The Martian (2015)

A few years ago I went to see The Counselor and I hated it so much I called it my least favourite film of the year. Which means I haven’t exactly been seeking out the work of Ridley Scott since then. But some friends said hey this new film of his was pretty good and so finding myself with an empty day and having exhausted everything else I needed to see, I steeled myself for 141 minutes of more of his noxious worldview (whyyyyy?) and… well… it was actually pretty enjoyable stuff. But I suspect that’s partly Scott’s directorial vision being paired with a more sympathetic screenwriter in Drew Goddard — most of the battle in making a good film, after all, is starting with a good script. It’s a science-fiction film, but fairly easy on the distancing techy BS that distracts in other efforts. Sure there are actors who pop up just to be savant geniuses (like Donald Glover), but for the most part this is just about determined people trying to do their best with (apparently) very little regard to budget — I guess we should assume the future has solved all its financial problems. Therefore, amongst these driven players — including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent, the mission director, Jessica Chastain as Melissa, commanding the actual expedition, and Jeff Daniels as the NASA director Teddy — astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is just the most notable, for he’s the one stuck on Mars. Most of the extended running time just lingers on him solving problems, and Scott’s work is to build tension through emphasising his very isolation, and the impossibility of those back on Earth helping him in any meaningful way. In that sense, it has a bit of Apollo 13 to it, and it’s immensely likeable in the way that there are no villains in the piece, and everyone gets their time. Sure, our Everyman character is still a white guy (and Damon’s run into a bit of criticism for his views on that this year), but this is a well-crafted film which fits in easily alongside Gravity as a solid bit of space-based entertainment. I suspect we’ll be getting more of that as 2015 draws to a close.

The Martian film posterCREDITS
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir); Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015.

Looper (2012)

Rian Johnson’s debut Brick (2005), also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was a nice little story set at a high school, an original script but filtering it through all kinds of cinematic influences, not least noir movies. This film too is written by director Johnson but filtered through even more influences. It has a grandiose affect and purports to deal with the fate of humanity’s future, but at heart it’s a character-based drama, and is all rather goofily perplexing.

The film’s gimmick is that two of the actors (Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) are nominally playing the same character, Joe, at different ages. However, thanks to alternate timelines, they are effectively different people, althougn the older Joe has the memories of the younger, and is physically affected by events that happen to his younger self. Confusingly, old Joe isn’t affected until they happen in younger Joe’s (past) time, but the film doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the paradoxes of time travel. In fact older Joe basically tells his younger self to stop thinking about it — which is probably just as well, because as ever a few moments’ thought renders it all rather silly.

This leaves the narrative with Gordon-Levitt’s impersonation of Willis (padded out by some prosthetics, so I gather, although to me he comes across more as Daniel Craig than Willis), all taut whispers and explosive action, as well as the interactions between these two characters and Emily Blunt as impoverished farmer Sara. Her involvement comes around halfway through, as she is possibly the mother of a future crimelord who has killed older Joe’s wife, and prompts some handwringing for the protagonist about the way future events have been affected by both Sara’s unconscious choices and by those made by himself.

Ultimately all the issues raised within the story seem subordinate to the film’s sense of style. A Blade Runner-like future dystopia gets the hardboiled noir voiceover treatment, with some comic book gangsterism that resembles nothing so much as Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels. Willis’s involvement triggers memories of 12 Monkeys (1995), in turn recalling La Jetée (1962), present here in the flashbacks to old Joe’s home life and wife. However, this is just to touch on the influences: they pervade the film from start to end.

I imagine all this will be pleasing to many viewers but it gets a bit wearying to this one. However, I did enjoy the film, and it has plenty of forward momentum which carries it through to a surprising denouement. Certainly worth a watch, but take its advice on not thinking too hard about the time travel.

Looper film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Friday 9 August 2013.