Review of “The Martian”

Botanist and astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a six-person crew exploring the surface of Mars as part of the Ares III mission. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is informed by crew member Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) of an approaching dust storm that has intensified since the last weather update and may cause their return vehicle to topple over. Lewis orders the crew to head to the launch vehicle and prepare to return to their mothership Hermes in orbit. As they walk from a habitat module to the return vehicle, a piece of equipment is picked up by the wind and strikes Watney with such force that it carries him away from the others. Unable to see him in the blinding storm and receiving telemetry that his suit has been breached, Lewis makes the decision to leave him behind since it appears he is dead. The crew launches and begins the nine month trip back to Earth. Watney wakes up, injured but alive. He returns to the habitat and assesses his situation. He can’t contact Hermes or NASA since his communications equipment was destroyed in the storm. He is in a habitat designed to last 30 days with a limited food and water supply and he’s looking at a minimum of four years before the next mission is scheduled to arrive. Watney begins thinking of ways to extend his food and water supply. Back on Earth, Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) to use satellites orbiting Mars to look at the Ares III landing site but Sanders refuses fearing images of Watney’s body on the surface would turn public sentiment against the space program. Kapoor asks an operator in Mission Control to redirect a satellite to look at the Ares III location and notices a rover has changed locations. NASA realizes Watney is alive and begin working on plans to send him supplies. Using his remaining supplies and repurposing the equipment to which he has access Watney does everything he can to stay alive and have the best chance at rescue.

“The Martian” is more than a science-fiction movie. The story wouldn’t be hugely different if the setting was in the wilderness and a lone character had to figure out how to survive with just his wits and limited supplies. While the potential wait for rescue would be significantly shorter, the basics would remain the same. That’s what makes “The Martian” a movie that appeals to those that like sci-fi and those that don’t, as shown by the large take at the box office. It is a film that focuses on one man’s struggle to survive in an environment that has several different ways it can kill him. While the locale is out of this world, the struggle is completely relatable.

Matt Damon is such an everyman he easily fits into just about any role. From a troubled mathematical genius to an amnesiac super spy to a stranded astronaut, Damon finds the humanity in all his characters no matter what insanity might swirl around them. His work in “The Martian” is no different. Damon plays Watney as a brilliant man, cool under pressure, but not someone that doesn’t have doubts about his chances from time to time. The strain of being alone takes its toll on Watney and Damon unapologetically shows us his fear and anger. It’s a brilliant performance on which the entire movie rides.

That isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t given a chance to shine. Large chunks of the story take place on Earth and on board the Hermes. As the characters deal with the pressures of figuring out a way to save their stranded comrade and the guilt of having left him behind, we see the kind of political, personal and public relations decisions that go on behind the scenes. There are hard choices that have to be made and difficult calculations on the worth of one man’s life. Is the risk of saving Watney worth the cost in materials, manpower and possible bad PR? It’s the kind of questions the real space program hasn’t had to answer publicly but I’m sure discussions about all the possible outcomes of missions have led to some heated debates. It’s that sort of real-world consideration along with the excitement and tension that make “The Martian” such a grounded story for a sci-fi movie.

“The Martian” is rated PG-13 for injury images, brief nudity and some strong language. We see Watney’s injury and his self-surgery to repair the damage. There are a couple of views of Watney’s bare backside. Foul language is widely scattered but the film does use its maximum allowed number of “F-Bombs.”

“The Martian” is based on a book of the same name by Andy Weir. According to an interview in the podcast “SciFi Geeks Club,” Weir says screenwriter Drew Goddard consulted him on certain aspects of the story and the movie is about 95% faithful to his book. That is almost unheard of in making books into movies. That kind of adherence to the source material may play some part in why “The Martian” is such a great movie. It doesn’t dumb down the science and it keeps the characters grounded with real emotion along with humor to keep the threat of impending death from making the movie too grim. It is well worth your time and money whether you enjoy science fiction or not.

“The Martian” gets five guitars out of five.

This week, there is only one wide release film and that’s the prequel story of Peter Pan. While I may see that visual effect extravaganza, there are some smaller films that look interesting as well. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Grandma—

Hell and Back—

Learning to Drive—

Pan—

Pawn Sacrifice—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Jupiter Ascending”

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) works in the family house cleaning business. She wakes up before dawn and spends her day scrubbing the toilets in the homes of the rich. At night, she goes home to her extended family that shares a home. Jupiter, named after the largest planet by her father who died years earlier in a robbery, hates her life and yearns for something more. Her cousin Vladie (Kick Gurry) also wants a better life and concocts a scheme to sell Jupiter’s eggs to a fertility clinic for $15,000 with a third of that going to Jupiter. With the money, she plans on buying a brass telescope that was just like her father’s. At the clinic, the doctors and nurses ignore Jupiter’s pleas to stop the procedure and slap bracelets on her ankles and wrists that cause her to float above the bed. Freaked out, Jupiter struggles but can’t get away. The doctors, who are actually genetically modified creatures called messengers, check Jupiter’s DNA and then try to kill her. Bursting into the procedure room is Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a former military officer in an otherworldly army, flying around the room with boots that defy gravity. Caine saves Jupiter and takes her to the top of a skyscraper in Chicago. Caine explains he has been sent to retrieve Jupiter and bring her to Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth), a member of a powerful family that controls most of the galaxy. Jupiter is confused and doesn’t understand what’s going on but has an innate trust of Caine who explains his DNA has been spliced with a wolf-like creature, giving him enhanced senses and amplified bravery. As the pair is being lifted up to a ship floating above the skyscraper, smaller fighter ships attack and destroy the larger ship, causing Caine and Jupiter to fall. Caine’s gravity boots save them but they are chased through the skies over Chicago by the ships flown by messengers. Caine is able to take over one of the ships and manages to destroy the others but his ship is damaged beyond repair as well. Stealing a car, they head out to a run-down farmhouse that is the home of Stinger Apini (Sean Bean), a former soldier Caine knows. After a bit of a disagreement between the two men, bees begin to fly around Jupiter but they don’t sting her. She seems to be able to control them with hand gestures. Caine and Stinger begin to refer to Jupiter as “your Majesty” as it appears she is royalty of the interstellar variety. The farmhouse is attacked by bounty hunters and messengers looking for Jupiter. She is captured and taken to a planet to meet Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), sister to Titus, who informs Jupiter she has the identical genetic code as her mother who died many years earlier. This code entitles her to claim the throne and take over the galaxy-wide corporation currently run by the Titus, Kalique and their brother Balem (Eddie Redmayne), the oldest of the three. Balem has designs on being the sole leader of the family corporation and will stop at nothing to make sure Jupiter is killed.

A synopsis of the first 30 minutes of the movie would, if complete, probably be three or four times longer than above. The Wachowski siblings have stuffed “Jupiter Ascending” to the absolute gills with political intrigue, familial shenanigans and genetic manipulation. It also is a film that is absolutely gorgeous to look at and seems to have a fully realized history that leads to the events in the film. There are stunning landscapes of alien worlds, ornate spaceships that more closely resemble palaces and unique creatures of the CGI variety that are seamlessly integrated with the live action. All the ingredients are here for a spectacular space opera so I wonder where that movie is? “Jupiter Ascending” is far more style than it is substance.

Let’s start with the positives: “Jupiter Ascending” is a visual feast that is actually worth the added price of 3D. Battle sequences in space and above Chicago insert the audience in the center of the action so thoroughly you may have to look away for a moment to avoid vertigo or nausea. The added depth of field gives the more frenetic sequences enough visual cues, allowing the audience to keep up. The one exception to this is a flying fight between two characters late in the film; otherwise, following the action is usually pretty easy aided in part by the tendency to slow the action way down so we can enjoy all the acrobatics. The designs of both the larger space cruisers and the smaller fighter craft are unique and eye catching. Parts of the ships are unconnected to the main body but act as if they are physically attached. They often look like shiny insects as they make quick maneuvers in battle. There are beautiful worlds we visit for far too short a time. Majestic castles soar into the alien skies with architecture both familiar and foreign. Technologies that are impossible now (and probably forever) dazzle the audience with wonders like floors that can become transparent at the wave of a hand, personal protective shields to fend off attack and the previously mentioned gravity boots. The Wachowski’s and their collaborators have given a huge amount of thought to how these different worlds work and it shows. As the characters discuss the issues brought up in the film, it feels like there is a significant amount of history in the background that has led everyone to this point. Some of that history is mentioned in the film but there must be a great deal more we know nothing about. The whole idea of humanity being seeded on Earth a million years ago by an advanced humanoid race has been suggested before in part by those who believe we are not alone and were too backward in the distant past to build the Egyptian pyramids or draw the Nazca Lines in Peru. While it makes for an interesting plot device for a movie, it seems unlikely to have any basis in reality. It is the story which seems to have a heavy dose of realistic motives for the antagonists where “Jupiter Ascending” begins to fall apart.

The plot can be boiled down to a power struggle within a family-owned company and the lengths the siblings will go to in order to secure control over the operation. There is nothing about this story that engenders any real interest. For me, it was just the thing I had to sit through to get to the next action/special effects scene. While the outcome of the fight would decide the fates of billions of intelligent beings, it wasn’t presented with enough emotion or passion to make me care. It reminded me of the plot of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” which used a trade war and the imposition of tariffs to set the ball rolling toward what we get in Episodes IV-VI. At least in the Star Wars prequels, the trade war was actually a smoke screen for what was really happening under the surface. There is nothing under the surface of “Jupiter Ascending” other than the fight for control of the family business. It all seems very petty and trivial as the basis for a massive space opera. Another part of the story that didn’t work was the growing affection between Jupiter and Caine. While they are both very attractive people, their characters have no chemistry. The way her part is written, Jupiter acts more like a school girl with a crush on the quarterback than a woman truly falling in love. While Channing Tatum is very good in the action scenes and when he’s interacting with Jupiter and other characters to move the plot forward, he seems to not know what to do when Kunis is playing all lovey dovey. Their romantic interactions are more embarrassing than emotional.

Another problem with the film is the performance of Eddie Redmayne as Balem. While the characters of his brother and sister behave in a fairly normal way, Balem uses a husky, bored-sounding speaking style. I guess he’s supposed to be acting as if he’s above everyone else and making sure all know who the boss is. It comes off a bit creepy and silly. I’m sure Redmayne was doing what he was told to do by the Wachowski’s and probably agreed with the affected style of Balem’s speech and attitude; but it was taken way too far. Balem likes to punctuate his intentions by yelling at times to express his anger or impatience while the rest of the time he sounds like he’s about to run out of breath. It is an off-putting performance that sticks out like a sore thumb.

“Jupiter Ascending” is rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity. We see several people shot with ray guns. There is the occasional blood splatter when the aliens get hit. There is a long battle scene between Caine and a flying lizard creature that gets a tiny bit gory. There are a couple of fights between spaceships that are often incredibly fast moving. There is a scene where a woman is shown walking around in her bra and panties. We also get a brief glimpse of a naked backside. Foul language is widely scattered.

“Jupiter Ascending” is a feast for the eyes but a famine for the mind. It relies far too much on spectacular visuals and lets the story languish in a meaningless business struggle. Truly spectacular space dramas have to be rooted in some kind of easily understandable and emotionally charged story that could be told as a western, a war movie or any other genre. While MBA’s may enjoy the story, the rest of us will be stuck with what might have been.

“Jupiter Ascending” gets three stars out of five.

Three new movies offer a wide range of options for Valentine’s Day dates. I’ll see and review one and let you know if you should spend your cash to buy a ticket.

Fifty Shades of Grey—

Kingsman: The Secret Service—

Old Fashioned—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.