REVIEW: “The Martian”

The Martian poster

Ridley Scott’s filmography has been pretty amazing. A quick scan shows it to be littered with cult classics, blockbuster favorites, and Oscar winners. But over the last several years many have hit Scott’s films pretty hard. Personally I have disagreed with the many. I loved the slower, character-driven approach to “Robin Hood”. I don’t think “Prometheus” was nearly as bad as many do. And despite its noticeable flaws, I thought “Exodus” was a pretty grand spectacle.

But now the 77 year-old Scott has once again caught the attention of his critics with “The Martian”, a brainy and somewhat observational  science fiction flick based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel. Scott has long enjoyed delving into the science fiction realm, yet with “The Martian” he has managed to create something unique. This entertaining mixture of striking visuals and patient, methodical narrative has little in common with Scott’s past sci-fi experiences. “The Martian” is a much different movie but it still spotlights Scott’s talents as a filmmaker even though it may not sit among his best.


“The Martian” plays out like some type of love letter to science and space exploration. There are A TON of science-heavy back-and-forths between the film’s large cast of characters and science is the centerpiece for nearly every scene. In many ways it was captivating to watch and listen to these people speak 10 light years over my head – bouncing around theories, equations, and analyzing data. At the same time it left two-thirds of the film feeling too emotionally dry. Drew Goddard’s script nails down the science but sometimes misses the human element.

The story hops into gear quickly when the Aries III Mars mission is hit by a brutal storm. They are forced to prematurely leave the surface and in the process astronaut and team botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed killed and left behind. Actually though, Mark miraculously survived and wakes up to find himself alone and stranded on the red planet. Armed with more scientific knowledge than a stack of college textbooks, Mark determines to use his science knowhow to survive. That starts by figuring out a way to communicate back to Earth.

For me Matt Damon is the epitome of the ‘reliable actor’. He is always solid and you know what you’re going to get. Here he handles his alone scenes well often talking to only himself of a computer screen. Many scenes require him to carry them ala Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”. He doesn’t exhibit the charisma or charm of Hanks but he more than gets the job done and you never doubt him or his predicaments.


The film’s second setting is on Earth. Upon discovering that Mark is alive, NASA sets out to find a feasible rescue plan. To accomplish this the movie introduces us to a host of characters many of which function solely to toss around their own scientific solutions. An interesting ensemble is put together for the NASA scenes. On the better side of the group is the rock-solid Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor. In much more curious casting, Kristen Wiig feels terribly out of place as NASA’s chief spokesperson. And while Jeff Daniels certainly wasn’t “bad”, he was a bit hard to believe as the “Head of NASA”.

But there is a third setting and I would argue that it contains the more compelling and entertaining characters. It takes place aboard the Hermes where Mark’s crew is making the long trip back to Earth after losing one of their own. Or so they think. It’s here that the film gives us a better mix of science and human emotion. The casting is also stronger featuring Jessica Chastain, a reserved Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie. I loved spending time with this group.


“The Martian” has wonderful visuals but not strictly in the way you might expect. There aren’t a lot of eye-popping visual spectacles. It’s more subtle and calculated, concentrating on gorgeous, slow-moving panoramic shots and unique, strategic camera angles that highlight the spectacular space settings. The storytelling is somewhat similar, at least until the last act. Most of the movie has the feel of a smaller more intimate picture despite its grand size and scale. I really appreciated that. It lasts right up until the finale. The ending felt much more studio polished and traditional.

Many people are heralding “The Martian” as a return to form for Ridley Scott. I would argue that he never lost his form but that is another discussion. Instead I’ll just say “The Martian” is another fine movie on a truly great filmmaker’s filmography. It’s not without its flaws. There is some questionable casting and some characters are woefully underdeveloped. Some of the humor doesn’t quite land (including a 70’s disco gag which never ends), and the ending was a bit too by-the-books. But none of these things keep “The Martian” from being a standout motion picture experience. It does several things we aren’t used to seeing from blockbustery type movies and it does them really well. And for me it is another reason why Ridley Scott remains a top-tier filmmaker.


4 Stars

REVIEW: “Cloverfield”

Cloverfield poster

Whenever I’ve heard people talk about the movie “Cloverfield” they usual use words such as “disappointing” or “mediocre”. In light of that my expectations for the film were pretty tepid. But “Cloverfield” had something else working against it. I’m not a fan of the handheld ‘found footage’ technique that at one point had become wildly popular. For me it only works in small doses and more often than not it turns out to be a liability. So here we are, five years after the film’s release and I’m giving it a shot.

I have to say that as a whole there’s not a lot to “Cloverfield”. It’s very cut-and-dry. It takes no real chances. It has practically no depth to it at all. Yet it’s completely honest. It’s committed to its simple but clear vision. It nicely captures that 1950’s sci-fi B-movie vibe. Most importantly I was with it from the opening government archives “credits” all the way through to its rip-roaring finale. Is it the greatest thing since sliced bread? No. But I enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than I anticipated.

As I mentioned, “Cloverfield” is filmed using the ‘found footage’ method which means that weak stomachs may end up a but queasy. It starts off calm enough. The first 15 minutes or so of its tight 85 minute runtime is spent at a party introducing us to the central characters. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is preparing to move to Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) plan the surprise going away party in their New York City apartment. “Hud” (T.J. Miller) is tasked with “documenting” the party on video. And then there’s Beth (Odette Yustman), a girl that Rob has a tricky romantic relationship with. That’s really all you need to know about any of these characters and we get it all in the first few minutes of the film.

The movie picks up when the party is interrupted by a huge tremor. The first reaction is that it’s an earthquake but we quickly learn that’s not the case. I won’t go into heavy detail but let me just say that the huge old school creature feature fan in me was pretty excited. I think this is where the movie fell short for some people. This is clearly a classic tip of the hat to the big monster pictures of the mid to late 1950’s mixed with a popular modern filmmaking technique. Your enjoyment of “Cloverfield” will probably depend on how much that interests you or how much of it you can buy into.


Director Matt Reaves and writer Drew Goddard borrow from several older movies. My favorite are the television
newscasts taken straight from George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. It’s here that we and the characters first learn about the deadly threat facing New York City. Things only get worse as the filmmakers throw us right down into the middle of the city in chaos. We’re take along with our main characters in what turns out to be a survival horror/science fiction. It’s simple but it’s at times exhilarating and it’s clever in its execution. The special effects are a blast and we get them in carefully measured doses. I also thought the performances were serviceable with the exception of T.J. Miller whose line reading is never all that convincing. He has an occasionally funny line but he’s mainly just your run-of-the-mill doofus.

There are a few other things that keep this from being a full-blown gem. There isn’t one hint of explanation in terms of the creature’s origin or makeup. It simply pops up downtown and the rest is catastrophic history. Now this was clearly intentional and it wasn’t a huge deal for me. But I still couldn’t help wanting to know more about this threat. Also, while the hand-held camera was more effective than in most films that have employed it, it’s still not my first choice for how I want to watch a movie. It’s also worth noting that “Cloverfield” was a really fun experience the first time through but it doesn’t seem to be the kind of movie that would have near the same effect the next time around.

Yet still I have to say I was surprised with this movie. I don’t agree with the common criticisms and I found myself thoroughly entertained. With its short running time it doesn’t overstay its welcome and it’s never misleading or pretentious. Sure it has some throw-away characters and you never get as much information as you would like. But it’s still a fun and well-made return to the monster movie genre that I still love to this day. In other words it delivered for me. I’m not saying it will have a long-lasting impact, but for 85 minutes I was glued to the screen and I soaked up every bit of what I was seeing.



I love a good horror movie. But there’s no denying that the horror genre has been struggling and just isn’t as strong as it used to be. Well leave it to Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard to take the genre, turn it on its head, and give it a good shake. Their film “The Cabin in the Woods” is far from conventional even though it certainly starts that way. But the fact is Whedon and Goddard are setting up the audience for what turns out to be a horror comedy that ranges from satirical to a full-blown critique of what the horror genre has become. Goddard directs, Whedon produces, and both write this bit of welcomed freshness that isn’t a perfect film but it certainly works on many levels.

It’s impossible to watch “The Cabin in the Woods” without seeing tips of the hat to several horror movie classics. You’ll also quickly recognize many of the same tropes and devices used in the genre for years. Whedon and Goddard dabble in the familiar territory of slasher movies, zombie flicks, ghost stories, torture porn, and even creature features. But its simply impossible to go into much detail without spoiling the film. Let’s just say that all of these ingredients fit very well into what “The Cabin in the Woods” is trying to do. And trust me, you’ll start out in very familiar territory but things quickly change as the story progresses.

Tell me if you’ve heard this before: five college friends set out to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of partying and frolicking. We have the big jock (Chris Hemsworth), the sultry blonde (Anna Hutchison), the studious good guy (Jesse Williams), the dope head (Fran Kranz), and the straight-laced, level-headed heroine (Kristen Connolly). These are all characters we’ve seen over and over in horror films. But here they are used intentionally and with good reason. Obviously their little getaway isn’t going to end well and we get little hints of that along the way. As things begin to go bad, we see these characters making some of the same bone-headed decisions that they always make in these pictures. But the bigger difference here is with the consequences and more specifically who’s behind them. That’s as far as I’m willing to go in describing the story. It’s best to go into the film simply knowing that there is more to it than what you’re introduced to. Just know that things go nuts in the final act and the audience, especially horror fans, will find it an entertaining challenge to process all that we are given.

But the movie does have a few issues that keep it from being a great film. The most glaring issue for me was with the gaping plot holes scattered throughout the story. There were instances where the film changed course while leaving unfinished business behind . There are also a couple of times where certain characters drop off the map. I know I’m being incredibly vague here for fear of spoiling things, but let’s just say the story requires you to sometimes brush aside what seems like useful information. The ending also requires a very abrupt acceptance of what you’re seeing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s lots of fun and it will have you wanting to watch the movie again. But it’s so out-of-the-blue that when the credits start to roll you have to accept what you’ve seen and just go with it.

I didn’t mention one of “The Cabin in the Woods” strongest features – it’s humor. There are some really funny moments in this picture and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. On the flip side, the movie isn’t scary at all which I found to be a bit disappointing. But then I asked myself if Whedon and Goddard cared if it was scary or not. In the end, this is one part homage and one part critique of a genre that has seen better days. Looking at the movie from that perspective makes it a very satisfying horror experience. And even though it stumbles with its storytelling in a few places, the undeniable freshness, good humor, and blood-soaked final act make it all worthwhile.