Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"The Martian": The Anti-"Alien"

The Martian

Director Ridley Scott’s recent return to sci-fi, Prometheus, was not very well-received (though I really enjoyed it) partially because it did not live up to the expectations created from Scott’s early sci-fi classic, Alien. Scott returns to science fiction again with The Martian, a film that could be called the anti-Alien.

Comparing The Martian to Alien simply because they are both sci-fi films directed by Scott is not fair. But the opening credits and score invite the comparison. The film begins with ominous music very similar to Alien as the title appears and then fades away one piece of a letter at a time, which is the reverse of the title reveal of Alien. That subtle nod lets the viewer know this is not going to be like Alien.

The difference is important to note because Scott’s filmography is filled with dark, ultra-serious movies. It would be easy for Scott to take the novel The Martian is based on, which is actually quite light-hearted despite the serious situation, and turn it into a much darker film. The intro makes it clear that Scott is venturing into new, nearly opposite territory, meaning The Martian is going to be fun, which is not a word typically associated with Ridley Scott.

The Martian has a setup that should be devoid of fun, however. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead while his team aborts a Mars mission to return to Earth. It turns out he is still alive and must figure out how to survive on an inhospitable planet, alone, for four years. That alone sounds more like a depressing survival story than a fun movie, but add to it the logical higher-ups at NASA constantly discussing how impossible it will be for him to survive, and it sounds downright miserable. This is why tone is so important in writing and filmmaking. The source material (written by Andy Weir) deserves the most credit, as it is filled with sarcastic humor. Screenwriter Drew Goddard retained that comedy, and Ridley Scott finalized it with a bit of help from a great cast, many of whom are known for comedy. So instead of a depressing slog of a movie, we get a fast-paced space movie in which a funny astronaut solves every problem thrown his way.

The casting of Mark Watney is critical, and Matt Damon is the perfect choice. Watney needs to be someone you want to see saved, and Damon is very likable (despite his recent brushes with controversy in interviews and on Project Greenlight). He is also capable of carrying a film by himself for long stretches of time. Part of this is thanks to the fact that Watney is constantly talking to the NASA cameras tracking everything, which allows Watney’s portions of the film to be more dialogue-heavy than you would think. The other part of that is Damon’s abilities as an actor. This performance might get dismissed later in the year since the film is light-hearted at times, but he is truly impressive with seemingly no effort. But when you consider that he has make you laugh, cry, and care about him in general, all while talking to himself and reacting to typed messages, it becomes much clearer how great a performance this is. The rest of the cast is great and impressive, but this is definitely Matt Damon’s movie.

Performance and tone aside, any film that takes place on Mars needs to look great to work. This is where Ridley Scott truly shines. Say what you will about his less popular films, but Scott’s movies always look amazing. The sets look so intricate and realistic it’s easy to buy into this near-future of manned Mars missions. And Mars, created with a combination of a practical location (the Wadi Rum in Jordan) and CG, looks beautiful.

All of these elements combine to make The Martian the most exhilarating movie about space exploration in years. In fact, it almost felt like a promotional movie to get people interested in manned Mars missions (and with NASA’s obvious cooperation, I think it’s safe to say they see it that way too). But that doesn’t take away from the film at all. It’s refreshing to see a movie set in a world where space exploration is done for exploration’s sake rather than as a quest to save the world or escape a dead world or (insert depressing plotline here).

This is not to say The Martian is just some fun, empty, forgetful experience. Ridley Scott cannot make a film without plenty of thematic elements. The most dominant theme concerns how important a single human life is. The movie spells it out in no uncertain terms that every life is worth saving, and saving one person on a distant planet can unite everyone on this planet. Is this true? No. Of course not. If this were to happen in the real world, there would be an entire subsection of the population that would doubt that there was actually a mission sent to Mars at all. But The Martian is not the real world, which is why it’s a great, fun film. Alien is still the better film, but it’s hard to compete with the feeling you will have after watching The Martian.

The Martian receives a:

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Hats off to Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain not being too afraid of doing similar projects to accept this role. Chastain's role isn't all that similar to Interstellar, but Damon's is. In fact, Interstellar works as an alternate ending. A kind of "This is what could have happened" warning.  

I loved that they kept the Elrond joke, especially since Sean Bean (Boromir) was in the scene. Speaking of Sean Bean, good for him for not dying in this one.

I'm getting pretty sick of seeing China pandered to in movies, but at least in this one, it was part of the book, and it makes much more sense as they do have a space program. In other movies (like Transformers: Revenge of the Returned Fallen or Whatever) the characters almost randomly end up in China. And the China stuff paid off in this film as we see a Chinese astronaut on the next Ares mission during the credits sequence.

Didn't see this one in 3D, but I can imagine some of it might have looked great. Visually speaking, it was plenty impressive in 2D. 

Finally, the ending is nearly sappy with optimism, but I still liked it. There was a time that maybe the "good" ending would have bothered me, but not anymore. I love darker sci-fi films like Alien, Blade Runner, Interstellar, etc. but sci-fi movies that honestly make me feel good for humanity at the end are so rare that I was okay with it. Plus, I truly wanted Watney to make it, and the tone of the film does not allow for a down ending.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"Sicario" Is the Dark, Tense Film the Drug War Deserves.


Director Dennis Villeneuve has recently established himself as a master of tension, mood, and atmosphere. His two most recent films, Prisoners and Enemy set the tone for what to expect from his latest film, Sicario. Villeneuve’s ability to take basic establishing shots of arguably mundane settings and make them foreboding and intense is impressive. It’s a way of creating an effective style without calling too much attention to itself.

With Sicario, Villeneuve has the deserts of Mexico and the American southwest to play with. Lengthy establishing shots (renowned director of photography Roger Deakins impresses yet again) paired with a menacing score (by Johann Johannsson) let us know that this film about the drug war is going to be dark, intense, and disturbing. Mood isn’t everything in a film, but it certainly helps draw the viewer in. Working with a script from Taylor Sheridan (best known as an actor from Sons of Anarchy), Villeneuve is able to take what could have been a cookie-cutter action-thriller and make it into something special.

A movie about the drug war needs to be elevated because this is a story that has been told before, in a way. There have been movies about the drug war in Mexico for decades, but Sicario rises above the rest thanks to Villeneuve’s direction. That is not to say Sheridan’s script is weak. It is not terribly original, but it is interesting thanks to the perspective Sheridan chose.

The story is told from FBI agent Kate Macer’s perspective. Macer (Emily Blunt) is asked to join a joint task force made up of vague government types including Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. Neither one wants to tell Macer much, so we do not know much. The most Macer, and the audience, is told is that the mission is to shake things up for the cartel and “dramatically overreact.” There is more to it, of course, which is the mystery of the film. The title itself is a bit of a mystery as “sicario” means “hitman” in Spanish, but we are not told who the hitman is. Having the main character be the new member of a group is a standard ploy of screenwriting to give the viewer someone to empathize with, but it is interesting here when you consider that Macer may represent the typical American’s reaction to the drug war. Not to get into spoilers, but Macer’s story arc is much more powerful when you view her as a representation of America in general.

While the character of Macer may be a bit plain, Blunt is still able to show her impressive range. Even though she plays a successful FBI agent, this is not your typical strong independent female role. Normally, a female character like this would be shown overpowering every man in her way, but Sicario takes a more realistic route. Macer can hold her own in a raid, but in a hand to hand fight with a man who has fifty pounds on her, things do not go so smoothly. While Macer is physically capable of her job, she struggles with the moral implications of her work with the task force. It is a role that requires Blunt to show equal parts strength and weakness, and she is great at both.

Brolin gives a fun performance in his supporting role, providing some much needed comedic relief to an otherwise joyless film. But it’s Del Toro who steals the film. As Alejandro, a mysterious and deadly soldier, he is able to make a menacing character surprisingly sympathetic. Del Toro comes across as the true star of the film. And Macer (and we the audience) are just there to watch him work.

Since this is a film about the drug war, there is a bit of action, as well. Villneuve does not glorify any of the violence, instead making most of the action scenes quick and brutal, showcasing how savage the situation has become. Each “action” scene is an incredibly tense moment that is much more effective than anything you will find in traditional action films of late.

Every positive element of the film is amplified by the style Villeneuve infuses into the film. Perhaps this is giving him too much credit, but mood and atmosphere cannot be undervalued when it comes to films about serious topics. Villeneuve’s style demands your close attention. And your close attention is rewarded with a tense, atmospheric “action” film that will have you contemplating a real world issue. In short, Sicario is what every serious film should be.

Sicario receives a:

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I really liked the dark ending of the film, with the whole mission being about supporting one cartel to take over the entire drug trade. It's hard to fault Brolin's reasoning, especially when he points out the impossibility of getting Americans to stop using drugs. It's not a nice solution, but maybe it's a realistic one. 

I liked Sicario quite a bit because of my interpretation of Macer's character. By the end of the film, I saw her as representative of America in general because of her inability to bring real change to the situation. When Alejandro visits her at the end to coerce a signature that will legalize all the illegal things they did, he tells her she isn't strong enough for the war. She is not a wolf. So she should move away from it. I feel like that sums up most of America's citizens in regard to the drug war. Most people can't handle the brutality of what's going on, but their drug use or lack of attention allows it to continue. We are not wolves, so rather than do something about it, we "move" out attention elsewhere, hoping someone else fixes it. This interpretation was solidified for me when Macer retrieved her gun, aimed it at Alejandro, but was not able to pull the trigger. She was left on the balcony, powerless. That symbolizes the typical American regarding the drug war. We're above it on the balcony in America, and we have the power to stop it, but we can't pull the trigger. I really wish the film had ended there, rather than ending up at the kids' soccer game in Juarez. The ending makes a powerful point (that was also made in Traffic, by the way), but the theme of the film would have been more evident if the film had ended with Alejandro walking away as a powerless Macer stands, defeated, on the balcony.

After watching this, it is clear why Villeneuve is directing the next Blade Runner. This film is actually quite similar, stylistically. Blade Runner featured lengthy establishing shots set to a unique score that solidified the mood and atmosphere of the film constantly. I am not officially excited for what I previously thought of as a needless sequel. I know Villeneuve will keep the new Blade Runner just as dark as the original.

Finally, hats off to Sicario for that brutal dinner scene at the end. For a second, I thought Alejandro would prove to be sympathetic to the innocent woman and children at the table, but he turned out to be just as brutal as he had been the entire film. He was truly a man on a mission. I have not found Del Toro this interesting in years. Hopefully he keeps this up with his role in the next Star Wars film.