David Stratton reviews The Martian; Stephen Romei reviews Sicario
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