Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott                                         Writer: Drew Goddard
Film Score: Harry Gregson-Williams                 Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Starring: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña

The easy way to sum up this film is Apollo 13 meets Mission to Mars meets Cast Away. But that wouldn’t be telling the whole story. One of the most interesting things about The Martian is that it won the Golden Globe for best picture--in the category of Comedy or Musical. Certainly there is a lot of humor in Ridley Scott’s newest space film, but it seems a real stretch to call a story about an astronaut stranded on Mars a comedy. Nevertheless, that is what sets this film apart. It is a satisfying, big-budget science fiction adventure that combines familiar tropes from the movies listed above and, like a Lawrence Kasdan film, it brings a calculated eye to what sells at the box office and delivers right down the line on those expectations. Is it a great piece of art? Absolutely not. But it is a great movie. The screenplay was based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which began as an online web series and then self-published before being picked up by Crown. The screenplay was adapted by Drew Goddard, who is primarily a TV writer but has written apocalyptic films like World War Z and Cloverfield. Ridley Scott, of course, is no stranger to films set in space and used his considerable clout to assemble an all-star team of actors to assist him in mining box-office gold, making back six times its one million dollar budget.

The film begins on Mars, some twenty years in the future, with a manned mission going about their business of collecting samples and building structures on the surface, just one part of an extended mission program by NASA. Matt Damon is the botanist on the crew, and as he and first officer Michael Peña exchange an onslaught of friendly insults the captain, Jessica Chastain, finally orders their microphones turned off. But soon word of a violent storm comes from NASA and Chastain makes the decision to abort the mission after only a couple of weeks because the winds will topple their ship and leave them stranded if they stay. By the time they are prepared to leave the stand storm is already on them, and when Damon is hit by a piece of debris his suit is damaged and they are forced to leave him for dead. The rest of the crew barely lifts off in time, but they make it. Ironically, so does Damon. The antenna that punctured his suit and killed his communications signal was also surrounded by blood that inadvertently sealed the suit. He manages get back to the habitat, removes the antenna, and sews himself back up, but now he’s stranded. The conceit to keep him talking onscreen is a video log that he’s keeping for whoever finds his body on the next mission, which is still four years away. But as he sets about collecting all of the food they have brought, and improving his battery recharging capabilities, and fixing the rover for transportation, Mackenzie Davis sees the movements back on Earth and so they know he’s alive, but they have no way to communicate with him.

Back on earth the head of NASA, Jeff Daniels, doesn’t want to tell his crew who are now on their way back home. Sean Bean, the head of flight control disagrees, but it’s a moot point. It will take something on the order of two years before a supply rocket can make it all the way to Mars, and longer than that before the next manned ship can make it back there. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the NASA mission director who manages to communicate with Damon, once he figures out why the astronaut has gone after an old Mars probe from the twentieth century, and Donald Glover is the astro-physicist who figures out how to make the rescue much quicker. In many ways this is a star-studded feature that never really challenges the viewer’s emotions in the way that Gravity does, but then that’s not the point. The goal of the film was always box-office dollars rather than artistry, and in terms of entertainment it succeeds admirably. The humor that comes from the screenplay for Matt Damon’s character is wonderful. He is self-deprecating at times, angry at the situation at other times, an a hero throughout, using his physical skills and scientific knowledge to keep himself alive by coming up with a heat source and an artificial atmosphere that enables him to grow potatoes--with the help of human feces for fertilizer. And while there is suspense, there is never the gnawing sense of isolation that there is in Gravity, or even in Cast Away. Even the half-hour communication lag time is glossed over in most instances and is never really emphasized except in the climax.

One of the dubious aspects of the film that stands out--and to be fair to Scott it may be inherent in Weir’s original novel--is something I call anachronistic pandering. The references to the seventies which includes disco music, quite unbelievably the only music Damon can find on anyone’s personal computer, and episodes of Happy Days, all seem calculated to boost popularity among those who were alive them, as a way of increasing viewers in that older generation who might not go to the film otherwise. There are also references to other films, most noticeably Apollo 13 when Sean Bean sneaks up rescue plans to the crew and they write back to NASA calling Donald Glover “a steely-eyed missile man.” But ultimately the film belongs to Matt Damon. He carries the film in the same way as Tom Hanks did in Cast Away, but there was also an effort made to keep the story light, staying away from the morose introspection of something like Moon by emphasizing the humor and the survival spirit of Damon’s character. The film combines generally accurate science with a real sense of being on another planet, and a human story that is engaging without the need for an actual villain in the piece. And that is probably one of the most refreshing aspects of the film. With no supernatural or science-fictional enemies, nor the kind of infighting usually seen on space opera crews, the protagonist is left with only the elements to fight--something everyone can relate to and making the film a universal experience. In that sense, The Martian is simply delightful.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Untraceable (2008)

Director: Gregory Hoblit                                    Writers: Robert Fyvolent & Mark Brinker
Film Score: Christopher Young                         Cinematography: Anastas N. Michos
Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks and Mary Beth Hurt

One of the problems with technology based crime stories is that the technology itself goes obsolete so fast that it dates the film prematurely. One only has to think of Sandra Bullock in The Net, to understand. Fortunately, Untraceable was filmed deep into the first decade of the new millennium and so the issue isn’t quite as obvious. It’s there, but it can be overlooked. Though one of my causes is promoting films by Portland directors, this isn’t one of them. It’s simply a Hollywood project filmed in Portland, but that in itself was interesting enough to check it out. In many ways it’s a fairly derivative story, a serial killer who murders his victims online instead of the delayed gratification of reading about them in the newspapers or seeing them on the TV news. But it’s essentially the same idea. I was also drawn to the film by a couple of actors, Colin Hanks, who had a brief but memorable role in the HBO series, Band of Brothers, and one of my favorite actresses, Mary Beth Hurt. Billy Burke is a new face for me, since I don’t watch the Twilight films, but being born in Bellingham, Washington, he’s sort of a local. Director Gregory Hoblit, on the other hand, is a Hollywood veteran who began in television and has since moved on to helm some very good second-tier suspense films like Frequency and Primal Fear. And he does a solid job with this story as well, though as in all of his films the screenplay is the weakest link.

The film opens on a high-tech video lab, with an unidentified man setting up a scene at the bottom of what looks like basement stairs to trap a cat. The scene then cuts to a rain-drenched street in Portland, Oregon. FBI agent Diane Lane grabs her backpack and heads into the Federal Building, where all kinds of computer analysts are at work investigating cyber crimes. Colin Hanks is a fellow agent who gets her up to speed on a recent case, but at the same time she gets a note from the Portland police about another site they want her to look at. She goes to the website and sees the cat stuck to a strong adhesive and apparently is going to die there for entertainment. Lane lives with her mother, Mary Beth Hurt, and her daughter, Perla Haney-Jardine. She checks the website before she goes to bed and discovers that the cat is dead. The fact that the site is local is not, according to Lane, a coincidence, but the head of the division, Peter Gray Lewis, feels there are more important crimes to be investigating. Then, in the parking lot at a hockey game, a fan lured by the prospect of a cheap online ticket is Tasered and pulled into a van. When he suddenly appears on the site, things get serious. While the Bureau handles the tech side of the crime, Billy Burke is the Portland homicide detective who deals directly with the witnesses, in this case the wife of the hockey fan.

The software the killer is using bounces the IP address around to servers all over the world, so the Lane and Hanks have no idea how to trace him. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, from Modern Family before that show began, is arrested but he has an alibi, and before long another victim is captured and the killer is revealed as Joseph Cross. Ultimately it’s his local connections that allow the detectives to find a way in, especially after he comes after Lane and her family. It’s a strange role for Diane Lane because of the way she seems detached from everything, her work, her daughter, her mother, even the crime itself. She had so much fire in her belly in The Perfect Storm, and while there are personal reasons for her character in the film that might explain her behavior, it’s yet another reason the film is unable to live up to its potential. The movie is competently filmed by Hoblit and his cinematographer Anastas Michos, including an abundance of really nice overhead shots, but it’s the screenplay that keeps the film from rising anywhere above merely interesting. And there are some incredibly bad lines in it, mostly delivered by Hanks. One groaner has him talking about the hockey fan who is bleeding out onscreen when he says, “It’s too bad this guy wasn’t a Boy Scout, he could just bleed Morse code and tell us where he is.” Even though this is a plot point that comes up later, it seems incredibly insensitive in the moment. And then, when the hockey fan dies, Hanks shakes his head and says, looking at his computer screen, “It’s a jungle in there.”

The music by Christopher Young in the opening credits attempts to set the mood by replicating John Carpenter’s piano music from Halloween, but the score is pretty forgettable other than that. The color manipulation of the film is done to replicate a Hollywood version of a Pacific Northwest winter, and it looks pretty good. The streets are always wet and the cloud cover is an icy gray, with a blue-tinged palate in very sharp focus to represent the cold snap the city is having in the story. Most of the interiors were constructed in Clackamus, southeast of Portland, while the exteriors were filmed at iconic spots in the city. In assessing it overall it can’t really be called a bad film, because it does hold interest all the way through. But that’s about the best that can be said for it. The screenwriters seem as if they’re trying to generate a relationship between Buke and Lane, but that never really comes off. They also make Hanks out to be a sort of an oblivious FBI agent, which doesn’t really work either. The film received decidedly mixed reviews, which makes sense. There’s nothing really unique about the story, and the acting is only average, but ultimately Untraceable is watchable, with just enough to keep it interesting. Just make sure you watch it on cable TV rather than paying for the privilege.