The Martian

October 13, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

If we ever had an astronaut on Mars, I’d want it to be Mark Watney. Actually, nevermind that. I’d want it to be Matt Damon. Like in many “lone survivor” films, an appealing lead is vital. And here, Matt Damon absolutely owns the film and makes a somewhat agreeable film into a piece of outstanding entertainment. Fleshing out the attractive cast is the always faithful Jeff Daniels, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, and…Kristen Wiig.

The story, based on a 2011 novel by Andy Weir, is about a group of astronauts on a planned mission to Mars that gets thwarted by a major martian storm, sending them back to their ship to leave the planet. During the storm, Watney (Damon) gets whacked with a piece of equipment that partly saves his life, and his crew has left him behind. Being a botanist, he finds that he can grow his own food with the crew’s excrement, and ration food long enough for a rescue mission–he hopes. Meanwhile, the news has leaked back to planet Earth that there was a problem with the mission and someone was left behind. That story doesn’t sound enticing, and the head of NASA (Daniels) begrudgingly concocts a plan to help Watney out. The crew on board their ship Hermes initially does not find out about Watney’s fate, as Daniels’ character Teddy Sanders believes that they will want to go back and rescue him–putting all of their lives in potential danger.

So you have three subplots going on: Watney’s survival on Mars, NASA’s attempts at rescue and sending him supplies, and the Hermes crew once they do inevitably find out about Watney still being alive. Commander Lewis (Chastain) feels the most guilt about leaving him behind, being former military, but also knows the risks involved in rescuing him. The rest of the crew, including fellow astronaut Rick Martinez (played well by the always reliable Michael Pena), want to go after him and get him back.

NASA’s Mars mission director, Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), also wants him to be rescued. Ditto for the flight director played by Sean Bean. The outside influences try to force Sanders’ hand, but he stays on course with the plan to send a probe full of supplies to last Watney another few years before another manned space mission can be executed.

Meanwhile, Watney plods along. At first he cannot communicate with NASA, but then finds a way through an old device that was part of a 1996 mission. He has a few missteps, and he has a few catastrophes. It feels at times like “Cast Away” or “Moon”, “Gravity”, or “Silent Running” (which bears some similarities). But one thing that those films share that is missing in this script, by Drew Goddard, is a little more depth in Watney’s character. While Damon is outstanding, he is…who he is. I’d have liked to see some scenes of him feeling his loss, his isolation, like Hanks in “Cast Away”. He does have a will to live, which is a big theme in the film. It could be the most inspirational movie to be released that wasn’t based on a true story–that feels like one. Up until maybe the last 15 minutes, the film feels like it’s depicting something that really happened. There’s a lot of cheeky dialog, modern mannerisms and throwaway lines (that’s Goddard’s style, after all). But my favorite thing are the 2 references to old Infocom games: “Zork 2”, and “Leather Goddesses of Phobos”, which provide Watney with his only source of entertainment. That is, of course, besides Commander Lewis’ extensive disco collection, much to the chagrin of Watney.

The film is breathtaking, directed by the always reliable Ridley Scott–who is a visual master. It has a lot of tension, even though most of it is predictable. Again, the mark of a great filmmaker. Nothing ever feels out of place, and you do get caught up in the story, pulling for Watney and enjoying his wit as well as his perseverance. Some of it gets a little cutesy, but it’s forgivable. “The Martian” delivers what it promises. Its tagline is “Bring him home”. And this film certainly does.

My rating: :-)

Invictus

December 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Sports movies are always going to be a hard thing to pull off. While we love sports, and we love sports stories, a movie about sports takes away probably the best part of sports–the unpredictability. In a film, the fate has been determined. Besides, in most sports stories, you know that the team usually wins–unless that’s not the point. If it’s a movie about a bunch of losers, they will end up winning the big game. If it’s a movie about people coming together, the team can lose the big game and it’s OK. In a film like “Remember the Titans”, you get both scenarios and it carefully balances two stories of a football team coming together, and race relations coming together in a volatile time in this country.

“Invictus” is similar in its approach. It takes place after the apartheid is over in South Africa, and Nelson Mandella (played by Morgan Freeman) has been elected president. Meanwhile, the other central character of the film, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), is the captain of a very bad national rugby team, known as The Springboks. Mandella attends a game, and watches them get brutally outplayed by England; the blacks in the crowd root for England, while the whites root for the Springboks. He notices that the strain of the culture is still very apparent, and he wants to do something about it. It so happens that South Africa will host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, so Mandella mandates to Francois that the Springboks must win the World Cup, in order to bring the country together.

The problem is, half the country abhors the Springboks and everything they stand for. There is a meeting by the Sports Board that wants to get rid of the Springboks name and colors (green & gold), as they represent the apartheid, and the Afrikaans. Mandella tells them to forgive, and that changing the name and colors only makes this about revenge and not forgiveness.

Mandella does not have a lot of support at first. His security is also blended with whites, to the dismay of the blacks who are protecting him. There is no question the film tries to display the intolerance in the country. Meanwhile, the Springboks have gotten a new coach who wants to train them harder, and the team doesn’t agree with these new practices, and thinks that there’s too much pressure put on them. Francois wants them to rise to the occasion.

All of this is a great premise, and the film starts with a lot of promise. The problem, though, is that it never seems to come together. It does illustrate the tensions that the country still has with itself, and it even shows the rugby team improve as most sports movies will display as they get closer to the big game. But it just seems like Clint Eastwood, normally so well at developing characters and atmosphere, is just throwing things onto a canvas and hoping it all sticks. Some if it does, but not enough for it to resonate. I never felt a part of this film. I felt like an outsider, and that’s not how I felt when I watched “Remember the Titans”. I think I know why.

Mandella, in the film, as a character, has no real flaws. Denzel Washington’s character in “Remember the Titans” had things in his own life that provided challenges. Mandella doesn’t have full support, but no one necessarily opposes what he does. His doctor tells him to rest, but nothing really happens when he disobeys. Mandella was a great man at that time, but I’m sure he had his flaws. I think the movie shows him to be too much as a saint. And if he’s your main character, it just doesn’t work. The other central character, Francois, also has no visible flaws. And we don’t get enough “locker room” insight to watch the chemistry of this team grow, and watch them come together to become a greater team. That has to happen in a sports movie.

So that’s primarily the issue. The film doesn’t really have a focus. It does a good job with certain images of what post-apartheid life was like in South Africa. There’s also a very poignant scene in which Francois tours the prison that Mandella spent 27 years of his life in, and envisions Mandella in that cell, and working in the yard, while Mandella recites “Invictus” in his head. But overall, the film just misses and doesn’t bring it all together.

There are a few other issues I had. First, it’s the sport itself. I don’t really understand rugby. This is not a country that really embraces it as a major sport. The scenes displaying the game seem to capture what the game is–but I don’t really know what they’re doing. In that regard, it’s hard to follow whether you’re supposed to get really excited, or really tense. How does the point system work? Or the time? It seems to use a time scheme much like soccer (which I do follow) but the overtime rules went over my head. Also, I still don’t understand the scrum part of the game, and that becomes essential in the climax of the film. I was lost. I think the film could have done us a favor and give us a few scenes of strategy and play that showed exactly how the game worked, from soup to nuts (did I just use corporate speak?).

The other issue is smaller but it really bothered me. The music. Well, not so much the score–that was beautiful. It was the really cheesy songs that just took away from the drama. Usually that doesn’t bother me, but this was not background music. It was distracting, and I thought it just took me out of the mood of the film.

On the bright side, the performances by Freeman and Damon are exceptional. Damon pulls of a South African accent which is probably one of the more difficult ones to pull off. I give him credit for that. Freeman, as usual, is excellent as Mandella.

It’s a bit of a disappointment that this film didn’t hold together as well as I had hoped. Unlike “Remember the Titans”, which just executed better because it stuck to a theme and stuck to its characters and showed them to be human beings as well as heroes, this film comes up short. I can’t believe I’m giving more credit to a Disney movie than a Clint Eastwood film. I never thought that day would come. But I guess anything’s possible.

My rating: :???: