Shot from The Martian

The Martian

Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Screenwriter: Drew Goddard

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeff Daniels

Quite honestly, if you have seen Apollo 13, Cast Away, Interstellar, or The Right Stuff, then ironically, The Martian, the new film from Ridley Scott about an astronaut left behind by his crew on Mars, treads no new territory.  That being said, why did we all love those movies if they basically explored the same things?  The answer is that we have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test.  When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems!

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of a six-person, 31-day mission to explore the surface of Mars.  When an unexpected dust storm escalates with no warning, Watney is struck by debris, disabling his spacesuit’s communication device and forcing his crew to assume he has been killed.  With the storm jeopardizing the integrity of their ship, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to evacuate the planet early and consequently leave Watney’s body behind.  Now as Lewis and her crew begin the 10-month journey back to Earth, Watney awakens from being struck unconscious to discover that he is alone on a dessert planet 34 million miles from Earth and potentially years from being rescued, and that is if he can somehow communicate to NASA that he is not dead.

For a film with such a discouraging scenario at its heart, The Martian is extremely upbeat thanks to a terrific performance by Matt Damon who masterfully captures the brilliance of Andy Weir’s original character from his novel of the same name.  Damon displays a resourcefulness, wit, and spirit with his portrayal of Watney, and it reminds us all of the importance of “mindset.”  A film that could so easily present a protagonist’s slow dissent into madness at the mercy of isolation is instead wisely turned on its head early on when Watney declares, “I will not die here.”  Whether or not this declaration becomes fact remains to be seen, but this decision to persevere is precisely why this film is such a joy to watch and not a test of our sensibilities.  Watney’s decision to live comes with the caveat of finding a way to survive for an indeterminate amount of time on a planet with no atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and no food or water source.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch Watney work his way through these dilemmas and according to director Ridley Scott, NASA validates nearly all of the survival methods Watney employs in this film.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Watney does eventually manage to contact Earth and establish that he is alive, creating a new element of tension as the film evolves from a survival film (like Gravity) to one that introduces the concept of rescue.  As exciting as it is to examine the power of the individual in films like Gravity and Cast Away, The Martian introduces a type of global effort that can be assembled when the people of Earth put aside their differences and work together on a common goal.  Consequently, like Apollo 13, The Martian wisely balances the space scenes with others that show the ingenuity and frustration of the scientists on Earth as they try to develop some kind of plan to save Watney.  That being said, a simple glance at the promotional poster for The Martian clearly demonstrates that this film was developed as a vehicle for Damon, but there are many other big names in this movie and boy are they wasted.  Michael Peña, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and others all share about 20% of the running time and don’t get to do very much.  This is slightly disappointing especially when one thinks back to Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 and realizes how powerful these roles could have been with some slight refocusing.

With Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are firmly in the midst of a science-fiction renaissance.  While box office has plenty to do with this current fad, what makes these films most enticing to the big name directors is their opportunity to dazzle us visually.  I saw The Martian in 3-D, which I normally avoid.  I still believe that 3-D releases are nothing more than a way to make you pay an extra few dollars for a ticket, but I will admit that Ridley Scott has crafted a beautiful and exciting film with The Martian that does use the technology to immerse the audience in the experience better than most.

The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster.  It is entertaining, researched, and impressive.  Still, while it features brilliant people doing brilliant things, The Martian does all of the heavy lifting.  It would have been nice to walk away with a little bit more to think about, but it does let you walk out with plenty to celebrate, and that is good too. A-

The Martian is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. 

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Interstellar

interstellar2A Christopher Nolan film release is event movie territory. Interstellar, Nolan’s first film since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, has far more in common with his 2010 mind-bender Inception than with the “Caped Crusader,” however. First, they are both one-word titles that begin with “I” and second both deal with the complex nature of time’s relativity to the dimension of space and the time that one’s consciousness is inhabiting combined with the levels of both of those times’ relativity within the separate levels of that dimension. Call it a director trademark. All that aside, Interstellar is a phenomenal film.

Interstellar is set in an undetermined future where blight and dust have decimated most of the food supply on Earth. Modern industrial society has ceased to exist and a “caretaker” generation has taken over, where most children will be raised to be farmers and few will see education beyond secondary school. Matthew McConaughey takes the McConnaissance to an epic level as Joseph Cooper, a former NASA test-pilot turned farmer living with his two children and father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). Frequent dust storms have eliminated virtually every crop but corn, and corn is likely not far from extinction as well. When some strange gravitational pulses begin influencing some of Cooper’s farm equipment, his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) notices some patterns left behind that reveal coordinates to a secret NASA lab operating underground. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) heads the operation and when Cooper stumbles upon the lab, Brand presents Cooper with an interstellar mission that has the potential to save humanity from extinction but also requires that he leave his family with no guarantee of return. Cooper reluctantly accepts and with a crew including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), Cooper leads a space mission to explore a series of potentially promising alternatives to Earth.

Now if you’re in that group of  people who only take their dystopia with a side of Jennifer Lawrence, hear me out. Interstellar is the most immersive film of the year, eclipsing even last year’s Gravity in terms of cinematic experience. Nolan does not treat the audience with kid gloves and allows us to observe and appreciate the film without needless exposition or over-explanation. Clocking in at 3 hours in running time, the film actually moves with a deliberate and intrepid pace. Like successful cinematic space operas of the past such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Star Wars, Interstellar is enriched with thoughtfulness, theoretical rhetoric, and intensity! The film is also quite beautiful and awe-inspiring. Nolan, one of the last filmmakers still shooting on 35mm film, uses the technique to his stunning advantage. Darkness, color, perspective, and beauty are all heightened by Nolan’s camera work, and the film resonates with a voracity that feels appropriate for a quality depiction of interplanetary space travel. Like Steven Price’s Oscar winning score from Gravity, the score in this film, composed by Has Zimmer, plays an equally pivotal role. Swells and crescendos of synthesizers and pipe organs counter-balance equally ominous moments of complete silence, all of which emphasize the overall mood.

The cast is adequate, but what actor is playing which role in this film is actually quite inconsequential. McConaughey is the only actor who has to carry any substantial weight and his performance is best categorized as “alright.” In fact, the film boasts a parade of cameos, which work to draw attention away from the film’s principal actors. At one point, you may have to check your ticket stub to make sure you didn’t accidentally walk into a screening of Ocean’s Eleven. But like most Christopher Nolan films, the true strength of Interstellar is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. For a science-fiction film, Interstellar feels very authentic and while the film’s final act may challenge some viewers, everything works. This is a big movie, so see it on a big screen! A

Interstellar is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes.

All is Lost

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In the early 20th century, a literary movement known as Naturalism caught on as war suddenly began to grip America once again.  Influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, Naturalistic writers wanted to emphasize the dark, harshness of life as well as man’s lack of control of the natural forces that truly guide his fate.  All is Lost is as close to cinematic Naturalism as I’ve ever seen. 

Robert Redford plays a character whose name is never revealed, a typical trait of Naturalism as these forms of expression look to stress nature’s indifference to man. This indifference is further exemplified with the film’s opening scene where the man (Redford) awakens from a nap below deck on his sailboat to find that a stray floating cargo container had somehow drifted into the side of his boat, puncturing it and resulting in the boat quickly taking on water.  No explanation is given for this circumstance or than that it presumably fell off of a cargo ship and, as fate would have it, collided with the boat.  The man is a pensive man; he does not react wildly or make rash decisions, rather he weighs his options and relies on his experience and skills.  Redford’s is the only character in the entire film, and he is also a man of few words; accordingly, the script for All is Lost is only 32 pages long.  Thus, writer/director J.C. Chandor’s film looks to explore modern Naturalism at sea as deliberately as possible. 

All is Lost is a riveting achievement.  As we watch this man struggle through a series of events set into motion by that seemingly innocuous cargo container, we are forced to mull over our own mortality and our own suitability to circumstance.  Last year, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi beautifully captured some of what All is Lost attempted to capture, but that film was far more Romantic in its aspirations.  All is Lost instead puts plot aside and seeks to pit man against nature in a rigorous, albeit somewhat predictable series of events.  The result is a compelling yet extraordinarily minimalistic effort that does feel redundant at times. 

Earlier this year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity also pitted man against incredible odds in a far more successful way.  While both films depict man’s struggle with expertise, Cuarón, like Ang Lee before him, understood the need to make the film a visual spectacle as well.  Thus, those films certainly utilize the media of film far more than All is Lost, while All is Lost relies more on Redford.  Fortunately, Redford delivers.  The sharp, witty con-man from The Sting is no more, but he has been replaced by a weathered and beaten sailor who may have the grit to do what Johnny Hooker never could – win an Oscar.  B+

All is Lost is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes.  It is a nailbiter and a triumph for Redford.  The score by indi-rock name Alex Ebert is also characteristically right on. 

 

 

Gravity

ImageGravity director, Alphonso Cuarón said that after this, he will never make another “space” movie.  Thankfully, the “space” movie that he did make is nothing short of spectacular, and should certainly make any director think twice before making the next “space” movie. 

Superlatives abound when describing the intensity and the mind-blowing visual effects of Gravity.  Set in space, Gravity opens with the words, “Life in space is impossible,” and five better words do not exist to serve as prologue for the film that follows.  Doctor Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are on a NASA satellite repair mission 600 kilometers above Earth’s surface when rogue debris from a Russian satellite detonation rip through their station at 50,000 MPH, decimating their ship and sending the astronauts hurdling into space. 

Cuarón majestically dazzles the viewer in the opening scene with epic silence, sweeping camera movements, and sensory immersion that rivals that of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  He magnifies the strangeness and utter complexity of being suspended in space as Stone and Kowalski are shown performing a variety of tasks as they complete their mission while communicating via radio between each other and their contact at Mission Control in Houston (Ed Harris). 

The peaceful, serene tone of the film’s first ten minutes is mesmerizing but unsettling as a twinge of impending doom is resting uneasily in the audience’s mind.  The thrilling contrast of the sudden catastrophe that befalls Stone and Kowalski is also handled with pure terror.  Tonal comparisons can be made to the 2003 film Open Water where primal fear is explored as two scuba divers are abandoned in the middle of the ocean hundreds of miles from shore.  Gravity taps into that same primal fear with expertise and style.    

Gravity is a true cinematic ride.  While not deep in content, the film is absorbing, terrifying, and authentic.  Clooney and Bullock carry the movie with ease and with a tight running time of 91 minutes, the small cast merely emphasizes the ironically claustrophobic nature of space.  Cuarón’s choices of point of view are magnificent as he allows the camera to effortlessly and seamlessly transition in and out of first-person at the most opportune times.  Few films give an audience such awareness and consciousness.  In once scene Bullock’s character is suddenly sent spinning into deep space.  She loses radio communication and the camera assumes Bullock’s point of view.  The audience abruptly is thrown into a very real experience of spinning, attempting to gain a point of reference, discovering oxygen levels are low, and likely literally holding their breath.  This is a movie to experience in a theater!  A

Gravity is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes.  See it on the largest screen possible; it is playing in IMAX and XTreme theaters and can be seen in both 2D and 3D.  The People’s Critic saw the film in 2D, but many critics say this is a film worthy of the 3D surcharge.