to her (she is herself an orphan) that he can’t leave his home because he is sick. In actuality, Shepard has decided that Gardener shouldn’t be allowed to travel to Earth, because his Mars-adapted body couldn’t handle Earth’s stronger gravity.
Against Shepard’s direct orders, the other scientists and astronauts of the Genesis Project conspire to bring Gardner to Earth. Almost immediately after arriving on Earth, Gardner escapes from his quarantined facility, tracks down Tulsa so she can help him hunt down his long-lost father, and predictably, falls in love with her on their adventure.
While the ending was about as predictable as it could have been, the movie does provide a very entertaining portrayal of how a martian colony could look. As a planetary scientist, I thoroughly enjoyed the tour we as the audience got of the East Texas facilities, fully equipped with a workout room to combat muscular atrophy and a hydroponics greenhouse to feed the colonists. A quick bit of analysis of the final “zoom out” from Mars reveals that the colony was founded in a region of Mars around Acidalia Planitia, a region that Mars movie enthusiasts will remember is the same location where Mark Watney was stranded in The Martian.
What they got wrong
Any sci-fi movie review by a scientist would be incomplete if I didn’t do a quick Neil deGrasse Tyson-esk summary of the science they got wrong and right. Right out of the gate, they introduce us to the crew of astronauts bound for the Mars colony. They show a team of one woman (Gardener’s mother) and five men... to start a colony. Even plans for short-term missions to Mars call for a more even distribution of genders in the crew. Simulated Mars missions show the greatest efficiency when teams are made of equal parts men and women. This would be even more important for colonial purposes, where the astronauts would be expected to stay for long periods of time.
Second, why on Earth (no pun intended) was an astronaut allowed into the spaceship without a proper physical or any other test that could have screened for pregnancy? Why, as an astronaut about to go on her biggest mission ever, was Gardner's mother even risking the possibility of getting pregnant?
Next, we jump past all the inherent problems of raising a baby on Mars without any pre-existing baby infrastructure and go straight into to Gardner's teenage years. We see Gardner and Tulsa talking back and forth over the internet while Tulsa ignores her math class. Here lies the next major flaw in scientific reasoning. Earth and Mars are very far apart. Like 50 million miles apart. Why was there no delay in communication during their conversation? At best there should have been at least a 14-minute delay, at worst, closer to an hour and a half, depending on how the planets were positioned in their orbit.
When Gardner finally gets to Earth and experiences himself weighing three times as much as he ever has, he just says “I feel heavy." There’s no way he would be able to walk without weeks of intense physical therapy. Not only is he able to walk immediately after landing, but he literally runs out of a government facility (one he’s never even been in before). The movie goes on to say that the Earth’s gravity is fatal to him and his over-sized heart. At one point in the movie, in order to relieve Gardner from the pain caused by the increased gravity, Shepard flies him in a jet plane into the stratosphere. Well, in order to get him into space they are going to have to expose him to 3 or 4 g’s [gravitational force] before he can regain consciousness from experiencing 0 g in space... why not just put him in water? Something like a swimming pool would reduce the g’s his body felt it was experiencing. Furthermore, the real big red flag in the movie is there is no reason to believe that an increase in gravity would be fatal to someone who was born on Mars.
What they got right
So, what science did they get right? Well, the whole plot of the movie was dependent on the gravity differences between Earth and Mars. They got that part perfectly right. Mars has roughly 38% the gravity of Earth. At the beginning of the movie they are quick to point out the two-thirds less gravity. Kudos to them for getting that right.
Second, they correctly say that the trip to Mars would take between 7 and 9 months for a manned mission. I also particularly like that they made Gardner very tall and lanky, as the decreased gravity would likely make people on Mars a few inches taller on average.
All in all, The Space Between Us knows its target audience. If teen-romance-drama is what you look for in a movie, then you’ll probably enjoy it. It's cheesy and silly at times, but knowing that I am certainly not the target audience, I can give it pass. Honestly, I’m excited that the public is excited enough about space and about Mars that it has attracted the attention of the entertainment industry enough to produce a wide variety of movies about it. And even if The Space Between Us won’t bring home any Oscars, if it inspires a single teen to go into science, then it would be completely worthwhile.
Register for our first fall 2017 Movie Night here!