By: Kevin Jordan
Fictional humans on Mars is better than nothing.
A friend and I were chatting about space stuff, and one of the things we discussed was NASA’s current estimate of launching a manned mission to Mars by the mid-2030’s. She was crestfallen when I said “no chance” and explained to her why that’s a pipe dream. (We were supposed to have a replacement for the space shuttle by 2010 – which is now estimated for 2024 – and that was just for lifting astronauts to the International Space Station just 250 miles above the Earth, as opposed to the roughly 35 million miles to Mars. You do the math.) So, both of us will most likely be dead before that ever happens (and I’m still in my thirties). The closest she and I will get to seeing that achievement is by watching movies like The Martian.
There are many movies that are easy comparisons to The Martian. Gravity, Apollo 13, Red Planet – really, any space movie in which disaster strikes and the character(s) must survive an impossible situation. (Castaway is an appropriate comparison as well). The one thing that differentiates The Martian from those other films is that The Martian doesn’t take itself so seriously. That’s not a complaint about those other films, but it’s what makes The Martian feel like a breath of fresh air (and a sorely needed one in this genre). It’s nice sitting through a movie in which characters aren’t hyperventilating every other scene or playing tic-tac-toe to decide which button she should push because the writer or director was too lazy to make the character smarter than an airlock.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead and, also, he dies at the end. Or not. Gotcha.)
Matt Damon plays the title character, astronaut Mark Watney. He and his team are on the surface of Mars when a massive storm forces them to evacuate to the relative safety of space. While making their way toward their escape rocket, Mark is hit by a piece of debris that destroys his health monitor, renders him unconscious, and knocks him out of visual range of the rest of the crew. Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to leave him for dead in order to save the rest of the crew and they all leave the planet. When Mark awakes, he is alone, but his suit is intact and their habitat survived the storm. Since you are an intelligent movie goer, you immediately begin to list problems because you understand that (a) the ship cannot turn around because they don’t have the supplies to do that and still make it back to Earth alive, (b) the shortest current travel time to Mars is eight months, so Mark must survive at least that long, and (c) how long can Mark survive in the habitat given there is most definitely not enough food and water to last even the minimum eight months? Those are all good points and I’m not going to address any of them because I think you should pay money to watch this film.
But I will tell you a little bit about the characters, which will give some hints as to what happens. For starters, Mark is a botanist and the previews show him growing stuff. Part of the fun of this movie is how he solves problems like that, so from now until you see this movie, see if you can figure out how he does that (and, no, there are no plants of any kind already growing in the habitat prior to the disaster). Going back to what I said earlier, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, so Mark is presented as a rational, level-headed, non-panicky guy trying to make the best out of the worst possible situation imaginable. Much of the movie is presented as him speaking to recording devices throughout the habitat and we see him making light of situations, thinking and talking out problems and solutions, and choosing the exact right moments to cuss. It’s the perfect way to present this movie because there is always tension in the background (you are always waiting for something to go wrong), but is overshadowed by Mark’s resiliency.
The crew is presented the same way, but the five of them are really the equivalent of one character. Captain Lewis is the brain, the serious leader who must make all the hard choices. Martinez (Michael Pena) is the mouth, providing the comic relief. Johanssen (Kate Mara) is the heart, balancing the voices of reason with the voices of emotion. Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Vogel (Aksel Hennie) are the limbs, providing feedback to the body, but mostly just doing what they are asked. While it seems like they should have a bigger role in the movie (considering their acting chops), they are minor supporting characters. And, of course they are, they’re on their way home – what can they do?
The major supporting characters are the folks at NASA who are trying to figure out how to keep Mark alive long enough to mount a rescue mission. The main players are Director Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and his direct reports – Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), supported by a mix of managers (Sean Bean, Benedict Wong) and techies (Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong). Like the Mars crew, the NASA crew Voltron themselves (yes, I just made a verb out of Voltron) into a single entity, each character providing a different trait. The difference is Sanders, Montrose, and Kapoor have the most screen time, aside from Matt Damon, so they are much more fleshed-out than the ship crew and provide more than a single trait. The biggest surprise for me was Wiig. I normally end up despising her characters, but her Montrose was a much more likable character and her delivery was far superior than past performances (especially when delivering humor). This time, I actually wanted her character to succeed rather than die in a spontaneous mission control accident.
Besides all of that, the most enjoyable thing about the movie is the realism. Unlike the pie-in-the-sky science of Red Planet or the idiocy of Gravity’s physics, everything that happened in The Martian seems like someone thought about it for more time than it takes to toast bread. From the food to the fuel to the travelling to the air to the rescue mission solutions to the matching relative velocities, it never felt like the movie was asking me to stretch the definition of “suspend your disbelief” to the point of making my brain cry. I’m sure there is some liberty taken with the science, but if the average layperson (me) didn’t spot it without Neil Tyson DeGrasse pointing it out, then the filmmakers did a good job.
Thinking about this movie afterward, it might just be the best film I’ve seen all year. At the very least, it’s the most complete. The story is simple, thoughtful, and doesn’t have any glaring, obvious plot holes (this isn’t a surprise considering it’s based on a novel of the same name by Andy Weir. But, nice adaptation by Drew Goddard). The visuals are wonderful and even the 3-D was better than usual, providing some amazing depth and color (though I did learn a tip for 3-D viewing, you must sit dead center on the screen – I know, duh, right?). Matt Damon nails his performance, as do the make-up and costume guys (I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned them before, but it had to be said here). But most importantly, it’s a movie you’ll want to watch many times over, because besides being a great movie, at this point, the zombie apocalypse is going to happen before we see an actual human on Mars.
Rating: You definitely underpaid for this movie. Even if you paid twice.
By: Kevin Jordan
Here’s a little insight into predicting whether a movie will be good or not – if the production studio (20th Century Fox) puts an embargo on releasing reviews until two days before a movie (Fantastic Four) opens, and does not allow advanced screenings until two days before that same movie opens, it’s a pretty sure bet that the movie is going to be bad. And I don’t mean an entertaining kind of bad; I mean the kind of bad that makes kittens cry. I wouldn’t say the reboot of Fantastic Four is so bad you’d find it playing on the IMAX in hell’s theater (tonight, double-featuring Bridesmaids and After Earth and you have to walk through the uncleaned aisles barefoot to get to your seat), but there are definitely going to be some sniffling felines in your alley Friday on night.
In case you were wondering, “Didn’t they just make Fantastic Four a couple years ago?” the answer is yes, ten years ago (eight years ago for the sequel) and that is most definitely not enough time for people to forget how lousy both of them were (for the record, I liked Rise of the Silver Surfer, but yes, it was lousy). Like Spider-Man, a remake was done not because they thought they could do better, but because they had to do it within a certain number of years since Surfer or lose the movie rights back to Marvel. You’d think eight years would be enough time to write a decent script, especially given that there are 54 years worth of source material to mine from, but you’d be wrong. Really, really, really wrong.
(Note: From here out, the 2015 version will be referred to by title. Also, this movie was as rotten as the bottom of a dumpster, so SPOILERS!)
Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Josh Trank are the credited writers of this offense to pens, pencils, and paper, but I’m going to focus on Trank because he doubled as director. You’re probably wondering where you’ve heard his name before, but you should stop trying because you probably haven’t. His only other movie directing/writing credit is for Chronicle (2012), and while it was a very good/successful movie, it wasn’t in theaters all that long (February releases will do that). And, I’m guessing you won’t hear from him again after this movie releases and bombs (and if I’m wrong, the terrorists have won).
In the technical sense of the word – plot – Fantastic Four has one. Five people get super powers, one turns evil, the other four fight him to save the Earth. Unfortunately, that plot takes up roughly ten minutes (which contains 100% of the action scenes) of a ninety minute movie. The other eighty minutes are filled with exposition and some of the worst character development you will ever see (and not just in movies). Incidentally, it might be the shortest superhero movie ever made while simultaneously feeling longer than a three-day cricket test match in Calcutta in August.
You can tell right off the bat that the movie is going to suck because it starts with eleven-year old Reed Richards building a teleporter in his garage after basically being called an idiot by his teacher. Seven years later (it’s now 2014 in the film) and eighteen-year old Reed (Miles Teller) has improved the design and is showing it off at his high school’s science fair. For contrivance’s sake, Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his eighteen-year old adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara) – who just happen to be working on a government-sponsored, industrial-size version of the same device – chat with Miles and offer him a scholarship to the Baxter Institute to help them finish the device. As it turns out, Franklin runs the project, primarily employing teenage geniuses. This is where the movie obliterates your sense of disbelief because (a) why must they be teenagers and not just twenty-somethings? and (b) Teller is twenty-eight and Mara is thirty-two. I know casting choices do that all the time, but it’s impossible to believe Mara as a teenager after watching her get naked with Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.
The writing gets worse as the machine turns out to be a teleporter to a planet in another dimension rather than to somewhere else on Earth. Enter THE BIG, BAD GOVERNMENT and BIG, BAD BUSINESS EXECUTIVE (Tim Blake Nelson) who want to exploit Planet Zero (oh my god, is that really the best name Trank could come up with?!) for its resources (at least they don’t refer to them as Unobtanium). Reed, Sue’s brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) decide to take a secret trip after being told they couldn’t, bringing along Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) because, why not?
(Note: The project is government-backed and almost assuredly classified, yet Ben is allowed to waltz into the facility and laboratories because “he’s with Reed.” I’ve seen better security at a Starbucks.)
While on Zero, Victor stirs up a green energy cloud, it chases them, Victor falls in, and the rest barely escape, though all are mutated, including Sue, who was trying to bring them back to Earth. Keep in mind, this all happens around the one hour mark of the film. At this point, the movie shows us their powers, Reed wakes up and escapes the secret facility they were transferred to (Area 57, in another fit of creativity), but is captured a year later, rendering the seven minutes in between completely pointless. With the exception of Ben, Sue and Johnny aren’t even mad at him for leaving, and Ben gets over it quickly. Plus, Reed literally does nothing during that year except globe trot, so why bother having him leave at all?
The film winds down with the machine being rebuilt and an expedition bringing Victor back to Earth, where he immediately starts killing people. Victor goes back to Zero, opens a new portal to Earth, and starts sucking the matter from Earth to convert to energy on Zero. Why does Victor do this? I swear to you I’m not making this up – because humans are destroying the Earth and don’t deserve it, so he’s just going to destroy it all the way. I told you this was shitty writing.
The sad thing is just about anything would be better than what Trank and team shat out as their screenplay. First, they should have ditched the terrible opening with the children and just started with the team in the lab as actual grown-ups who have been of legal drinking age for more than a year (and give Ben an honest reason to be there for chrissakes). After the accident, it would have been more interesting to keep the four of them together, have them learn their powers and be used by the government as a tool, but have them all become resentful of being exploited. Then, in the climax, have them go on their final mission when something goes awry and Victor leaves the group. Wrap it up; end of movie. No big showdown between Victor and the others – that’s for another movie. FYI – it took me roughly three minutes to come up with that; they had EIGHT years.
Now, I want to go back to how poorly developed the characters were. In eighty minutes, we learn that Reed is really smart. Ben is not. Johnny is black and races crappy cars. Sue is white and does not race crappy cars (she also recognizes patterns; ooooooh). And Victor started the project as a child (apparently, only children are capable of inventing trans-dimensional wormhole machines) and gets mad at Reed for having a laugh with Sue. That’s it. No development of a relationship between Sue and Reed, an extremely weak relationship between Reed and Ben, and definitely no chemistry between any of them, especially between Sue and Johnny who are supposed to be siblings. Forget about the fact that she is white and he is black (a certain radio personality in Atlanta couldn’t); I’ve seen jurors act more familiar with each other than these two characters.
It should be obvious now that I thought this movie was full-on crap. Even with the red flags of the review embargos and eleventh hour screenings providing ample warning, going into the film my main thought was that it shouldn’t be too hard to improve upon the 2005 version; that it would at least be entertaining. I just didn’t think it would be possible to make a Fantastic Four movie with less action than Sister Act. But I was wrong. Really, really, really wrong.
Rating: The one thing I’m sure I’m not wrong about is that you should definitely ask for all of your money back and hope that Trank is never allowed near a summer blockbuster again.