Science fiction, at its best, is about bending the rules just enough to expand the mind. Refreshing the realm of possibility through intellectual pursuit. Often, drawn against the backdrop of humanity, be it human suffering, exploration, or endurance. In Annihilation, it’s a bit of all three. The first, painted across the expression of just about every character we meet, from Benedict Wong’s frustrated interrogator to Natalie Portman’s uncertain solider-biologist-spouse. The second, on both a physical and metaphysical level, as we watch a group of female scientists explore an ever-changing realm while debating its ever-changing properties. And the third, endurance, a necessary attribute displayed by the quintet throughout their navigation of this new world, as well as the one left behind.
Portman plays Lena, a biologist specialising in the behaviour of cells, who is surprised by the sudden reappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). An army specialist, Kane was presumed dead by Lena who lived with the weight of his vanishing, and more, for at least a year. Circumstance lands her in Area X where she learns about her partner’s exploits in The Shimmer, a creeping electromagnetic fortress with rainbow walls and a penchant for harming those who enter. Enchanted by the unknown, Lena joins four other scientists, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), on a fact-finding mission inside.
The film blends dread with intrigue, often evoking that feeling of dangerous wonder, where you know you’re watching something uneasy unfold but can’t take your eyes off the screen. This is Alex Garland’s second feature as director, following Ex Machina, and his grasp of tone is already excellent. Annihilation is less clinical than Ex Machina, more subservient to the fluidity of nature, but it exudes that same sense of simmering tension. We feel it from the beginning, the tension increasing as the five women enter The Shimmer embodying that sense of dangerous wonder, fully aware their survival chances are slim. (They enter anyway.) Self-destruction drives the film and there are many moments of violence and anguish, but there are also discreet moments of hope. Maybe ‘beauty’ is the wrong word (though the film does look stunning, another reason to be angry at Paramount for not giving it a theatrical run here in the UK), but characters find relief amongst all the despair and regret, and we do too.
Thus, The Shimmer is a bi-functional venue: A faux refuge, a place where our scientific group go to escape the woes of reality or to chase answers, both with varied results, and also a Rubik’s Cube that seeks to change the face of physics and natural order. The narrative itself is fluid, morphing from present to past through flashbacks with no clear time-stamp, designed to further flesh out the emotional states of those on-screen. In and of itself, these flashbacks don’t defy cinematic convention, but by interspersing them at various points along the group’s excursion, Garland brings The Shimmer’s bending of natural order beyond the fourth wall.
The film owes a little to the horror genre, certain visual moments capturing that hair-raising creepiness common in the genre greats — I’m thinking of the way the camera foregrounds and backgrounds people and space in a certain sequence towards the end (reminiscent of Mike Gioulakis and David Robert Mitchell’s efforts in It Follows). Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow contribute to similar effect via a metallic, invasive score that climaxes with a now infamous four-note sound that unsettles and compels in almost equal measure. You really do have to hear it.
I alluded to Annihilation’s Netflix-only release here in the UK, which was a consequence of a dispute between Garland, supported by producer Scott Rudin, and Paramount bosses who felt the film was both too complex for audiences and that Lena lacked sufficient moral clarity. Conversely, it is to the film’s credit that we have a female protagonist who isn’t vilified for poor decision-making, and whose greyness is an enriching attribute. Garland’s screenplay, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is challenging, but not any more than Eric Heisserer’s work on Arrival, which more than quadrupled its production budget at the box office. Portman, by the way, is brilliant in the role, never overplaying her character’s internal heartache. She isn’t lovable but we’re with her every step of the way, which is a credit to both actor and filmmaker. Her partners in expedition are also great, particularly Gina Rodriguez as Anya.
It all leads to a unique conclusion, a final half hour that draws a line in the sand, challenging another filmmaker to conjure up something as enthralling, as spooky, as wonderfully disconcerting. I hesitate to deify a film I’ve only just seen and haven’t had the chance to fully digest, but Kubrick’s 2001 springs to mind as far as third act feats go. Garland downright refuses to answer your questions — there must at least three “don’t knows” uttered in the final 10 minutes — and whether or not this delights you or makes you tear your hair out will depend on what type of moviegoer you are: Someone who loves mystery, or someone who needs definitive truth. (Psst! Either is fine.) That may be the greatest thing about Annihilation, that it implores you to think about it, and then watch it again, and then think about it some more, and then watch it again. Timeless? A sci-fi classic? Maybe.
Director: Alex Garland
Runtime: 1hr 55mins
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Science fiction
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson
Scott’s sci-fi films explore isolation in people, places and processes.
If you are a film fan, you are probably a science fiction fan. And if you are a science fiction fan, there is a fair chance you have enjoyed a Ridley Scott movie or two in the past. What makes sci-fi so utterly compelling is its potential; the thematic possibilities are endless and, tonally-speaking, very little is off bounds. The genre fits in any number of settings – dramatic, funny, mysterious, scary – and riding the waves of its theme pool are a host of subjects ranging from encroaching capitalism to religious allegory.
It is a rich genre, one that has provided the basis for a true cinematic icon to develop and deliver. Ridley Scott’s relationship with science fiction is fleeting when you consider his total output (he has made 24 films and only a fifth have sci-fi hallmarks). But when he does shoot for the stars, the outcome tends to strike bullseye.
Two of Scott’s earlier jaunts, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), remain seminal touchstones for film lovers and filmmakers, and while Prometheus (2012) has its fair share of detractors, you will only ever find me bowing to its eerie overtures. All three of those movies, alongside both The Martian (2015) and Alien: Covenant (2017), have a central thematic commonality woven throughout their narratives: Isolation. Here, I am going to explore the ways in which Scott intriguingly tackles different forms of isolation in his sci-fi films. Warning: There will be spoilers.
It is one of the most famous taglines in movie history: “In space, no-one can hear you scream.” It is also a logistical reminder that space is a lonely place. The opening shot of Alien reflects exactly that, slowly panning across the atmosphere into darkness with only a dim hum for company. Cinematographer Derek Vanlint then takes us on a trip around the Nostromo, during which silence and emptiness reign supreme. There are no spoken words – certainly nothing distinguishable – for at least six minutes, and when the crew do spark into life there are only seven mouths primed for yapping.
Alien is essentially a parable about the woes and anxieties brought on by inescapable isolation. Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon probe at our innate fears surrounding solitude and the inevitability of it; at some point – be it for an hour, or a day, or a year – we are all alone. When technical problems make it difficult for the crew to maintain a link with ‘the outside world’, that primal fear is set in motion. As the film progresses, members are picked off one-by-one until only Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains, left to squirm in a blend of isolation and uncertainty.
But before we get to that point, Scott and co. examine the various factors that cause isolation. It is money that forces the crew to alter their homeward-bound route, subsequently driving them directly into danger and death (as Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) reminds everyone, investigating potential alien life is a must otherwise they will all forfeit their pay). The planetoid that hosts said lifeform is misty and grainy and dark, with craggy mountains and tough terrain – perfect conditions to get lost in.
The dead creature the crew finds acts almost as a warning. Left to languish for an eternity, the alien body represents the results of inactivity and desolation. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) also discover large eggs, prompting a symmetry between how the facehuggers inside said eggs and the Nostromo crew members are introduced – both species are fragmented and alone at first, hatching from their personal zones of seclusion (the seven aboard the Nostromo are initially shown waking from a stasis effect while inside separate pods).
As disaster bursts from the chest of Kane in that famous scene, the impending threat ushers in urgent anxiety. “I just wanna get the hell outta here, alright?” Thereafter, individuals succumb to the Alien – which has grown significantly while out of sight aboard the ship, using isolation as a weapon against the humans – in systematic fashion. The longer the crew are locked away from civilisation, the bigger the Xenomorph becomes and the more danger they face.
MOTHER, the ship’s version of Siri, is the only external contact, an artificial form of life and an untrue companionship experience. It transpires that Ash is an android and that he has manipulated his astral acquaintances directly into their volatile situation. Technological marvel Ash could be considered the primary cause of the crew’s isolation, an idea Scott explores with greater vigour in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
Ripley is the last woman standing and her anxiety is palpable, particularly when left on her lonesome to battle the Xenomorph inside an emergency escape shuttle. Even after Ripley defeats her terrifying enemy there remains a wary uncertainty surrounding whether or not she will survive alone in space (thankfully she makes it, and subsequently cements her reputation as a badass action hero in Aliens).
Whereas Alien depicts literal loneliness in the form of people being stuck millions of miles from refuge, Scott’s noir-ish sci-fi entry Blade Runner is set in a land that bustles with bleak vibrancy. The isolation in this instance is born not out of anxiety, but of identity crisis. Is Deckard (Harrison Ford) a human or a replicant? Ford reckons his character is a genuine guy made of flesh and bone, and many agree with that interpretation.
However, Scott has always maintained his belief that Deckard is a none-the-wiser replicant designed to annihilate his own kind. In a 2007 interview with Wired he stated, “[On whether it was ever written down on paper that Deckard is a replicant] It was, actually… Deckard, too, has imagination and even history implanted in his head”. Whichever way you see it, this mystery grants the character special status – in flux between human and machine. He has to be one or the other but since the film does not explicitly state which, we can consider the merits and demerits of both prospective forms.
Deckard is a figure steeped in seclusion: When we meet him he is living by himself in a quiet, lightless apartment that gives off a claustrophobic resonance. Ford’s character is very much a loner, a disagreeable antihero caught up in a busy haze that he clearly has no time for. Light has to fight tooth and nail to get some air time, otherwise darkness and shadow loom large.
Shots guided by Jordan Cronenweth’s deft hands often hone in on Deckard’s morose expression, his singular existence emphasised further by Vangelis’ stunning-yet-melancholic score. There might even be value in comparing Deckard and Blade Runner to Bill Murray’s Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, alongside each film’s respective score.
“How can it not know what it is?” Deckard poses the question in reference to Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant under the impression she is human. But is he actually questioning his own internal complex? The way he treats Rachael – unsympathetically breaking the news to her that she is not a person – is unorthodox and unkind, suggesting an inexperience around others perhaps brought on by his inability to understand himself.
It is a similar story later when the pair get intimate: Deckard is forceful, almost as if he is desperate to escape his personal isolation and can see a way out, can see a similar yearning, in replicant Rachael. When she ‘disappears’ in anguish over her true identity, Rachael actually goes looking for Deckard and saves his life. Perhaps Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples are implying these characters have come to the realisation that inter-species comfort is their only way to evade loneliness.
Aside from identity strands, Blade Runner also considers how isolation can cloud morality. The replicants Deckard is tasked with eliminating, led by the creepily mesmerising Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), need to find their corporate creator Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) in order for them to extend their lives. The latter group crave collective survival whereas the former, Deckard, seeks to enforce terminal solitude.
Pris, a female replicant insurgent played by Daryl Hannah, preys on a lonely designer who has close links to Tyrell, taking advantage of his separation from civilisation in an Under the Skin-esque turn of events. The replicants are constantly shown working in tandem (or at least trying to) whereas the human characters all function apart: Deckard as a lone ranger, Sebastian as the aforementioned designer, and even Tyrell, whom we find alone in his room playing chess with a machine.
When Rachael asks Deckard if he has ever taken the empathy test that identifies artifice, he has no answer. By the end of the film we finally see Deckard refute isolation by running away with Rachael, and perhaps accepting his identity as a replicant. Or perhaps not.
Scott’s first return to the Alien universe brought with it many familiarities – the lone female survivor, the impending remoteness – but Prometheus also introduced a more complex agent: David the android (Michael Fassbender). This time when the camera has a peek around the ship at the start of the film, David is the solitary presence filling the steady silence.
David is in isolation from humanity because he (we’ll go with he) is not human. He is a literal loner in Prometheus. But Scott uses David’s uncanniness, his humanlike appearance and voice, to invert the norm. It also helps that Fassbender is a recognisable Hollywood star. And as it turns out, we, humanity, are actually the ones in isolation – again, the Prometheus crew are separated from home by millions of miles and a handful of years.
But Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s script opts to jab at the figurative. At one point, while donning a spacesuit he does not need, David says, “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear a suit it would defeat the purpose”. The Weyland Corporation has created a synthetic non-human solely to have it fit in with its human counterparts, to aid their quest away from isolation.
David is imperative to the crew’s success: He appears to run the ship when they are all in stasis; he identifies dangerous atmospheric changes; he even saves archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) life during a huge storm. The suggestion, quite indiscreetly, seems to be that without artificial intelligence humanity would be isolated from achievement, from discovery, and from the answer to the film’s central question: Who created us?
These grand notions surrounding humankind and seclusion can be localised by examining individual crew members. Charlize Theron’s corporate employee is cold, sort of like Deckard, but wants to be accepted. When Idris Elba’s captain follows up a sex proposal with, “Are you a robot?” a subtly downbeat Vickers obliges not the captain’s identity question, but his sex request. And much like the replicants in Blade Runner, Prometheus CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) wants to be saved from death.
It is Shaw, though, who is the most interesting case. The end of Prometheus yields another sole female survivor. A trembling Shaw exclaims, “I can’t do it anymore”. She is alone, truly separated from aid, until she hears David’s voice and feels a semblance of hope. Shaw is the only believer aboard a ship full of sceptics, scientists, and money-hoarders. Her isolation is also wrapped up in faith, which arguably abandons her as the film develops (she cannot conceive and then conceives a monster; she spends her life working towards meeting her maker and then her maker kills those around her).
Prometheus’ take on isolation is both hopeful and grim, but The Martian wholly falls under the tutelage of the former. Buoyed by a sprightly, energetic, and light-hearted air, Scott shows how isolation can bring out the best in humanity. Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut thrives both mentally and technologically because he has to, but also because solitude affords him time to thoroughly plan and execute tasks (such as growing potatoes). The film is a “feel-good hymn to human ingenuity,” according to Den of Geek’s Ryan Lambie, and was also a welcome shift in tone for Scott at that stage in his sci-fi career.
But all hope dies eventually, especially in the often bleak world(s) of science fiction. And in the form of Alien: Covenant, we see this decimation of hope. Scott both reinforces and slices through notions of isolation early on as he kills the captain of the Covenant, the husband of main character Daniels (Katherine Waterston), before introducing a crew made up of married couples.
Covenant charts humanity’s attempts to overcome isolation, exemplified in the crew’s central mission to lead their colonisation craft – populated by thousands of in-stasis colonists – to a remote planet. Unlike both the original Alien and Prometheus, there is significant personnel volume backing up the cause, a cause built around the desire for human connection between multiple planets.
We also see the crew fight back against isolative tendencies when they decide to uncover the source of a mysterious call. And this is where the crew’s willingness to connect with others backfires. For not only does their collective decision to explore result in the death of various crewmembers, it also reacquaints us with Prometheus’ David. Only, on this occasion, the Covenant unites David with an upgraded twin, Walter (Michael Fassbender).
No longer is David the ‘literal loner’. He now has a partner, or a muse, or a tool to further his own agenda. In Covenant, Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper invert the liberal attributes of internationalism (or universalism, if we are talking space) by presenting a story that sees humanity’s attempt to discover new peoples, planets and species result in death – David has essentially been breeding Xenomorphs using human DNA, and unleashes said Xenomorphs on humanity.
Covenant, as such, also bears the hallmarks of an anti-colonisation movie. We might read it not as a parable against the virtues of internationalism, but as a warning that isolation is not always a cut-and-dry form of existence. Accordingly – forgetting for a moment the troubling binary symbolism set out by humans vs. monsters – the film echoes anti-imperialist sentiments, perhaps decrying the West’s warring tendencies or the European colonisation of Indigenous places and peoples.
Isolation as a form of anxiety. Isolation as a consequence of identity-crisis. Isolation as a technological problem. Isolation as a beacon of hope. Isolation as a warning against imperialism. One thing is for sure: You won’t feel isolated from thematic meaning while watching a Ridley Scott sci-fi film.
Release Date: July 11th, 2016 (UK); July 15th, 2016 (US)
Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Science fiction
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon
You might use the term “whipping boy” to describe someone who is unfairly or unevenly hammered for the flaws of someone or something else. That political leader who bears the brunt of the blame for a vote gone awry. The footballer whose defensive error gives away the second goal in a 5-0 defeat. You get where this is going. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters has been, for quite some time now, cinema’s highest-profile whipping girl. And for what? Because it’s a reboot of a cult classic? See Jurassic World. Because it’s the product of a big studio using an established brand to cultivate cash? See just about every summer blockbuster for the past decade. Or because it subs four leading men for four leading women? Ah. Bingo.
Well the four women are funny and, shock-horror, the film is funny too. It’s also in the same ballpark quality-wise as its predecessor, a movie apparently moulded in the hands of God himself (of course God is a guy, pfft). Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters was a fun flick with charismatic players and a popcorn plot. A lot like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, in fact. Neither is worth the buzz that surrounds it: Reitman’s Ghostbusters is far from the greatest comedy of 1980s, let alone all time, and Feig’s effort is far from the end of masculinity, let alone cinema.
This incarnation follows Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Jillian Holtzmann, and Patty Tolan — Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones — an academic, two scientific minds, and a general knowledge buff who collectively band together to defend the streets of New York City from insurgent ghosts. The ghosts’ sudden arrival has everything to do with spiritmonger Rowan North (Neil Casey), whose barmy devices pave a paranormal path to the real world. Though that hardly matters. What matters is the re-establishment of the ghostbusters, that they are legitimised both within and outwith the narrative, and that we get some laughs along the way.
And there are some laughs, often at the expense of the male characters in the piece. Chris Hemsworth, for instance, plays a dumb blonde receptionist, a role that has historically been reserved for the token female in big budget cinema. Spoiler alert: Bill Murray shows up as the film’s biggest sceptic. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, and by proxy, he doesn’t believe in these ghostbusting women. Even the male tour guide we see at the beginning is utterly afraid of bumps in the night, so much so that he has one of those juvenile ‘accidents’. I can’t recall one strong male character, and guess what? That’s sort of the point. That is the joke. The film does not set out to demonise men (#notallmen) but rather to pithily tear down the cultural and filmic stereotypes prevalent in cinema.
You could argue this approach is overplayed and that it perhaps gets in the way of other would-be satirical adages. For example, the ghostbusters find themselves not only battling their paranormal opposites, but also the non-believers. YouTube trolls bear the brunt of a quip or two: “Ain’t no bitches gon’ hunt no ghosts,” reads one comment. And still, they do. Maybe co-writers Katie Dippold and Feig’s stereotype-smashing could have even gone a tad further, but this is standard comedy fare after all. Besides, Hemsworth’s dopey Kevin — the longest-running and most vociferous of the stereotype gags — is worth his screen time. He wears glasses without frames and has a cat called Mike Hat (phonetics). Hemsworth plays the idiocy straight; Kevin is a cardboard cutout coloured with heightened irony, and it works as well as any other strand of amusement.
The remaining amusement is served up by our key quartet. You initially pin Wiig as the reluctant one of the group, her attire academic and her exterior distant, but that reluctance quickly evaporates. Wiig, perennially brilliant at being awkward and standoffish, gets to be awkward and standoffish before gelling with the gang. That Gilbert so suddenly abandons her academia in favour of beliefs she has repressed for many years does suggest a sense of rushed characterisation, but it at least affords Wiig the opportunity to exercise her versatility. Speaking of gelling with the gang, Jones’ Patty is treated as an equal instantly — it hardly matters that she has no scientific experience, only that she has valid local knowledge and a desire to rid the city of ghosts. Crucially, the performers season a believable camaraderie.
The action is run-of-the-mill. The visuals, expectedly lively (it all goes a bit weird during a Godzilla meets Avengers final act, particularly when Feig invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Shapiro’s score is fun and bombastic and nods admiringly towards its predecessor. And the costume design matches that bombast, effectively reflecting the variable personalities of our four leads — especially the goggles-wearing Holtzmann, McKinnon’s wide eyes purveying excited madness. The story itself isn’t especially laudable, a criticism that has been thrown at many a recent franchise reboot. In a lot of ways Ghostbusters is vintage Feig, cultivating a light atmosphere with steady technical facets and the occasional barb. It is not as volatile as Bridesmaids, and thus not as good, emphasised by McCarthy’s less-brazen approach.
But Ghostbusters is fine. It’s a solid reboot, not narratively groundbreaking but funny enough (listen out for a terrific Jaws gag). It isn’t mistake-free: for whatever reason, there is a disorienting Ozzy Osbourne cameo and the human villain is a barely-realised two-dimensional prospect. However, Feig’s Ghostbusters is not going to taint whatever legacy the original has mustered, but will instead encourage a new generation of fans. It’s frothy, not vindictive. It’s another big studio reboot in an era of big studio reboots that people will either love or hate, and as they decide the world will keep spinning. Relax.
Release Date: June 23rd, 2016 (UK); June 24th, 2016 (US)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher
When you make as many disaster movies as Roland Emmerich, a few things are bound to happen. One, the law of averages suggests you’ll eventually churn out something a bit rubbish that’ll be branded a “disaster” by a publication whose wordplay skills aren’t quite up to scratch. And two, it is likely customers will start to encounter genre fatigue. Independence Day: Resurgence is Emmerich’s sixth out-and-out catastrophe appraisal, having averaged around one every two years since 1996. And while it certainly isn’t a poor effort, it is a tired one.
We’re 20 years removed from the events of Independence Day and humanity has taken significant steps towards protecting itself against future attacks. The Earth Space Defence programme operates from locations like the Moon, made habitable via good old militant colonisation. Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is one of those orbiting the Earth, a fighter pilot with skill and a cocky demeanour. He’s no Han Solo, but then Resurgence is no Empire Strikes Back. What the film is, though, is familiar, hitting many of the same notes as its predecessor only this time with crisper technical tendencies — the Moon base purveys that futuristic grey-silver Prometheus sheen. Hemsworth’s Morrison is a reflection of that sameness: a marketable replacement for Will Smith’s Steven Hiller, Smith either too expensive to rehire or personally fed up with sci-fi roles.
Some of the familiar is good though. Jeff Goldblum, for instance, recaptures plenty of that self-aware wit he displayed as scientist David Levinson (now a lead Area 51 researcher) in the original. Whenever he appears the film lights up, freely recognising its silliness and gleefully bathing in it. “I heard his son is much more of a moderate,” Levinson says in reference to warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) before meeting with the commander’s militia, each fighter sporting high impact weaponry and a no-nonsense facial expression. It is the sort of snappy levity popularised for better or worse by Marvel cinema, but perfected by Goldblum whose poise and timing are, arguably, unmatched.
However, just because the film is generally aware of its wackiness doesn’t mean it should skimp on an engaging story. Aside from its predecessor, Resurgence has more in common with White House Down than anything else in Emmerich’s portfolio, especially tonally. Both movies take would-be serious predicaments — an attack on the President there and an attack on the world here — and imbue them with carefree notes. There is no narrative weight, which is fine, but Resurgence doesn’t offer any alternative means through which stakes can conjugate. We have already witnessed a failed alien attack on this world and it’s not enough simply that the scale is larger this time around. The characters, though generally likeable, are as expendable as the other billion civilians squished by an enormous spacecraft docked atop half the globe.
The manoeuvring of pieces often feels forced. Former President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), whom we meet in a state of mental anguish, evades his high-level bodyguard and appears on stage alongside the current President (Sela Ward). You can only fathom such a thing happening because the story needs it to. It needs to have a panicked Whitmore warn the world about incoming aliens and the only way to get there is through an unrealistic turn of events. While it is true these calamity blockbusters rely little on sturdy plot dynamics, the successful ones often find a way around that issue. San Andreas managed to distract from any story inefficiencies by dabbling in simplicity: hosting a handful of straightforward characters led by a charismatic force of nature in Dwayne Johnson. Goldblum could be that force of nature here but there are so many other players in the game, therefore everyone’s arc suffers and the overarching narrative is rendered a bit baseless. This issue comes to a head right before the third act: as Goldblum spews out waves of exposition, he might as well be reading from the Instruction Manual for Ending Disaster Flicks.
Maika Monroe, breakout star of The Guest and It Follows, is someone who should have more to do. At one point you think she’s going be lumped into a love triangle opposite Hemsworth and Jessie T. Usher (he plays Steven Hiller’s son Dylan, another accomplished flyer). But the complexity of their three-way relationship soon makes itself known, born not out of love but Jake’s cockiness gone wrong (he almost killed Dylan in training). When it becomes clear Patricia’s only romantic ties are with Jake, the focus then shifts to her productivity elsewhere. She is Whitmore’s daughter and an adviser to the current President but Patricia can also handily navigate a fighter jet — not that the film wants to show it. She could be assisting the resistance from the air but instead splits her time between house-buying conversations with Jake and controlling her erratic father. There is a moment of reprieve as the film reaches its finale but by then it has already wasted the fiery talents of Monroe. She even says it herself: “You should’ve let me [fly].”
Emmerich and his squad of writers do try to reflect the catastrophic reverberations of the Independence Day attack in their characterisation of various individuals. Whitmore, as discussed, and also the returning Dr. Brackish Okun (Bret Spiner), fleetingly humorous as he ambles around excitedly looking for the next thing to shoot with a giant ray gun. It’s because these characters are played for laughs that the piece is unable to really delve into the emotional scarring they might be privy to. There is also an instance where you think the film might explore how said scarring has had an impact on the moral endurance of humankind: it involves military decision-makers and government officials debating whether to destroy a seemingly neutral ship. Alas, popcorny action stuff gets in the way.
The brooding hum that plays in tandem with the alien mother ship’s arrival is an example of what could have been had the outing further tapped into its natural sci-fi/horror instincts. Another such flirting occurs later, when military men and extraterrestrials play a game of cat and mouse in a dark bunker. It’s essentially a scene from Alien or Aliens, only without the benefit of a creepily construed atmosphere. Clearly Emmerich had one eye on Ridley Scott’s work when making Resurgence given the alien mother looks like a cross between H. R. Giger’s Xenomorph and Smaug from The Hobbit trilogy.
In 1996, Emmerich used scale models to achieve the level of bombast required to compel the cinemagoing public. While I can’t see too much that sets this sequel apart from its parent, there is something about the practicality of blowing up a mini White House that endears more than the admittedly impressive visual palette on display here. Maybe that sums up Resurgence: a film made with so much technical proficiency that it seems to forget about intuition, be it something akin to the scale model intuition that once charmed viewers, or the sort of narrative intuition that plants us in a recognisable world with new, engaging possibilities. It all feels too easily earned.
Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (US); April 8th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Adventure; Drama; Science fiction
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst
The opening shot of Midnight Special shows a motel door peephole. The peephole offers those inside the motel room the ability to spy on any external goings-on, and is in fact the only means to such an end: each of the room’s windows have been dressed in cardboard by occupants wary, perhaps, of the instability of conventional curtains. One of the room’s occupants, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has even donned enormous orange headphones and a pair of goggles, ears and eyes shielded from something, or maybe someone. It is a brilliant introduction to this patient, mysterious world created by Jeff Nichols, without doubt one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers working today.
A number of forces are after Alton for a number of reasons: the FBI, for fear of his invasive abilities, that the child can undercut complicated governmental systems albeit without malice, and a Texas cult corrupted by the promise of an upcoming day of reckoning. Adam Driver represents the former as Paul Sevier, a compassionate analyst of sorts, and ranch leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) the latter. See, Alton possesses a variety of characteristics not written into the laws of physics. His eyes shoot blinding beams of light and his mind works prophetically, both of which make him valuable. But nobody values him more than his father Roy (Michael Shannon) who, with the assistance of friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), sets out to shield Alton from harm.
Moral complexities are at large early on. Roy and Lucas’ motives aren’t initially clear therefore Shannon and Edgerton must convey a sense of righteousness or otherwise. As they leave their motel room with Alton, we cut to a suspicious receptionist. Shortly thereafter, the pair endure a nasty collision on the road and have a run-in with a state trooper which ends when the latter is shot. It’s not exactly a heroic introduction, but subtle nuances get us onside: Shannon’s paternal vibe towards his son and Alton’s reciprocal nature; Edgerton’s considered demeanour and his character’s need to protect any innocent bystanders (shooting not to kill the trooper, for instance).
The film is also Spielbergian in many ways, from its science fiction touch to how it places youth on a pedestal. You first notice the similarities in a dusk horizon shot, where the various silhouettes of imposing military trucks can be seen advancing along a shadowy road, the background an orange-tinted sky. A general nighttime vibe exists throughout the piece, partially because the screenplay requires it, but also because darkness funds an overarching sense of uncertainty and mystique. Visual flair is mostly restrained, though the film does let loose on two occasions with incredible results — especially incredible given the comparatively meagre $18 million budget.
Its celebration of youthful imagination is another trope from Spielberg’s wheelhouse, enacted generally across the piece but also more intimately when we see Alton reading a Human Torch comic. “Reading’s reading,” Lucas claims, to which Roy glumly replies, “He needs to know what’s real”. Lucas has been won over not just by Alton’s abilities but also his humanness. Roy, while evidently full of love for his son, is more strict when it comes to completing the task; that is, getting Alton to where he needs to be. Perhaps this early in proceedings Roy is unwilling to fully accept the consequences of doing so, which only adds further heft to his journey.
But he does have faith. Religion, the inevitability of one’s beliefs, the cultish haranguing instigated by an isolated community — these are all explored in Midnight Special. Calvin’s ranch carries significant pull, even to those who have left. “Do you miss it?” Roy asks former member Elden (David Jensen), and you can bet he does. We don’t really know anything about those on the ranch, nor those who have escaped, which includes Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Their backstories might have benefited from some filling in, though you have to commend Nichols for his consistency in letting the audience make up their own minds. And there certainly isn’t a total information blackout. Rather, this feels like a well-crafted piece, where each event and scene and conversation carries meaning.
It is always easy to compare a filmmaker’s current work to his/her previous efforts, though such a comparison makes sense here. In many ways, Nichols has taken the most appetising ingredients from both Take Shelter and Mud and moulded them into a sci-fi base: the former’s apocalyptic vision and air of encroaching trouble tags with the latter’s unflashy, youngster-imbued agenda. Alton is the physical manifestation of both elements, a dangerous otherworldly presence to some, yet to others simply a child searching for answers. Television news reels spew out stories on crippling addiction while honchos in suits decry the possibility of nuclear decimation, paranoid and afraid of change even if it is for the better.
Despite being set in contemporary times, the film has an undeniable retro quality similar to that purveyed in Super 8 (though clearly J.J. Abrams’ movie is set in a period that matches its retro-scape). David Wingo’s oscillating, spacey score somewhat soothes our ears as it recalls Alton’s futuristic attributes. It tends to play over scenes involving Alton and never jars, instead shining a positive light on what the boy could represent — that aforementioned change for the better — as well as his family’s motives. At times the music also reminded me of Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s work in Coherence, a small sci-fi thriller bred from a similar pool of cagey mystery.
For those of you who thought Tomorrowland: A World Beyond lacked concrete storytelling or a consistent strain of intrigue, there’s every chance Midnight Special is film you have been looking for. While Nichols’ outing doesn’t flourish through splendour, it does keep the viewer engrossed for the duration. You have to be; various ideas are floated around — including concepts I haven’t touched upon here, such as undemocratic government surveillance — and it is often up to us to make our own moral judgement. Midnight Special is as much an on-the-road drama as it is any other genre, but it’s also very effective sci-fi. The special stuff, almost.
Release Date: January 21st, 2015 (UK); April 24th, 2015 (US)
Genre: Drama; Mystery; Science fiction
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
One moment programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is sitting at his desk, face illuminated by the glaring light of his work computer. The next he is strapped inside a helicopter, flying over an ice age and landing in Jurassic Park. The technological feat awaiting him would likely put dino DNA revitalisers to shame. If not, his target locale is certainly about to outmatch Isla Nublar on the ominous atmosphere front. See, Caleb has won the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to spend a week working alongside his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at the latter’s remote outpost.
Nathan is a sharp-minded billionaire, which is plain to see upon reaching his scientific base: polished surfaces, gleaming windows, furniture positioned perfectly. Mirrors are plentiful, perhaps incorporated to feed the CEO’s macho demeanour (physical exertion is a favourite), and conjure up artificial reflections of those looking into them — more on that shortly. As Nathan, Isaac evokes detachment yet somehow also total involvement; he is knowledgeable, not only scientifically, but anthropologically too. He pokes fun at Caleb while asking all of the right (leading) questions to support his manifesto — for one, he convinces the out-of-sync employee to sign an autocratic non-disclosure form.
At once a beer-guzzling waster who speaks in Ghostbusters gags when drunk and a piercing intellect who is hard to pin down, the character benefits from Isaacs’ mysterious approach. Caleb has been invited over to test Nathan’s newest creation: an android called Ava (Alicia Vikander). A near instant iciness develops between both guys, purposefully invoked by Nathan and anxiously accepted by Caleb, and it only gets worse as the experiment progresses. Test sessions between Caleb and Ava are signified by creepy, black title cards bred from the hard-edged Alien school of font. These interactions begin innocently enough, though the tables subtly turn when Ava asks her examiner about his love life (“Is your status single?”). Caleb giggles accordingly.
Vikander is brilliant — she moves with an odd mechanical smoothness, and glides with inhuman grace. Her tone is at once impersonal and enrapturing. Metaphorically speaking, her existence embodies humankind’s attraction towards technological achievement and how said attraction has been, and will continue to be, massively detrimental (atomic bombs are mentioned). Writer-director Alexander Garland uses Nathan as a centrepiece for humankind’s petulance: at one point Nathan informs us he made Ava simply because he could. It is also worth pointing out the excellent work of Gleeson, who juggles both the need to discover and the fear of causing a fuss with pristine awkwardness.
Caleb doesn’t know how to process his attraction, dismissing it as a false consequence of the preconditions set by Nathan. “This is your insecurity talking, this is not your intellect,” replies the CEO with a dose of glee. Whereas earlier test sessions between Caleb and Ava would show the former on the left and the latter on the right, cinematographer Rob Hardy flips the two in later sessions. All of a sudden, he is part-AI and she is part-human. The artificial textures are so genuine looking they incur an uncanny valley vibe — the skin, the limbs, and the eyes all seem real, but we know they aren’t. We see all of this through Caleb’s gaze and Caleb, unsurprisingly, is bewildered and amazed, his sanity in depletion.
Garland delivers an indie outing that looks more mature than the norm and one that seems to carry more purpose too. It shares the same tense underbelly as Kelly Reichardt’s Eco-thriller Night Moves, only Garland’s film doesn’t lose steam halfway through, tension superbly maintained at the expense of clear-cut characterisation. We never truly understand anybody’s motive — how much does Nathan actually know about Ava? How much does Ava actually know about the programme? The entire film is like a sinister, sublime chess match formulated entirely by Nathan, and Caleb is the piece being played.
Dewy, misty surroundings denote total seclusion. A haunting score heightens bouts of inevitable eeriness (inevitable, but terrifically construed), particularly during a spying session. Even sweeter musical inflections, like an Explosions in the Sky sounding addition, are laden with menace. Every so often blood red warning lights repaint the scientific centre as a doomed spaceship — Event Horizon springs to mind, or perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, another Garland-penned film. It looks and feels like proper science fiction: you don’t know what is around the corner, but you do know whatever it is will hold secrets primed to test your mind and probably freak you out.
Considering all I’ve written, you might see Ex Machina as an old school genre movie: dotted with expositional speeches that explore futuristic themes; plans smartly laid out and then executed; tension constantly simmering; characters attempting to outsmart each other. Even though it falters slightly at the very, very last hurdle — though one wonders where else the story could have conceivably gone — smart sci-fi is a treat, and this will test your brain in the most engaging manner.
Release Date: November 19th, 2015 (UK); November 20th, 2015 (US)
Genre: Adventure; Science fiction
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is an empowering film, and it was likely always going to be that. However, there is no denying the impact that recent tragic events have had on further funding its overarching message of hope. Movie-making, of course, manifests as a trivial pursuit when considered alongside matters of life and death. It’s a luxury, a pastime, a hobby, a passion. But it’s also a love, a source of joy, a triumph, an escape. Cinema is one of life’s most important unimportant things, and when it reflects reality in any form — big or small — cinema is arguably at its most engaging.
The Hunger Games franchise has always had its finger on the pulse of geopolitics and society; the struggle that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) faces, against tyranny and barbarism, is also the struggle that many people in this world are currently caught up in. You can feel the heightened reverence as you watch, and those behind the series — from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, from Suzanne Collins to Danny Strong and Peter Craig — deserve credit for bringing those aforementioned weighty themes to the forefront of young adult fiction.
The film opens with Katniss hoarsely attempting to say her name, battling against the damage inflicted by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) towards the end of the previous film. Instantly the outing is reinforcing its central notion of a silenced body fighting against said silence and not giving into an oppressive society. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is the oppressor in Panem, Katniss the symbolic body speaking out. As Snow and his cohorts sit around lavish dining tables, eating and drinking and toasting their own unsavoury greed, Mockingjay — Part 2 initiates the conclusive rebellion.
We know there won’t be any messing about when the title card appears on screen, white letters bluntly protruding from a black background. But the moral structure of this tale isn’t as clear-cut. “It’s war Katniss. Sometimes killing isn’t personal,” says Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whose righteousness has apparently seen better days. For the rebels, cause is supposed to take precedent over spectacle — The Hunger Games and Catching Fire particularly honed in on the consequences of the latter via their televised Gaming exploits — but there are even those in Katniss’ team who adhere specifically to marvel. This blurred morality keeps us on our toes as characters waver on who to trust.
Even Katniss, leader of the rebellion, feels harnessed by the warring tactics invoked by her superiors: “It doesn’t matter what you want,” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) spits. The film has a grey palette that is quite distinct from the flashiness of earlier films, but that is similar to the chalky aesthetic of something like Saving Private Ryan. Katniss, Gale and co. are part of an insurgent team that takes to the booby trapped Capitol in an effort to fuel their cause and, perhaps, deal with Snow. We think back to Saving Private Ryan again as the rebels carefully navigate the urban decay, threat constantly hanging over the screen like a dark shadow. It really feels like the final battle, especially following Mockingjay — Part 1’s more subdued, poised, and frankly justified prerogative.
Fans of The Walking Dead will see familiarities in the Capital-set roulette game, where death could befall anybody at any moment; as such we sit through nerve-shredding uncertainty. A genuinely scary sewer sequence is coincidentally similar to a scene in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, only this one bears even more edgy ferocity. The underground monsters here are spawns of World War Z’s sprinters and The Descent’s crawlers. Neither Francis Lawrence nor his writers shirk away from tough subject matters which means death, a lot of it, is inevitable. It’s a brave mantra and an honest one in my view (i.e. not exploitative), though there is a truly horrifying moment that some might find too tough for a film rated 12A.
We do get small glimpses of cheer: the wedding of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson), for instance, ushers in a deluge of celebratory dancing. War thoughts never abate though; Katniss and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) watch the festivities from afar as they debate their separate roles in the rebellion. It’s a scene akin to one in The Return of the King where Gandalf and Aragorn discuss the probability of Frodo’s success while Merry and Pippin party nearby. The brooding calm before the inevitable storm. The screenplay also investigates how individuals scarred by war operate. Johanna, for example, is dependent on drugs. Avox cameraman Pollux (Eldon Henson) bears not only physical but also mental ailments. And Peeta spends much of his time conflicted, Josh Hutcherson playing the tortured soul with a sense of purpose.
Given the large cast involved, some characters only appear fleetingly: Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), to mediate the revamped Hunger Games with despicable aplomb; Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), affording the film greater substance with a simple glance; Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), humanised to the point of no return; Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), a key player in generating emotion; and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a burst of thunder amongst the clouded moral spectrum.
There are a few fairly minor problems, namely that the all-seeing Snow constantly believes Katniss has met her demise when it is clear she hasn’t and, without tempting spoilers, the unfair and somewhat puzzling fate of one key character (no death involved). The final half hour is unexpected in many ways — some good, some not-so-good — but it at least ought to be hailed for not conforming to a prerequisite narrative. It’s also worth pointing out that this is an action movie that manages to dazzle without sacrificing its politically-infused roots, which must be worth something in 2015.
Fittingly, we end with a nod to Jennifer Lawrence. Mockingjay — Part 2 packs an emotional punch because it has good writing and good direction, but those are only conduits for a performer and Lawrence’s performance here, just as it has been throughout the entire series, is wholly affecting. She absolutely is a filmmaker’s dream, both talented and marketable. But her commitment, her discernibility, also makes Lawrence a film-watcher’s dream, and it is through her leadership that this smart, pertinent blockbuster franchise has flourished.
Release Date: July 3rd, 1985 (US); December 4th, 1985 (UK)
Genre: Adventure; Comedy; Science fiction
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd
From the moment Dean Cundy trails his camera around Emmett “Doc” Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) cantankerous home, clickety-tickety gadgets clicking and ticking in all directions, you just know Back to the Future is going to be a film that values wacky invention and rich characterisation. The plethora of loud clocks, the iffy tin openers, the monster amps, they all reflect Doc’s personality: budding, buzzing, and entirely unpredictable. And we haven’t even met him yet.
It’s Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) whom we first encounter, tripping over Doc’s seemingly infinite housebound bits and bobs, somehow looking both uncomfortably out of place and at ease with his bonkers surroundings. We know then that the pair share an uncommon bond and that, for the remaining two hours, its lack of plausibility doesn’t matter. These opening 10 minutes, penned by director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale, are brilliant. Those that follow are pretty good too.
We initially find ourselves slap-bang in the mid-1980s, Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” beefing up the Zeitgeist with pop rock verve. The special effects are goofy but in charming sort of manner, electric lights fizzing and squawking. When we shift to the 1950s soon after, the visual palette takes on a post-war retro tint: glass bottles of Coca-Cola, tall chocolate milkshakes, unabashedly shiny vehicles. Doc and Marty are to blame for said shift, the former having transformed his DeLorean into a time travelling machine and the latter having taken the time-sensitive plunge.
Marty is a bit cocky, a bit arrogant. He’s a rebel with a cause: to change history. Zemeckis and Gale set up the various pay-offs early on — Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), the adult bully who needs some comeuppance; the Hill Valley Preservation Society’s attempts to save the town clock tower that, coincidentally, was struck by lightning 30 years ago. We know how story facets such as these will play out, but other rules are established only to be rewritten. In 1955, Marty takes his father George’s (Crispin Glover) place in a car accident, blacking out and subsequently awaking in his mother’s teenage bedroom. She, unaware Marty is her son, tries to seduce him.
The aforementioned notion would provoke cringe in many other outings, but Back to the Future gets away with it because the air is so madcap. Michael J. Fox’s nervous energy around his young mum Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is both hilarious and touching: “You shouldn’t drink because… you might regret it later in life,” he informs his mother, a future alcoholic. Crossover traits from the 50s and 80s afford Marty a freshness in both settings — traits such as booming teenage culture, motor car appreciation, and the imminent popularity of rock music. The film even paints Marty as the brainchild behind Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, and you can’t help but admire its odd legitimacy.
On the other hand, Doc is introduced under an air of mystery. We hear his voice, eccentric and agitated, over the phone long before we meet him in person. The barmy inventor reverses noisily on-screen, smoke pillowing wherever there is space, his frazzled hair and radioactive suit vindicating our original preconceptions. Christopher Lloyd unveils an intense stare that promotes excitement rather than intimidation. His character is like an affable Count Olaf, if Count Olaf was a mad scientist and affable. You accept Doc and Marty’s offbeat camaraderie as standard practice because the two actors have natural, unkempt chemistry. They drive the film with as much intent and enthusiasm as they drive the DeLorean.
Elsewhere, Back to the Future spends time taking potshots at 1950s culture and politics because doing anything else would be against time travel law. In a not-so-solid burst of intuition, Marty decides the only way to convince past Doc (there are a few incarnations of one or two characters which can be a tad confusing) that he has arrived from the future is by reeling off 1980s characteristics, and subsequently names Ronald Reagan as the current US President. “Ronald Reagan, the actor? Ha!” Doc shoots back, a response that probably would have held weight back then, when Reagan was more likely to be found on a Hollywood movie set than inside the Oval Office.
It is practically impossible not to enjoy this film. With almost as many quotable lines as Casablanca, it’s essentially Grease on physics-defying wheels. Zemeckis creates a heightened ambience that encourages nothing but authentic, irreverent chaos. Suburban madness was a movie-making norm in the 1980s, and Back to the Future is as wonderfully mad as it gets.
Release Date: September 30th, 2015 (UK); October 2nd, 2015 (US)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara
As Ridley Scott’s fourth headline entry in the science fiction genre, you might pre-emptively think The Martian is one giant leap too many. The film opens with a steady pan across wondrous space, a shot that harkens back to his first offering, Alien. But this isn’t Alien, far from it. Nor is it Blade Runner or Prometheus. The Martian is too busy swimming in the delightful proclivities of space pirates and gaffer tape to concern itself with morose terminators and monstrous creatures. In short, this giant leap is the best one Scott could hope to make at this stage in his career and, indeed, the right one for mankind to feast on.
Drew Goddard recalibrates Andy Weir’s highly regarded novel with impetus, creating a screenplay that sparks with life and manifests on screen in surprisingly slick 140-minute form. It’s about botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars after an Ares 3 mission catastrophe (a scene shot with intense furore). Accordingly, we spend a lot of time in the company of a man whose technical wizardry acts as a lifeboat. There is a lot of scientific space lingo and control room hubris, yet a combination of Goddard’s wily script and Damon’s charming performance renders the would-be impersonal exceedingly personal.
Mars’ landscape is incredible — when Watney awakens from his unconscious state and ambles across the rusty sand, you really feel his isolation. The grandeur both intimidates and inspires. His first call of duty is a squirm-worthy medical scene involving pliers and the astronaut’s gaping abdomen. Matt Damon recaptures the tortured spirit unleashed by Noomi Rapace in Prometheus, and the excruciating results would make her proud. His eyes are black and heavy at this point. To fund the sense of total seclusion, we’re stuck with Watney on Mars for a good chunk of the movie (though “stuck” suggests it is time spent against our will, when in fact it is some of the best time I’ve spent at the cinema this year).
The Martian is about a smart person (and later people) doing smart things, and Damon is perfect as the savvy loner. He is brilliant company, erupting with charismatic poise and an everymanness that usurps his specialised occupation. You feel an authentic burst of joy every time he connects the problematic dots via intellect and nous. Cinema will do well to conjure up a more likeable presence before 2015 is out. There’s no volleyball, but for a companion Watney employs a webcam and, like Cillian Murphy’s Capa in Sunshine, our hero speaks to the camera as if conversing with us and not with a machine. Emotions become capital and we absolutely get our money’s worth: whenever Watney wells up our natural instinct suggests we do the same.
The self-proclaimed greatest botanist on the planet often wears a scowl that implies a freak out is imminent, but instead whimsical quips relieve any tension. He has to be sarcastic and jokey in order to survive, and his jokes are unequivocally funny (“It has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup”). David Bowie’s “Starman” tune is part of an expertly employed soundtrack that feeds the genial air surrounding Watney’s shenanigans — potato growing, alphabet reconfiguration, machine hacking, to name but a few.
In any other Ridley Scott sci-fi effort, the titular man-Martian would be cursing God and trembling through his deserted predicament. But not here. Here, the prevailing sentiment is a hearty, somewhat sly, “Fuck you Mars.” Watney throws a plethora of insults at his host — the planet becomes the enemy. It’s man versus wild, and there is an acknowledgement from the filmmaker that threat ought to still linger despite the upbeat atmosphere. Watney, as such, has to contend with peril constantly swirling around him, danger emboldened by the movie’s forthright sound design.
Goddard’s screenplay — which he initially wrote intending to direct — likes to poke fun at PR and at press discourse. The film is barely five minutes old before the digs start: “Mark just discovered dirt — should we alert the media?” (as fate, or otherwise, would have it we got a water-related Mars announcement from NASA just days before the film’s release). While Watney does his best to stay alive, the mission back on Earth is to somehow spin his survival into a non-destructive PR story. Those doing the spinning, somewhat amazingly given the cynical Zeitgeist in which we live, are far from deplorable.
They each have flaws: Jeff Daniels’ NASA chief is a bit impersonal; Sean Bean’s Ares 3 crew supervisor heralds gut reaction over practicality; and even Kristen Wiig’s publicity woman can be on the dismissive side. But they are all amiable people trying to do good. While on Mars it is all about Spielbergian wonderment, quirky humour, and a genuinely winsome crust, the Earth arc mixes a jaunty detective movie with corporate drama. Bureaucracy plays a part — should they or should they not inform the Ares 3 crew that their man is still alive? Those at NASA struggle to keep up with Watney’s ingenious prowess despite their technological advantage, and the film hilariously emphasises this.
The cast is rich in depth but very large, and you worry that some might suffer due to a lack of screen time (a criticism many aimed at Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest). Thankfully, by the end, the vast majority are afforded a moment to shine. It’s great seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor in a breezier role, and he fits the bill as home-based NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor with coolness to spare. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña and the remaining Ares 3 crew members function like a well-oiled team despite their comparatively short-lived screen stint. Mackenzie Davis is very good as the freshman NASA analyst, energising a potentially corny role. Kristen Wiig, too, confidently plays against type.
As the film advances, the Sol counts (the number of days spent on Mars) that are systematically thrown up on screen do lose their clout. It could be argued that the piece unwittingly stumbles into a pacing issue; not that it ever threatens to plod along, but rather that the on screen presentation of advancing time is a tad careless. The longer we go, the less it impacts on us (though admittedly, by the time the grand conclusion gets under way nobody really cares).
It is dramatically better than Apollo 13. Visually, it rides the same rocketship as Gravity — Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is foolproof. The Martian probably isn’t Ridley Scott’s best sci-fi movie (both Alien and Blade Runner will take some beating), but his love letter to human dexterity, perseverance, and personality is an utter triumph.