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

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Unknown


Unknown

Diane Krueger has the unpleasant task of informing Liam Neeson that the grunge look is dead.

(2011) Suspense (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Krueger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider, Stipe Erceg, Mido Hamada, Clint Dyer, Karl Markovics, Eva Lobau, Rainer Bock. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Who are we really? Are we who we are because we say who we are? And what if we are told that is not who we are, that someone else is who we thought we were? Would the sales of Excedrin go through the roof if that were true?

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is a mild-mannered botanist speaking at a biotechnology conference in Berlin, accompanied by his beautiful, icy blonde wife Liz (Jones). It is snowing and the weather is awful when they arrive. In the haste to get into a warm cab, Martin leaves his briefcase behind at the airport. This briefcase contains his passport and all his other important documents, so he turns around at the posh Hotel Adlon and boards another cab to get back to the airport to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men…a dreadful accident sends the taxi plunging off a bridge and into the icy waters of the river. Gina (Krueger), the plucky driver, rescues an unconscious Martin (who had hit his head against the window) from the sinking car and while the paramedics work on the stricken man, slips quietly away.

Four days later, Martin wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of not only what happened to him but his entire wife. The sympathetic doctor (Markovics) tells him he has a head injury which can be tricky when it comes to memory, but the more Martin remembers the more frantic he gets regarding his wife, who has no idea what happened to him and must be going out of her mind by now. However, when he finally checks himself out of the hospital (against doctor’s orders) and heads back to the Adlon, Liz doesn’t remember him. Not only that, she is with another man (Quinn) whom she calls her husband and who seems to be…him.

This is awfully distressing to Martin. He is desperate to prove that he is him, but has no documentation, and very little cash. He visits a colleague, Dr. Bressler (Koch) who invited him to the conference only to find the other Dr. Harris there, who not only has proper documents but also family photographs. This so disturbs Martin that he faints.

The next thing he knows he is getting an MRI but when he comes out of it, an assassin (Schneider) has murdered his doctor and an even more sympathetic nurse (Lobau) and to Martin, that means that maybe he isn’t crazy. He goes to see Jurgen (Ganz), an ex-Stasi agent who the lately murdered nurse had recommended he sees. This sets into a chain of events involving the reluctantly recruited Gina, a Saudi prince (Hamada) and a covert team of murderers for hire.

Collet-Serra is better known for horror films and indeed, the movie is produced by Dark Castle, which specializes in horror but this is more Hitchcock than horror. It has a lot of the elements of a Hitchcock film – an ordinary man drawn into international intrigue that he doesn’t understand; a beautiful, icy-cold blonde, and an unlikely ally – also blonde.

Neeson has assumed the mantle, in his mid-50s, of an everyman action hero, one which Harrison Ford wore in the late 80s and 90s. Neeson’s perpetually gentle puppy dog aura can change into a ferocious fighter at a moment’s notice, and does so upon occasion here. He is so likable that he immediately resonates with the audience, and that’s half the battle in a movie like this.

Jones, who made her reputation in “Mad Men,” is given little more to do than look beautiful and, occasionally, sexy. Having seen her in a number of different roles, I believe she is one good part from being a major leading lady in Hollywood, but that hasn’t happened yet and this film doesn’t really provide her one. Still, she is very good at what she does.

Part of the problem here is that the movie relies on implausibility – considering the importance of what was in the original briefcase (which is more than the passports and is a critical plot point that I won’t reveal here) it’s hard to believe that Martin would leave it on the curb in a luggage cart, no matter how bad the weather. From the way his character is developed in flashback, it seems unlikely that he would let that particular bag leave his grasp but its disappearance is the fulcrum around which the plot is driven.

While based on a novel written by a French writer named Didier Van Caulweleart in 2003, there is a Cold War feel to the movie that would have been better served to be set in the same city but in 1963, with the Wall up and tensions high. As thrillers go, it’s a little bit on the old-fashioned side and some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable.

Still, there is a marvelous car chase, even though it seems a bit ludicrous that a botanist can drive a car like Remy Julienne, the famous French stunt driver although that is explained more or less by proxy by the film’s denouement. There are also some marvelous German actors in the film, not the least of which is Krueger (Inglourious Basterds) and Ganz (one of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s mainstays and best known here for his work in Wings of Desire, as well as Bock, an unctuous security chief here but better as the schoolteacher in The White Ribbon.

What we have here is a moderately serviceable thriller that owes much of its appeal to its rather heavy-handed nods to the master, Alfred Hitchcock and much of the rest of it to its star, Liam Neeson. This isn’t going to re-write the book on the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but if you liked Neeson in Taken and loved basically anything the Master of Suspense directed with Jimmy Stewart in it, you’re going to enjoy Unknown very much.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson elevates the material. The car chase scene is nifty and the tension is elevated nicely throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the plot relies on implausibility and one gets the feel that this film would have been better served being set in the Cold War era.

FAMILY VALUES: As you probably figured out from the trailer, there is plenty of violence here but there’s also a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bridge that the taxi takes its plunge from is the Oberbaumbrucke in Berlin.  

HOME OR THEATER: Not a lot of really big screen-type of cinematography here; it will work just as well on your own home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stolen

Avatar


Avatar

A gunship moves through one of the majestic landscapes of Pandora.

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

A race with superior technology has a responsibility to protect those races that are less advanced than they. However, the history of humankind has shown that to rarely be the case in those sorts of situations.

In the year 2154, Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) was a grunt whose spine was injured during a campaign in Venezuela, leaving him confined to a wheelchair. His identical twin brother was a scientist who had been leaving for the wondrous world of Pandora, an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, as part of the avatar program. The journey was supposed to take five years of cryo-sleep just to arrive but it would never happen; Jake’s brother was killed during a mugging.

Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans. The planet is full of flora and fauna, much of which is aggressive and lethal. There is an indigenous race of humanoids called the Na’Vi, a race of 10-12 foot tall tailed bipeds that have a great deal in common with Native Americans. Even their language sounds similar.

Humans communicate with the Na’Vi through avatars, genetically engineered creatures utilizing human and Na’Vi DNA that humans link through a machine that transfers the human’s mind into the avatar allowing the human to experience what the avatar sees, tastes and touches. The Na’Vi call the avatars “dreamwalkers” because when the humans return to their own bodies, the avatars lose consciousness and appear to sleep.

Because avatars are so hideously expensive, it is determined that Jake will take his brother’s place on Pandora despite the fact that he has had no training in an avatar and is abysmally ignorant of Pandora and its dangers. When Jake arrives on Na’Vi he finds a bit of a power struggle going on in the human fortress-encampment between the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), a cantankerous botanist, and Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang), a gung-ho ex-Marine employed as a mercenary by the RDA Corporation and its smarmy representative Parker Selfridge (Ribisi) – notice the similarity to the word “selfish” here – who are after a rare mineral called, somewhat irreverently, unobtanium. One particular Na’Vi settlement sits on a particularly rich deposit of the stuff.

The Na’Vi don’t trust the humans and with good reason. The humans look around Pandora and see a dangerous world whose resources exist for their exploitation for corporate gain. The Na’Vi sees a living world that is beautiful and inter-connected.

Jake goes on his first mission into the forest accompanied by fellow rookie Norm Spellman (Moore) and Dr. Augustine and immediately gets himself into trouble, winding up being chased by a rhino-like creature (with the head of a hammerhead shark) into a chasm where he is separated from his fellow avatars. Day turns into night and the forest becomes even more dangerous as a pack of black canine-like creatures attacks Jake. He is saved by one of the Na’Vi, the beautiful Neytiri (Saldana) who has nothing but contempt for the avatars,who as she puts it walk through the forest like ignorant children and “see nothing.” However, when a jellyfish-like lifeform becomes curious about Jake, Neytiri interprets this as a sign and takes Jake to their village.

There her father Eytukan (Studi), the clan chief and her mother Moat (Pounder), the shaman of the clan, make the determination that Jake should be trained as a hunter for the clan. Tsu-tey (Alonso), the clan’s best hunter who is also heir to the position of chief and as thus betrothed to Neytiri, is skeptical that this can be done.

My son characterized the plot as “Dances With Aliens” and he has a point. There are many similarities between the plots of Avatar and Dances With Wolves but this definitely has its own take on it. The conflict between the needs of the corporation and the world of the Na’Vi eventually come to a head. There are some intense battle sequences but in all honesty, these are not why you come to see this movie.

Never before in motion picture history has so complete an alien environment ever been created. The look of Pandora is astonishing and realistic. It is certainly alien with some familiar elements; lush vegetation, grasses and trees and many unusual flora and fauna. There is literally no way to take it all in with a single viewing which is what the filmmakers intended undoubtedly.

Some movies become event movies simply on the basis of hype and a precious few because they are game changers. Star Wars was one of the latter and so is Avatar. This is a movie that many will see simply because everyone will be talking about it and they want to get in on the conversation. Director Cameron has once again proven himself one of the most visionary directors of his generation. While some think of him as the director of Titanic, the biggest-grossing movie of all time, his legacy may rest with Avatar. This will literally change how movies get made.

The acting is surprisingly good. Weaver has made a career of delivering strong, capable performances and her Grace Augustine may rank with Ripley as the character most associated with her in the future. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that has already landed him the lead in high-profile movies and undoubtedly will continue to do so. He has all the qualities to be a big star and while his performance in Terminator Salvation hints at it, he delivers big time here. Michelle Rodriguez, an actress I’ve never really connected with before, is superb as a sympathetic pilot.

The movie runs two hours and forty minutes which is a bit long; the 3D glasses are bulky and uncomfortable and I wound up with a sore nose where the glasses rested. I have to admit that Cameron’s strong point is not dialogue and some of the characters utter lines that made me groan out loud. His points on corporate greed and its role in wiping out the ecology of our own world, the treatment of aboriginal races and the general irresponsibility of humankind are well-taken but at times he uses a 2×4 to whack us over the head with it when an ostrich feather would have done the trick.

Reviews for this movie are almost superfluous other than to pile on superlatives for a movie that richly deserves them. Avatar may be the closest thing to a visit to an alien world that most of us will get to experience in our lifetimes, but I’m sure most people have either already seen it or were planning to see it anyway without my endorsement. Still, count me in among the endorsers of this film; widely-hyped, intensely scrutinized and greatly anticipated, it delivers as one of the year’s very best.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals, the visuals, the visuals. This is a detailed, realistic world that has an internal logic. Even the elements of the fantastic make sense.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is probably about 20-30 minutes too long and can cause a bit of sensory overload at times. Some of the film’s points get hammered in a bit too strongly.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair bit of violence and some language, but pretty much okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The avatars have five fingers and toes while the Na’Vi have four.

HOME OR THEATER: This absolutely must be experienced on the big screen, preferably in 3D and in the IMAX format if you have a theater equipped for it nearby.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: World Trade Center