The Martian – A Review

Ridley Scott direct Matt Damon and an impressive ensemble of supporting cast of Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wigg, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Mackenzie Davis, Sebastian Stan in The Martian.

Based on the book by Andy Weir, screen writer Drew Goddard manages to keep the humor and sarcasm from the book and translates that to screen without making it sound cheesy or making light of the actual science involved. From story and screenplay point of view The Martian strikes a perfect balance of keeping the science real and still ensuring that casual moviegoers are not overwhelmed and ultimately disinterested. Comparisons calling this Apollo 13 meets Castaway aren’t far off the mark.

The story sees Mark Watney and his band of Astronauts exploring the inhospitable martian terrain when a storm looms ahead and the team is forced to return to the safety of the MAV and leave as the strength of storm was underestimated. Watney gets stranded and is assumed dead as the crew unwillingly decide to leave him behind and return to Hermes to embark on the journey back home. Turns out Watney isn’t dead but is left to his own devices as he tries to survive on the planet where nothing survives. Watney tries his hand at farming, foraging for the pathfinder and setting up a communication link back to earth using primitive techniques. Damon is perfectly cast as Watney as his dry humor and wry smile carry the entire movie on his shoulders. I could go on discussing the several hilarious scenarios he is faced with but it is best experienced first-hand on the big screen.

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The support cast is jam packed with talented names but there are so many that they are almost callously handled. Jeff Daniels as the director of NASA phones it in, there is no undercurrent of passion that we saw him demonstrate in The Newsroom. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor also seems badly written, Sean Bean as the guy who heads the mission to mars is also underwritten and his talents of dying in every movie he stars in are also criminally wasted. Donald Glover is stereotypical Nasa nerd. Benedict Wong and Kristen Wigg do a fine enough job but could have done so much more in trying to infuse more humor than they do. The only one from the support cast who left a lasting impression was Mackenzie Davis who is the first one to report that Mark Watney might actually still be alive on Mars. Jessica Chastain as the 80s disco music obsessed but cool and detached commander is also perfectly cast.

Supporting cast weakness aside, where The Martian triumphs is in its casting of Damon and his portrayal of the eternally optimistic Mark Watney who promises to “science the shit out of this” as he does everything possible to survive – I wish there was Eye of the Tiger playing in one of the scenes it would have been perfect but Hot Stuff and Fonz from Happy Days more than makes up for it. Technically the movie isn’t anything ground breaking in terms of the space-y visuals but it is adequate and does the job.

The movie shines for its light hearted and tongue in cheek look at the sci-fi which more often than not takes on a far too serious a tone and nothing against it but this one works just as well. And Matt Damon is brilliant. He reminds me of Soderberg’s underrated The Informant and that is a very very good thing. And the 80s music is a guilty pleasure so give me more disco any day of the week and I will be a happy bunny!

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Interstellar – A Spoiler free Review

A Christopher Nolan movie is an event movie – it deserves tonnes of press and an even greater amount of hype and excitement as Nolan rarely disappoints. The man who single handedly revived the super-hero genre, the one who dabbled in magic and memory loss and dared peer inside our dreams is revered among cinephiles and for good reason. And when this man sets off on an inter-galactic voyage you simply strap in and join him for the ride on the biggest screen possible. To say I am a Nolan devotee would be a gross understatement. I have devoured every tidbit of information that came out while Nolan worked away on his space sojourn and Interstellar was the number 1 most anticipated movie for me for this year. I was back in 2010 when I was waiting with bated breath for Inception to unfold and for it to silence all Nolan critics and it did in spectacular fashion. Would Interstellar be able to continue Nolan’s winning streak or will the law of averages finally catch up with this auteur. Read on to find out more – there are no spoilers in this review

The story starts in the near future where science is all but forgotten, the school teach students that the Moon landing was a hoax perpetrated to bankrupt the Soviet Union and trained astronauts are left to plough the field for crop. This is the caretaker generation, struggling through dust clouds and crop blights to survive while staring extinction in the face. Through curiously encoded messages Cooper played by Matthew McConaughey and Murph played by Mackenzie Foy end up at NORAD a clandestine NASA mission run by the Nolan-regular Michael Caine playing Professor Brand. He asks Cooper – the best pilot they ever had- to join the mission along with his daughter Amelia played by Anne Hathaway, Romily played by David Gyassi and Doyle played by Wes Bentley. The mission is to follow 3 of the 12 previous astronauts who left our galaxy to travel through a mysterious wormhole to look for other planets which could be used to sustain human life.  No more story-wise, lest I risk the spoiling of the surprises that are in-store.

Nolan is a master of visuals. His association with Wally Pfisher was what elevated his movies to the next level. With Hoyte Van Hoytema donning the cinematographer’s hat I had a feeling we won’t be let down because he filmed the wonderful Her last year and made the future very accessible and believable. The visuals Van Hoytema creates of the inter-galactic voyage are stunning in their grandeur but as one wired article evidences they are also based on a very real scientific equations which Kip Thorne the theoretical physicist from Caltech collaborated on with the team behind interstellar. The wormhole, the blackhole, and the Endurance spacecraft passing alongside Saturn are all stunning in their detail and scale. Where the visuals however are let down are with the background score. Hans Zimmer who has provided very complementary scores for previous Nolan movies plays it too heavy handedly this time around. The loud klaxon based soundtrack takes away from the scene and makes it almost unbearable. A Clint Mansel or Alexandre Desplat score would have served Nolan better giving it the Kubrickian feel of using the classical compositions. With the thunderous riffs and booming drums of Zimmer the crescendos come quick and fast but there is no payoff visually or story wise .

Nolan had me scratching my head when he announced that Matthew McConaughey would be the lead actor in Interstellar and my worst fears have come to fruition. Every time Cooper opens his mouth to speak out comes the stoner cowboy drawl that will dull anyone to sleep. Half the time his words are illegible and the other half just unbearable. He is unbelievable as someone who understands and can hold a conversation about quantum physics and he puts in no efforts to the contrary either.  Anne Hathaway is still stuck being Fantine from Les Miserables and cannot seem to turn the tears out. If we had a whiny bio-physicist and a stoned out southerner to rely on to save the fate of humanity our chances look grim. Thats where the grown up Murph, Jessica Chastain comes in – she is the only one that manages to come across as someone with a sane mind but her interaction with her brother played by Casey Affleck make little sense. But my biggest grief is with David Gyassi who plays fellow astronaut Romily who waits on board Endurance when Coop, Amelia and Doyle go to the planet of the Tsunami waves. He ages 22 years when they get back on the spacecraft and I for one instance thought he was just hamming it to tease Coop and Amelia on the passage of time but he wasn’t and he had really aged and he acts really weird too, walks with a slouch and sounds defeated. The whole effect is jarring and not entirely believable.

For a movie that is nearly 3 hours long there are key scenes which feel rushed and unresolved. The initiation of Cooper into the Save-the-humanity program, the travel to the different planets to find the data, the climax which holds the key to the human survival seem hurried and rough. If more time was spent on these, more technical aspects of what is essentially a sci-fi adventure it would have felt like the Nolan movie I have come to expect. Instead we spend an inordinately long time setting up the doomsday scenario in the first half with the dustbowl and the father daughter bond that will be Cooper’s driving force. Also once onboard the time spent whining about personal issues is almost juvenile and for Nolan standards unpardonable. Instead of Cooper and Amelia talking I would much prefer a lively chat between TRAS and CASE the two robots who are nods to HAL9000 from 2001 : A Space Odyssey.

There is little doubt that this movie is not all that it could have been. A majority of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Matthew McConaughey who I hope Nolan never collaborates with ever again. But this is still a Nolan movie it is big on Ideas and huge on visual impact. For a director who dares to take such huge risks and break away from the formulaic big-budget franchise movies it deserves a watch. It won’t redefine the sci-fi genre in the way that 2001 did. But like Inception it is an idea that needs to be explored and discussed and it makes the most complicated science easily accessible and it makes you think. And I want Nolan to break the bank on this one so he can get back to the long-gestating Howard Hughes biopic.