Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mars Needs Brando

The Martian: adapted by Drew Goddard from the novel by Andy Weir; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Matt Damon (Astronaut/ Botanist Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Mission Commander/ Geologist Melissa Lewis), Jeff Daniels (NASA Director Teddy Sanders), Michael Pena (Astronaut/Pilot Major Rick Martinez), Sean Bean (Flight Director Mitch Henderson), Kate Mara (Astronaut/ System Operator Beth Johanssen), Sebastian Stan (Astronaut/ Flight Surgeon/ Biologist Dr. Chris Beck), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor), Kristen Wiig (NASA Media Relations  Director Annie Montrose), Benedict Wong (JPL Director Bruce Ng), Aksel Henie (Astronaut/ Navigator/ Chemist Dr. Alex Vogel),  and Donald Glover (JPL Astrodynamicist Rich Purnell) (2015):

Zippy paean to engineering and science and those brave, stubborn humans takes the viewer to a (mostly) realistic Mars and the astronaut played by Matt Damon who inadvertently gets marooned there. While NASA tries to figure out how to save Mission botanist Mark Watney, Watney himself must figure out how to survive on a bleak and nearly airless planet. It's a movie (and a novel) very much of its time -- if that time were 1942 and this were a short story in Astounding magazine. That's a compliment. 

As in a lot of Astounding stories, engineering and rationality and a Can-do spirit are the only things that will save the day. Well, and stubborn human camaraderie. The principals are all fine in their roles, though Kristen Wiig's character could have been played by anybody and Donald Glover's math whiz should have been played by nobody without much, much rewriting. 

The Martian can hold its head up high in what is a very small sub-genre of film -- movies not based on real events that try to accurately depict space flight as it is known at the time. And it's far better than the two most notable films in that sub-genre, Destination Moon and Marooned. Somewhere, Robert Heinlein may be smiling, especially as his great YA novel Farmer in the Sky presented its hero with some of the same exo-agricultural problems experienced by Damon's astronaut here. Space farming is exciting!

The script is breezy but detail-oriented without being facetious or technobabbly, while Ridley Scott, in a return to form, lets the visuals support the story rather than overwhelm them. The Mars of this movie is a place of stark beauty and occasional terror. The final sequence goes  one problem-to-solve too far in its approach (and replicates a fairly annoying bit of unworkable physics from Gravity), but overall this is a splendid science-fiction movie that combines a sense of wonder with an appreciation of the hard work and intelligence required to be an astronaut. It's sort of the anti-Armageddon. Highly recommended.

Listen To Me Marlon: written by Stevan Riley and Peter Ettedgui; directed by Stevan Riley (2015): Haunting documentary edits together various audio musings and recollections by Marlon Brando recorded by the actor over a period of decades. Mixed in are some staged shots, a CGI head of Brando, personal film and stills, and snippets of media reports on the enigmatic actor. Brando's childhood can't help but elicit sympathy, while his expression of self-judgment makes him an increasingly tragic figure as the documentary unfolds. I'd like the documentary to have had a bit more formalism in its presentation of events -- would it kill someone to put dates on the screen? -- but as a tone-poem about Brando, by Brando to a great extent, it's a terrific piece of pseudo-documentary. Recommended.

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