The Martian


Matt Damon takes a break.

Matt Damon takes a break.

(2015) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peňa, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Nick Mohammed, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Enzo Cilenti, Jonathan Aris, Gruffudd Glyn, Naomi Scott. Directed by Ridley Scott

The exploration of other planets is a dangerous undertaking, maybe the most dangerous thing that humankind can do. So many things can go wrong. When compounded with human error, life or death can rest on a single decision made not always by ourselves but by others as well.

The Ares III manned mission to Mars is going well into its 18th day but then mission control in Houston detects an oncoming storm, a massive one that will force the crew to end their mission early and blast off into space. Already the escape vehicle is tipping over dangerously in the Martian sand. As the crew struggles to prepare for an emergency liftoff, the storm hits with brutal wind force. A piece of debris slams into astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) who is blown into the storm. His beacon and life signs indicator both are off. After a brief search in the storm fails to turn up Mark or his body, expedition leader Melissa Lewis (Chastain) is forced to leave Mars without him.

Except Mark isn’t quite dead yet, to quote Monty Python. Yes, he’s injured and his suit electronics non-functional but he’s alive. He gets back to the habitat and assesses his situation. He has food rations and water for a further 30 days but it will be four years before NASA can mount a rescue mission, assuming they realize that he’s still alive. As Mark says in his video logs that are to chronicle his struggle to survive, he’ll have to science the shit out of things in order to create drinkable water out of rocket fuel, grow potatoes from some vacuum packed spuds in an environment where nothing grows (let’s just say that he utilizes both the shit and the science), and manage to keep the atmosphere breathable in the habitat. It’s a daunting task.

Mark has a doctorate in botany so he’s a pretty smart guy. However, he knows that any one of a million things can go wrong. He has to contact NASA and once they realize that he’s alive, he has to stay that way until they can get there. However, it isn’t going to be just Mark on the line; when his crew discovers he’s still alive, they will put their own lives on the line to get their colleague and teammate back and what could be more heroic than that?

Ridley Scott is a prolific director who has a history of making screen worlds come to life, from ancient Rome to rural Provence to a doomed spaceship. Here the Red Planet – desolate and arid, although a mere four days before this movie opened NASA announced that water flowed on Mars – becomes a living creature, deadly as a cobra and majestic as a moose. Shot in Tunisia on red desert sands, The vistas are bleak and alien but realistic.

He got NASA’s cooperation on the movie which while it doesn’t come off as a two hour advertisement for the space agency, does portray it in a heroic light in much the same way Apollo 13 did. NASA doesn’t do movies that don’t have the right science; here they made something like 50 pages of notes in order for the solutions to the various problems that Mark Watney come up with are grounded in real science and are the lot of them quite ingenious.

Scott also had the good sense to put a stellar cast in place. While this is Damon’s movie without a doubt (more on that in a minute), he gets plenty of support including Daniels as a beleaguered NASA chief, Wiig as a press officer trying to spin the story the right way, Bean as a project manager whose first and only loyalty is to the crew who have placed their lives in his hands, Ejiofor as a NASA manager tasked with getting Watney home and Peňa as Watney’s closest friend on the crew. All of them do memorable work in parts that have in many cases much less screen time than they are used to.

But as I mentioned, this is Damon’s movie from start to finish and he responds by turning in maybe the best performance of his career. Certainly come Oscar nomination time he will have a very good shot at making the short list. He gives us exactly the heroic astronaut we’re looking for; one who is lonely and vulnerable but who faces his issues with intelligence and aplomb. He is a man who absolutely refuses to lie down and quit where many would have. Dying 145 million miles away from home is simply unacceptable.

The science in the film has been vetted by no less a personage than Neil deGrasse Tyson (who also recorded a trailer for the film) who proclaimed it accurate for the most part other than some minor details; for example, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena doesn’t work on manned missions, but the one element that doesn’t pass the science test is the storm that scrubs the mission; because the atmosphere on Mars holds 1% of the air pressure than the atmosphere on Earth, the dust storms there (and there are dust storms on Mars) are much less violent and only pick up the lightest of dust. Having a wind storm on Mars that has the capability of picking up debris and slamming it into the body of an unsuspecting atmosphere doesn’t work but of course it is necessary to the plot that the crew believe that one of their number is dead, otherwise they would never leave without him. Like our military, NASA leaves nobody behind.

But what we have here is a rare movie that promotes intelligence and individual scientific knowledge. Granted, we are unlikely to ever be put in a situation in which our science IQ is all that stands between us and oblivion, but it is a reminder of how important science is not just into making new cell phones for us to use but to our own survival as well. The kind of problem solving Watney exhibits is the kind of problem solving we need for our own future as our global climate changes, which may lead to famine and starvation. We’ll need a lot of Mark Watneys to get us out of that one. Nonetheless any movie that gives us this kind of portrayal of science and scientists and does it in a story that is this compelling gets the highest praise I can offer.

REASONS TO GO: Damon is brilliant. Gripping story with real life science. Maintains tension throughout. Realistic-looking Mars (other than the storms).
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone likes science fiction..
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, images of injuries and brief male posterior nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ridley Scott delayed filming on his Prometheus sequel to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gravity
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Pan

Headhunters (Hodejegerne)


Headhunters

Some CEOs are a little bit more psychotic than others.

(2011) Thriller (Magnolia) Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnove Macody Lund, Julie Olgaard, Kyrre Haugen Sydness, Reidar Sorensen, Nils Jorgen Kaalstad, Joachim Rafaelsen, Gunnar Skramstad Johnsen, Lars Skramstad Johnsen, Signe Tynning, Eivind Sander. Directed by Morten Tyldum

 

There is a big difference between a lifestyle and a life. Having a lifestyle is something subject to what we can afford; having a life is inevitable, although sometimes we lose sight of the latter when chasing the former.

Roger Brown (Hennie) should know that. He works as a corporate headhunter, placing out of work executives into new jobs that befit their experience and price value. He works in Oslo, and is married to Diana (Lund), a statuesque Nordic blonde art gallery owner whom he plies with expensive jewelry and an amazing house that is well beyond his means.

Roger supplements his income in rather a clever way. Through his interviewing of CEOs he manages to discover the type of art they have at home, then he sets up the CEO for an interview. While the client is at the interview, he breaks into their homes by having a confederate at the security company (apparently one company supplies all of the former CEOs in Norway with alarm systems) disable their alarm system, at which time he walks in, removes the painting and replaces it with a forgery. It doesn’t have to be a great forgery, just one good enough to fool them for a week or two, casting doubt as to when the actual crime occurred. It’s pretty smart but as Brown ruefully says in the voiceover, doing this gig long enough ends in one of two results; either you find a piece of work valuable to retire on, or you get caught.

Roger figures he might have found the former. A new client, the former head of a Dutch telecommunications company named Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau) might have in his position a Rubens that had gone unseen since the Second World War. Roger’s partner, the genial Ove (Sander) has some misgivings – he’d much rather spend the time with his Russian prostitute – but Roger eventually bullies him into picking up a forgery for the piece.

But things go sideways quickly. Roger soon begins to suspect that Diana, who wants children that Roger is unwilling to give her, may be having an affair with Clas. And soon it becomes apparent that Clas has an agenda, one in which Roger may play a critical role. Bodies begin to pile up and Roger can trust no-one, not even his own wife and that’s a very bad place for an art thief to be.

Veteran Norwegian director Tyldum is given a great canvas to work with – a book by acclaimed Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo – and makes the most of it. He takes a hero who has a lot of issues – Roger repeatedly tells us in the voice-over that he’s only 5’6″ and visually we see that Diana towers over him so there is definitely some compensation going on. His need to provide a lifestyle that everyone but Roger can see that Diana doesn’t particularly want or need illustrates a profound misunderstanding of women. In my experience, most women would give up a lifestyle in favor of a life with the man they love. They’re funny that way.

Tyldum got himself a fine cast to work with. Hennie is a major star in Norway although here in the United States he is little known. He imbues Roger with great intelligence, moving Da Queen to favor him with remarks like “he’s so smart!” which coming from her is not unlike the Medal of Honor. Roger is not one to fight so much of the film is spent with him in flight – which may be off-putting to Americans who tend to like their heroes to be men of action. I like it that Roger is physically unimposing, and I think Hennie is perfectly cast in the role, with eyes that project both intelligence and self-doubt.

Coster-Waldau makes a menacing villain, one who seems on the surface to be every inch the match and more for Roger. In fact, Clas is meant to be the anti-Roger – handsome, successful and possessed of nearly unlimited funds. Roger is supposed to be the underdog.

And yet he isn’t. In some ways, Hennie is too good at his job – despite the description of Clas making him out to be a genius in electronic surveillance gear, he comes off as an intellectual inferior to Roger and his menace comes more from his relentless pursuit. He’s supposed to be a CEO; making him a former special forces sort muddies the waters and stretches belief. Personally, I would have had Clas be an older man who is less physical; perhaps he sends out a different character played by Coster-Waldau to seduce Diana and pursue Roger.

However, despite my feelings about Clas I still think this is an excellent thriller, one which Hitchcock would have definitely approved of. It’s clever, well-written and contains some well-choreographed action scenes, including one where Roger attempts to escape from psychotic Clas in a farm vehicle with Clas’ attack dog dangling from the machinery. That’s not the kind of visual you get from a Hollywood film, and it’s one I’m sure we won’t be seeing when Summit (the makers of the Twilight series) remakes the film in a couple of years.

REASONS TO GO: Clever throughout, with decent twists that keep the audience just off-balance enough.

REASONS TO STAY: Greve is not a believable CEO; seems far too psychotic, even for a ruthless businessman.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bloody violence and some images that are on the grisly side. The sexuality is pretty strong and there’s some brief nudity to go along with it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is best known to American audiences for his appearances on the “Game of Thrones” and “New Amsterdam” TV shows; this is Lund’s first foray into acting after successful careers as a model and as a journalist.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The movie is getting outstanding reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thomas Crown Affair

JO NESBO LOVERS: The popular Norwegian crime author is best known for his Detective Harry Hole series. This is based on his first non-Hole book in the thriller genre.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop