A Red Letter Film – A Review of The Martian

by Jonathan Davidson

97-frontHow to transfer vast amounts of information in the smallest package—that’s the holy grail of communication.  Several weeks before hearing about The Martian film, I was buying books on Amazon and saw a suggestion for a book called The Martian.  I’d never heard of the book, but it had nearly 10,000 five-star reviews.  John Grisham, James Patterson, and even Stephen King rarely command such a mass of raving reviewers on one of their novels.

And then I saw the cover of the book: An astronaut wearing the brilliant white of a modern American spacesuit, his feet ripped from the Martian soil by fierce wind, his body—twisted in an odd, helpless angle—obscured by reddish-brown dust.  That’s all I needed to see.  Indeed, some graphic designer sitting in some cubical at Broadway Books had stumbled upon the holy grail of communication, marrying simplicity to enormous meaning.  The faceless fear of that astronaut reached out and gripped my science-fiction-loving heart with icy talons.  I clicked, “Buy Now with One-Click®,” and started reading the book the moment it arrived. Every page exceeded my expectations.

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And then I heard they were making a movie. Since movies always have a hard time living up to great books, I tried to approach this one as a standalone piece of art, something wholly separate from its paperback father.  Yet I found it impossible to prevent myself from making comparisons.  The movie promised disappointment in the first nano-second I heard about it.  Instead of the terrifying and moving image of an astronaut fighting against the elements of Mars (a battle even more symbolic when one remembers that, in Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war), the movie poster showed an extreme close-up of Matt Damon’s spacesuit-protected face, one eyebrow slightly raised, his lips pursed as if he’s trying to look suave. Apparently the graphic designer in some cubical at Twentieth Century Fox doesn’t know his trade like the designer in some cubical at Broadway Books. Thus, even on Sol 1 (a Martian day) it appeared that the movie might not live up to the book.

The-Martian-TrailerTrying to keep an open mind, I went to see the film.  As I had suspected, it was very hard to live up to such a gripping masterpiece of science fiction literature.  However, viewed as a separate piece of art, The Martian does what any good film should—carry the viewer into a new and spectacular world where an immersive and emotional experience awaits. This new and spectacular world attracted considerable talent.  Ridley Scott, director of dozens of projects including Blade Runner, Gladiator, and American Gangster, directed.  Drew Goddard, writer of Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods, and many episodes for shows such as Lost, Alias, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, adapted the screenplay.  Matt Damon, who needs no introduction unless you haven’t been to the theater since the 1980s, played the role of the protagonist Mark Watney.  Other prominent actors such as Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, and Sean Bean, played roles as other astronauts or administrators and staff at NASA and JPL.

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The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut whose sub-specialty happens to be botany who travels to Mars with several crew mates on the third manned mission to the red planet.  On Sol 6, a storm blows into the landing zone with such intensity that the mission must be aborted.  In the scramble to reach the evacuation shuttle, Mark Watney gets hit by flying debris.  Unable to delay the launch any longer and getting no readings from Watney’s bio-monitor, the crew decides to blast off.  Hours later, Watney awakes to discover that not only is he alive, but he’s profoundly alone, unable to communicate with NASA or his crew mates, and completely undersupplied to live until the next manned mission to mars which will arrive more than two years later.  Determined to live, Watney sets out to use every scrap of his training and creativity to survive, unaware of exactly how inhospitable Mars will turn out to be.

martian-gallery5-gallery-imageTo Goddard’s credit, he did a great job adapting the screenplay.  The book, written mostly in the form of Mark Watney’s journal entries, derives most of its charms from what’s in the head of the hilariously inappropriate yet scientifically genius protagonist.  By having Watney record a video journal and overlapping his recordings with b-roll of the events described, Goddard managed to tell the story in the same manner of the book while making use of the visual storytelling techniques that makes film so compelling.  Also, Goddard must be commended for sticking to the storyline of the book.  While he had to drop dozens of events in order to keep the film under two and a half hours, those he did portray were lifted almost verbatim from the novel.

Another strength of this film is in the cinematography, beautifully captured by Dariusz Wolski.  Sweeping panoramas of the Martian landscape and lots of aerial shots revealed just how alone Mark Watney was on the treacherous planet.  Such long shots were balanced out with lots of extreme close-ups, allowing Damon to convey Watney’s unique personality.  What’s more, I noticed a tasteful number of unconventional shots, with the camera attached to odd objects or from Dutch angles.  Wolski also effectively used lighting to convey the inherent themes of the film.  The sun hardly dimmed by the thin Martian atmosphere, casts stark shadows, accentuating the planet’s unfeeling harshness.  Dark lighting at JPL underscored how the technicians felt as they labored under the heavy burden of knowing that Mark Watney’s survival depended on them.  My only major criticism of the cinematography deals with the aerial shots.  Apparently their perspective algorithms weren’t finally turned, leading to slight distortions in reality when objects slide past each other.  For instance, as distant mountains changed position relative to close objects, they didn’t seem to interact realistically. Perhaps this is nitpicking, but it bothered me enough that I noticed exactly what was happening.

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My greatest criticism of the film in general is aimed at Ridley Scott.  With a cast that lesser directors would sacrifice their children for, one would assume that Scott would command an incredible symphony of acting.  Yet with the possible exception of Damon, all the actors seemed somewhat listless and sedate.  Even in the most critical moments of the film, the actors were fairly reserved, hardly ever raising their voices or acting as if people’s lives and billions of dollars were on the line.  I have to assume that Scott directed the actors to behave this way on purpose.  Perhaps NASA trains their people to behave with great restraint even in the most dire of circumstances.  Even still, I felt a palpable lack of enthusiasm from most of the cast.  The same could be said for the pacing in general.  It lacked an energy and immediateness that I expected.  The novel was a very gripping read, so perhaps it set up unfair expectations.  Other films such as Gravity might have also set an unrealistically high bar for excitement in space stories, or perhaps Scott directed the film in a slightly lower-key manner in order to avoid the appearance that he copied Gravity.

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Despite these objections, The Martian was a great experience. Matt Damon followed well in Tom Hanks’s shoes as a cast away, his strong acting allowing me to feel with Watney the steep and alternating peaks of desperation, fear, and hope. The desolate yet beautiful Martian world transported me to a new and raw place where anything could happen. Watney’s humor and intelligence made him a pleasure to spend almost two and a half hours observing. Perhaps this film didn’t live up to the book, but it made a very enjoyable movie.

Interstellar: Destined To Be A Classic

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A great film requires creativity, imagination and above all, a moving and relatable message. Interstellar fits those criteria perfectly. The essence of its story is simple yet intricate. It may take more than one trip to the theatre to fully understand the meaning of the movie, but its well worth it. With its pleasant fusion of science fiction and human relationships, Interstellar has become a must see of 2014. Its cinematography, soundtrack and characters will undoubtedly place it among the classics in cinematic history.

interstellar There is no question that the cinematography of the movie is absolutely extraordinary. It is one of the first feature films to have most of its footage shot in 15/70mm IMAX cameras, which allows the audience to get a better glimpse as to how majestic our universe is. In recent years, CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) has primarily been the source to create unreal scenarios, but director Christopher Nolan understandably prefers the effect of practical illusions instead. The practical illusions used in the movie create more realistic imagery by using miniature spaceship models and matting techniques instead of developing those images on software. Watching the film, you’re not distracted by poor CGI work but you’re paying closer attention to the story, due to the fact that everything surrounding the actors seems real. There are great segments where all we see is the edge of the spaceship as it flies through different locations in space. By showing this imagery, there is little confusion as to where the characters are in that very scene or where they are headed. Everything from the color pallet to camera angles make Interstellar what it is, an epic.

interstellar-skip-cropThis picture would not be what it is if Hans Zimmer was not responsible for the beautiful soundtrack of Interstellar. Nolan has worked with him several times in the past, but for this particular film he decided to do something different; something that greatly paid off. Nolan simply told Zimmer about the relationship between a man named Cooper and his daughter Murph. He was unaware of many crucial aspects of Interstellar, including the fact that it was a science fiction thriller. Even with such little insight, Zimmer was able to take the audience on a ride and enhance the film with what he created. His intelligent use of tone and knowledge of human emotion was evident throughout the movie. The film had much to do with a passionate will to survive and the soundtrack was guiding us through many of those emotional moments. If you felt on edge watching Interstellar, it was not only the cinematography and the believable visual effects doing the job; it was the combination of a powerful score and a beautiful picture.

Zimmer has composed musical scores for Divergent, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel, and several more chart topping blockbusters. It’s no mystery that he is partly responsible for the glory of these films. The soundtrack of a film will always be an essential part in creating a moving and mind-boggling motion picture. The music that joins the beautiful images of interstellar space travel completes the film. Another factor that made this feature film so majestic is the placement of different sound effects. Nolan films are known for suspense and its common to periodically see scenes where the sound is unexpected. This surprising audio makes a sequence more powerful and intriguing, leaving the mind excited for more to come.

Interstellar-05Matthew McConaughey, who played Cooper in the film, had many moments that can be considered, “Oscar worthy.” He captured the emotions of a brave spaceman but most importantly those of a loving father, wanting what is best for his family and his planet. His brave heart was the core of the film, as we were led through his eyes to the many wonders of space exploration. We begin the film with little information about Cooper’s past but McConaughey was able to act well enough to make us understand Cooper’s will to make a better life for his loved ones. We were on his side through the whole film, even if at moments we questioned his decisions. He shared the screen with Anne Hathaway, who also gave an “Oscar worthy” performance. She played a determined Dr. Brand who put all her motivation and time into completing the mission her father had been working on for several years. Hathaway is a phenomenal actress because she knows how to make the character her own. She was able to make us grow to love Dr. Brand throughout the film. As the movie progressed, we learned that she had a soft side, one we could all relate to. She was driven by her own heart and not by anything else. The cast of Interstellar is filled with several more Academy award winners and nominees including: Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain and a cameo from another beloved Oscar winner that you don’t want to miss.

INTERSTELLARInterstellar was made to leave the audience thinking, questioning and trying to find their own conclusion for the film. Entering the theater you’ll think you’re going to watch a film about space and its benefits to the human existence, but once the credits roll, there will be so much more that you have learned than that. This movie is about love. It’s about how humanity saves itself through passion for survival. The film is three hours long yet there were no dull moments. I was so intrigued by all the visuals, sounds, music and exquisite acting that I never checked my phone once for the time. I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar, as will you when you experience it for the first time.