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.

10 Live Action Shorts Advance in 2013 Oscar® Race

The-Oscars-e1381262416749by Carrie Specht

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced that 10 live action short films will advance in the voting process for the 86th Academy Awards®. This is out of the one hundred and twenty pictures that originally qualified in the category. That’s an impressive number, I suppose, but I would like to know if that’s an unusual amount, high or low. And just what do these filmmakers expect to get from all this hard work? Fame? Money? Well, not if they know anything about the filmmaking world. The best they can ever hope for is a pretty statue, one that represents the ultimate validation of their artistic endeavors.

www.indiewireBut the odds are stacked against them from the start. After all, if you break it down the chances for the current list of competitors is about a 1 in 12 chance of making the cut. Not bad, but that’s of all the films that officially qualified. That’s out of all the shorts that went to all the festivals that didn’t qualify, let alone the films made last year by eager short filmmakers that didn’t even make it to a festival. So now the accomplishment is somewhat staggering and far more impressive than the feature films that make it to Oscar night. I’m just sayin’ let’s give the short filmmaker some respect and give them their due when they walk the red carpet this March, whoever they may be. If one of the many commentators takes the time to interview one of these lucky few, please don’t take that moment to visit the restroom. And be sure to listen to their acceptance speech. In my experience these speeches tend to be the most sincere, full of heartfelt gratitude, becoming the most meaningful moments of the night.

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An added aspect to the Short Film category is its growing representation of the future of filmmaking on a global scale. The current list represents a broad spectrum of nations and cultures, which is not surprising considering the fact that other countries actually support the art of short filmmaking. Things are tougher here for the American artist who ventures into the unprofitable world of shorts. I mean let’s face it; there’s no true outlet for a short in the US other than the festival route. And that costs the filmmaker money to submit. Where as, in other countries there are supportive art councils and other government agencies, not to mention the standard practice of showing shorts on TV.

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So, if you’re going to make a short film in the US you better love what you’re doing, because the odds are highly against any financial rewards. Which is all the more reason to celebrate the hard work produced by these filmmakers who will truly mean it if they get the chance to say, “it’s an honor just to be nominated”. Heck, when all is said and done, it’s an honor to make the short list. Here they are in alphabetical order:

“Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me),” Esteban Crespo

“Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything),” Xavier Legrand

“Dva (Two),” Mickey Nedimovic

“Helium,” Anders Walter

“Kush,” Shubhashish Bhutiani

“Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?),” Selma Vilhunen

“Record/Play,” Jesse Atlas

“Throat Song,” Miranda de Pencier

“Tiger Boy,” Gabriele Mainetti

“The Voorman Problem,” Mark Gill

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The Short Films and Feature Animation Branch Reviewing Committee viewed all the eligible entries for the preliminary round of voting at screenings held in Los Angeles. The members of this branch of the Academy will now select only three to five nominees from among the 10 titles on the shortlist. Branch screenings are being held in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco this month. The final nominees for the 86th Academy Awards will be announced live on Thursday, January 16, 2014, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater along with all the other 2013 nominees. And then the Academy Awards for outstanding film achievements of 2013 will be presented on Oscar Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. ABC will televise the event live to more than 225 countries and territories worldwide. Good luck to them all!