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[whitespace] Sexy Science

Dr. Timothy Ferris on love, faithfulness, gravitational behavior--and 'Mission to Mars'

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Writer David Templeton discusses interesting films with interesting people, in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

Upon returning from Mission from Mars--Brian DePalma's star-studded space-thriller about high-functioning rocket jockeys trapped on the Red Planet--Dr. Timothy Ferris, award-winning author, commentator, and popular interpreter of modern science, is quick to offer the following, decidedly down-to-Earth pronouncement:

"The first great film about Mars," he says, "has yet to be made."

The author of the best-selling books The Whole Shebang , The Mind's Sky, and Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Ferris--who shuttles between homes in San Francisco and Sonoma County, California--writes a regular column for Scientific American and is a weekly commentator on MS-NBC.

He was the creator/host of PBS' successful Life Beyond Earth special, wrote and narrated the award-winning PBS documentary The Creation of the Universe, and holds the lofty distinction of having produced the Voyager phonograph record, sent heaven-ward as a representation of the best we humans have to offer.

Which brings us back to Mission to Mars.

Well-acted by a cast that includes Timothy Robbins, Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle, the film--which took off like a rocket at the box-office but now seems in danger of disintegrating--follows a group of astronauts on a daring rescue mission to Mars. An early attempt at colonization, we learn, was thwarted by a mysterious disaster--something to do with Martian tornadoes and a giant stone face that looks a whole lot like the Buddha--and there may be survivors.

There may also be Martians.

At times, Mission to Mars flies close to greatness, as in the terrifying, free-floating spacewalk scene and during a deep-space emergency after the space-craft is perforated by high-speed micro meteorites. These moments succeed, according to Ferris, because the science at work is accurately rendered. When the science fails, however--"It would be too tedious to list all the mistakes," he says--the film fails.

"Invoking science in a dramatic film is like falling in love," says Ferris, leading me to a seat on his sun-soaked balcony, with Coit Tower looming behind us and the San Francisco Bay sprawled straight ahead. "The relationship between science and film will work if you take it to heart, meaning that you resolve to be truthful and responsible in all that you do. But if your intentions are not honorable--if you just want to rip her off--then your relationship with science will quickly turn sour. I think that's what happened in Mission to Mars."

As we talk, we are treated to a cacophonous serenade of parrot song, provided by a resident flock of wild parrots so famous they have their own Website (www.wildparrots.com). Ferris, treating himself to a cigar, pauses now and then to savor a puff as he formulates his words.

"Mission to Mars invokes various scientific ideas," he allows, "and some of them are good ideas, but then it is unwilling to be true to them. It's unwilling to see what would happen if you were faithful to science, rather than just trying to get the sexy parts of science and do away with the rest. So it's a kind of one-night stand, and it leaves you feeling cheap and disappointed and sorry that it didn't turn out better.

"Look. Mars is a fascinating place," Ferris continues. "We know it's a fascinating place as a result of scientific research, because science found out enough about Mars that we know it has a fascinating personality. It has the potential, in a film, to have the authenticity and reverberance of the Serengeti or Everest.

"But in all these films, no one's bothered to put enough of the real Mars on screen. They just rip off a little bit, you know, to get them started, and then they fake the rest."

For example?

"The landscape of Mars, in Mission to Mars, is just wrong," Ferris insists. "The verticals are wrong, the colors are wrong, the winds are wrong, the gravitational behavior of objects thrown up in the sky is wrong, and the gravitational field in which the astronauts are moving is wrong. All those things are wrong.

"The planet Mars," he says, "deserves better. Mars has a ghostly beauty that's not like anything on Earth. I doubt if the people who made this film ever even knew what the real Mars looks like.

"Nature is far more imaginative than we are," he continues. "That's the great lesson that science has taught us. The variety and richness of nature is greater than our capacity to imagine. This lesson has been absorbed widely in poetry and other arts, but strangely it has not been widely absorbed in film."

At this point, the famous parrots sail jabbering over our heads, their operatic squawks combining with the high-pitched roar of a passing jet plane and the sounds of hammering from a nearby construction sight. It sounds like something from the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, coincidentally, Ferris now mentions as the best example of a space film that treats its science with respect.

"2001," he says, "is a scientifically voracious film."

The eerie music fades away, and our conversation, too, lapses momentarily into quiet.

"Once again, a film-maker has got to get engaged, if not married, to the science," he finally remarks. "You've got to say, 'I'm going to make my very best effort to go all the way down the aisle with this stuff.' Not just to have a couple of nice weekends with science--and then stop returning her calls."

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From the March 23-29, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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