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Review – The Martian (12a) [2015]

The Martian - title banner3

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Harry Gregson-Williams – Shrek I-IV, Kingdom of Heaven, Unstoppable, Blackhat, Life Briefly

On this blog, much has been made of the paucity of Ridley Scott’s films over the last fifteen years. For a director who once made Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, it is astonishing that Scott has made terrible film after terrible film since Gladiator was released in 2000. So going into The Martian, what was one to expect? Another terrible film to add to Scott’s bloated collection? Actually, nothing of the sort: a pleasant surprise.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) with the NASA crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, sitting down), before they go out to explore.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) with the NASA crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, sitting down), before they go out to explore.

The Martian is based on Andrew Weir’s 2011 novel with the same title. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is exploring Mars with a NASA team, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). The team are out on the Red Planet when a freak storm occurs, knocking Mark away. Believing that he is dead, and fearing that the storm will destroy the team’s means of getting home, Melissa orders an evacuation.

However, Mark is not dead and wakes up to find that the team have left Mars without him. Considering that the next NASA flight mission to Mars is not for another four years, Mark knows he’s going to be stuck on his own on Mars for a while. Yet, he only has enough food for a few months. So how will he survive?

At its core, The Martian has a simple premise: how Mark, all on his own, is going to keep himself alive. One might ask oneself how interesting such a plot could be. Yet, surprisingly, The Martian is an entertaining, innovative and engaging movie. Undoubtedly, it is Ridley Scott’s finest film since Gladiator! (Then again, with Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, The Counsellor and Exodus among his recent films, that is not saying much at all.)

The sudden (contrived) storm that knocks Mark away.

The sudden (contrived) storm that knocks Mark away.

Part of the reason why The Martian is so good is because the desert scenery of Mars (or, rather, of Jordan, where the movie was filmed) is beautifully shot. Seeing the landscape of this foreign planet is as wondrous as any awe-inspiring place on Earth, as evidenced in The Way Back, True Grit, Sanctum and Macbeth, to name but four. Moreover, The Martian is an extremely interesting film. Our main character, Mark, is a (genius) botanist, and it is fascinating watching him carry out scientific experiments using natural elements in order to survive.

But while the scenery is wondrous and the experiments are ingenious, The Martian would not have been half as engrossing without really good acting. Matt Damon has such a magnificent screen presence that he, alone (quite literally), can hold audiences’ attentions. Sean Bean is good as the honourable (Ned Stark-like) man, as is Chiwetel Ejiofor. Jeff Daniel’s is also decent as the NASA director, with the (legitimate) counter-arguments to Bean’s and Ejiofor’s suggestions. And, lastly, the crew (headed by Jessica Chastain) play decently enough with the little time that they’re given on screen.

Assisting the cast, however, is a really good script, which ensures that The Martian surpasses recent, phenomenal space films such as Gravity and Interstellar. This is because the former was let down by a B-movie script, while the latter suffered from an incoherent storyline. The Martian, by contrast, has all the best elements of those movies, plus humour. The humour, in itself, warrants that viewers empathise with the characters and (cleverly) enables audiences to ignore the scientific technicalities if they don’t understand them.

Upon waking up and returning to the base, Mark sits alone and wonders what he is to do. Not least, what will he do about food as his supplies are low?

Upon waking up and returning to the base, Mark sits alone and wonders what he is to do. Not least, what will he do about food as his supplies are low?

Scott gets a lot right with The Martian. Nevertheless, that is not to say that the movie is not without its faults. First, the storm at the beginning of the film is massively contrived to get the plot moving. And, second, the movie is predictable and the ending is an utter cliché. Yet, if these are the main flaws of the film, they are quite trivial, thereby emphasising just how well Scott has done with this movie.

All-in-all, The Martian is a very entertaining film. It has no significant faults, it is innovative and it is funny. To think that the movie is predominantly about a man stuck on Mars on his own, trying to survive against the elements, underlines how impressive The Martian is. It also highlights that Ridley Scott still can direct excellent movies, despite his atrocious recent record. Let’s hope that The Martian can inspire Scott to cease making films of the poverty of Prometheus and Exodus, so that he can return to making films of the brilliance of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator.

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Review – Transcendence (12a) [2014]

Transcendence - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Wally Pfister

Executive Producer:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Mychael Danna – Girl,Interrupted, Fracture, Capote, Moneyball, The Captive

In 1948, George Orwell wrote the classic 1984 in which he (implicitly) warned of the dangers of a country using technology to the full to create a totalitarian state. Many of Orwell’s ideas are now part of everyday life. States can monitor an individual’s movements by CCTV surveillance, by their mobile phone activities, by their credit card history, etc… and with a computer database at the tip of the state’s fingers to bring such information when required.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) with the swagger of a scientist on the verge of something special, and after his shooting before his consciousness is wired up into the computer.

Left, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), with the swagger of a scientist on the verge of something special; and, right, sickly after being shot, just prior to his consciousness being wired up to the computer.

The above may be very worrying. But the saving grace is that a person is still needed to activate such technology; for technology cannot operate on its own. However, what if technology could operate on its own? Or, rather, what if a human being’s self-awareness were put into a computer? This is the territory that Wally Pfister’s directorial debut film, Transcendence, deals with.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a scientist intent on creating a conscious computer. His research is at an advanced stage, when he is shot by anti-tech terrorists. With his mind fully functional but his body dying, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), desperate to save her husband and against the advice of Will’s friend Max (Paul Bettany), uploads Will’s consciousness to a computer to keep him alive.

But as soon as Will’s conscience has been uploaded, the question arises as to whether it really is Will in the computer, or if it is something else, especially as transcendent-Will becomes hungry for power. And with all surveillance systems, the internet, and data-records within his control, as well as the ability to advance at a logarithmic rate, what can stop transcendent-Will bending the world to his will?

Transcendence has a complex yet stimulating plot, almost entirely devoid of (headache inducing) action scenes. The film’s language might be tough to follow (although not a prerequisite, it certainly helps to have some knowledge of computer- and nano-science to understand the dialogue). But the idea of whether a soul, in general, can be uploaded into a computer, and the moral risks of technology (possibly) going too far ensure that viewers can appreciate the movie all the same.

Bree (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara), one of the anti-tech terrorists behind the shooting of Dr. Will Caster.

Bree (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara), one of the anti-tech terrorists behind the shooting of Dr. Will Caster.

The idea of technology going too far is not a new one, per se. After-all, Orwell spoke of the matter in 1948, and countless science fiction films, like The Terminator franchise, The Matrix Trilogy, i,Robot, and Prometheus have dealt with the subject since (mostly dragging it through the sewers in the process). Yet, Transcendence handles the subject with maturity, and delivers it in quite an original way. The movie may seem far-fetched at first. But the documentary series Through The Wormhole, narrated by (Transcendence’s and Hollywood’s moral compass) Morgan Freeman, shows us the (disconcerting) capabilities of present-day technology. This, in turn, suggests that what happens in Transcendence is not as implausible as it may ostensibly appear.

But to focus solely on the technological angle of Transcendence would be to miss the point of the film. In a twopart interview, Wally Pfister spoke of how Transcendence is a human story at its core. Due to the film’s mature handling of the subject of artificial intelligence, and due to Paul Bettany’s passionate performance, viewers can understand what the director wanted to convey.

However, Pfister’s casting of Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in the lead roles almost loses him the human element of the tale. Depp and Hall have little chemistry between them and neither look like they understand the scientific language they engage with throughout the film. At least, Hall believes in her character and puts effort into her role. Depp, on the other hand, (in a non-Captain Jack Sparrow-like role for a change) looks disinterested and half-asleep throughout the movie.

Depp and Hall might be Transcendence’s most noteworthy problems. But the dialogue is not great either (irrespective of the difficult language used). In addition, parts of the plot are given away daftly, and are contrived, and are unexplained; then again, it should be noted that Inception suffered from similar unexplained-plot problems, so maybe such issues are to be expected when a film deals with inexplicable elements.

FBI agents, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanen (Cillian Murphy) giving Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) sage advice on her husband's transcendence plans.

FBI agents, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanen (Cillian Murphy) giving Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) sage advice on her husband’s transcendence plans.

Nevertheless, like Inception, the cinematography in Transcendence is first-rate. From Transcendence, one can see why Christopher Nolan employed Pfister as his cinematographer for many of his movies, including The Prestige, The Dark Knight I-III, and Inception (in which Pfister won his Oscar). Indeed, if Transcendence’s script and acting would have been as good as its cinematography, Pfister would be in line for a directorial Oscar-nomination in 2015.

Over-all, Transcendence is a brave film for a director to make his debut. It is an interesting and thought-provoking movie, with phenomenal visuals and cinematography. Transcendence has its flaws, not least with its plot, its dialogue and its two lead actors. But to some extent, one should overlook these problems and concentrate on the film’s treatment of the possible dangers of modern day/near-future technology. For, like Orwell in 1948, these matters are handled in an ambitious, innovative and refreshingly adult way.

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