David Strat­ton re­views The Mar­tian; Stephen Romei re­views Si­cario

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

arly in his ca­reer, Bri­tish di­rec­tor Ri­d­ley Scott made two of the most in­flu­en­tial science-fic­tion films ever pro­duced, Alien (1979) and Blade Run­ner (1982). Since then he’s tack­led a wide num­ber of themes and gen­res, in­clud­ing thrillers, epic ad­ven­tures, war films, a fem­i­nist road movie ( Thelma & Louise, 1991), a bib­li­cal epic ( Ex­o­dus: Gods and Kings, 2014) and the multi-Os­car-win­ning Gla­di­a­tor (2000). For his 23rd fea­ture Scott, 77, has re­turned to the genre that first brought him to in­ter­na­tional fame — but although the genre might be the same, the nar­ra­tive is very dif­fer­ent.

Alien and Blade Run­ner were as much sus­pense thrillers as they were sci-fi; The Mar­tian con­tains lit­tle in the way of sus­pense, but is in­stead a metic­u­lously crafted de­pic­tion of the plight of an as­tro­naut ac­ci­den­tally left be­hind on Mars by crew­mates be­liev­ing him to be dead. Com­par­isons with By­ron Haskin’s Robin­son Cru­soe on Mars (1964), with its very sim­i­lar ba­sic plot, will be made by sci-fi buffs.

The Mar­tian is based on a book by Andy Weir, and prob­a­bly ev­ery­one pretty much knows the plot by now. The trailer gives most of it away, but even if it hadn’t there would be no prizes for guess­ing how it would all turn out. That doesn’t leave much room for sus­pense, yet Scott’s di­rec­to­rial skills are such that for much of the film you’re rooted to your seat as Damon’s Mark Wat­ney strug­gles to sur­vive.

The open­ing scenes es­tab­lish the fact that the mis­sion of space­craft Her­mes, un­der the com­mand of Melissa Lewis (Jes­sica Chas­tain), is tak­ing part in a per­fectly un­re­mark­able Mar­tian mis­sion. We’re not told how far into the fu­ture this mis­sion is tak­ing place, but NASA’s boss Teddy San­ders (Jeff Daniels) and his team clearly see this as pretty rou­tine. How­ever, just as the crew of Her­mes is pre­par­ing to board the craft and em­bark on the long voy­age home, a storm of un­ex­pected fe­roc­ity hits the planet’s sur­face and Wat­ney is hit by a piece of sharp de­bris. Wrongly as­sum­ing that he’s dead, Lewis or­ders the de­par­ture of the space­craft; back on Earth, the as­tro­naut is mourned by his col­leagues and the gen­eral public.

But Wat­ney isn’t dead af­ter all and, af­ter per­form­ing some cringe-mak­ing surgery on him­self, he sets about me­thod­i­cally plan­ning how to sur­vive. Wat­ney has one great strength: like the char­ac­ter played by Bruce Dern in Dou­glas Trum­bull’s sem­i­nal Silent Run­ning (1971), he’s a botanist, and he re­alises from the lim­ited food sup­plies left be­hind in the re­mark­ably welle­quipped land base that he will starve to death long be­fore there’s any chance of res­cue. His chief con­cern, then, is to grow food, and with hu­man ex­cre­ment for fer­tiliser and an in­ge­niously man­u­fac­tured wa­ter sup­ply, he suc­cess­fully plants a crop of pota­toes.

He’s nat­u­rally also des­per­ate to con­tact the Space Cen­tre in Hous­ton, and that proves re­mark­ably dif­fi­cult, though even­tu­ally he’s able to con­vey to his col­leagues back on Earth that he’s alive and rel­a­tively well. The prob­lem is, how to get him home?

It takes rather a long time for the ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion to be found, and that’s a bit of a prob­lem. Given that the au­di­ence is likely to be way ahead of the film in terms of plot, there’s a dan­ger that tedium will set in. For­tu­nately, Scott’s con­cern for re­al­ism — as much as it’s pos­si­ble to be re­al­is­tic in a sci-fi film — grounds the film in its at­ten­tion to plau­si­ble de­tails. Wat­ney repre- sents the nerd fac­tor; he’s not a gung-ho hero, far from it — he’s a bit of a plod­der, but he’s grimly de­ter­mined and he won’t take no for an an­swer. Ev­ery set­back stim­u­lates him to try again, and harder, of­ten with a wry joke to ac­com­pany his re­solve.

Mean­while, his old crew mates in­clud­ing Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Jo­hanssen (Kate Mara) and Alex Vo­gel (Ak­sel Hen­nie), to­gether with the Mis­sion Con­trol team (among them Sean Bean, Chi­we­tel Ejio­for and Kris­ten Wiig), are cal­cu­lat­ing how to ef­fect a res­cue.

One of the film’s run­ning jokes in­volves the fact that Wat­ney’s iso­la­tion isn’t helped by the kind of mu­sic his crew mates have be­queathed to him, which is mostly disco (though I Will Sur­vive seems, in this con­text, pretty ap­pro­pri­ate). I would have been more trou­bled by the qual­ity of the tele­vi­sion pro­grams he’s forced to watch to stave off bore­dom.

In­ci­den­tally, if NASA needs help from the space agency of another coun­try, who would they call on? Not Rus­sia, as you might ex­pect, but China — the charm­ing Chi­nese space of­fi­cials (Chen Shu, Eddy Ko) seem only too happy to lend a hand to res­cue an Amer­i­can as­tro­naut in dis­tress. Is this el­e­ment of the plot in­cluded be­cause it’s plau­si­ble, or be­cause the Chi­nese mar­ket for films such as this one is so vast that it’s good mar­ket­ing tac­tics to in­clude some Chi­nese char­ac­ters?

At two hours and 40 min­utes, The Mar­tian feels long, es­pe­cially when com­pared with the tautly con­structed Grav­ity of a cou­ple of years ago. But what The Mar­tian lacks in sus­pense, it makes up for with sheer vis­ual grandeur. Pol­ish- born cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dar­iusz Wol­ski pro­vides the pris­tine im­ages of the in­ge­niously de­signed sets (con­structed in stu­dios in Bu­dapest) and the starkly beau­ti­ful ter­rain of Mars it­self, which was largely filmed in the desert in Jor­dan. Do drug ad­dicts who can barely func­tion de­serve to raise chil­dren? That’s the ques­tion posed in Dan­ish di­rec­tor Su­sanne Bier’s ma­nip­u­la­tive melo­drama A Sec­ond Chance. It’s some­what sur­pris­ing to dis­cover that Bier and her co-screen­writer An­ders Thomas Jensen, the team re­spon­si­ble for the 2010 best for­eign film Os­car win­ner, In a Bet­ter World, have con­cocted such a con­trived nar­ra­tive as this one, although the is­sues raised by the film cer­tainly merit dis­cus­sion.

An­dreas (Niko­laj Coster-Wal­dau of Game of Thrones fame) is a cop who lives in the sub­urbs with his frag­ile wife, Anna (Maria Bon­nevie) and their new baby, Alexan­der. An­dreas and his part­ner Si­mon (Ul­rich Thom­sen) raid the home of ex-con­vict Tris­tan (Niko­laj Lie Kaas), a vi­cious heroin ad­dict, and dis­cover that he and his girl­friend Sanne (Lykke May An­der­sen) have a baby boy, So­fus, about the same age as Alexan­der, though this un­for­tu­nate in­fant is forced to live in squalor, cov­ered with his own ex­cre­ment. An­dreas re­ports this ne­glect to the author­i­ties but noth­ing, it seems, can be done.

By this time the viewer is well and truly on the side of An­dreas; Tris­tan and Sanne shouldn’t be al­lowed to have a small baby in their care. So when one night Alexan­der sud­denly, un­ex­pect­edly, dies — ap­par­ently the vic­tim of cot death — it seems vaguely log­i­cal that An­dreas should creep into the ad­dicts’ house at night and re­place the dead Alexan­der with the live So­fus. Af­ter all, one baby looks much the same as another, doesn’t it?

It’s an in­trigu­ing premise, but Bier seems to have aban­doned the sub­tleties of her ear­lier films. Tris­tan is an ap­palling char­ac­ter who beats Sanne and threat­ens to cut her throat, while An­dreas is an up­right pil­lar of so­ci­ety. Shades of grey sim­ply aren’t on this film’s agenda.

De­spite the con­sid­er­able con­trivances in­volved in this saga, A Sec­ond Chance is, for much of its length, quite grip­ping, even though in the wash-up it’s not con­vinc­ing on any level.

The ac­tors are to be com­mended for mak­ing the most of some im­prob­a­ble sit­u­a­tions and, in­deed, mak­ing them seem plau­si­ble, at least un­til you start to an­a­lyse things af­ter the movie has ended.

Matt Damon in The Mar­tian, left; Niko­laj Coster-Wal­dau in A Sec­ond Chance, be­low left

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