Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor
** out of *****
Overrated hack Ridley Scott has made a handful of moderately passable pictures since Alien, his 1979 horror-in-space masterpiece. Any tepid accolades I might allow for The Martian, however, are little more than back-handed compliments. The best thing I can say about the picture is that it’s watchable; the finest work Scott has wrenched out of his rectum since the miraculous aforementioned fluke.
By now, most viewers will know that The Martian details a manned mission to Mars in which one astronaut (a cute, hunky and plucky Matt Damon) is left behind for dead, only he’s most assuredly alive and needs to muster all his scientific know-how to survive until a rescue mission can be launched. And that’s pretty much it. One man alone against the Angry Red Planet.
Based on the popular novel by Andy Weir and decently scripted by Drew Goddard, the film-on-paper must have seemed a sure-fire science-fiction survival tale with relatively distinctive characters, both in the rescue ship and back on Earth at NASA, plus a lot of great monologue-style dialogue for Damon to utter as the stranded astronaut.
The film conjures memories of Byron Haskin’s (The War of the Worlds, From the Earth to the Moon, Conquest of Space) modest, but terrific 1964 survival adventure Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The memories Ridley Scott’s film will eventually inspire are mostly how good Haskin’s film was and how woefully overblown and occasionally dull The Martian is.
We know from the beginning that yummy Matt is not going to die and that good, old-fashioned American bravery and know-how is going to save the day. The ride to get to this predictable conclusion is mildly diverting at best. Buried beneath its layers of fat is a much snappier, pulpier movie wanting to burst forth like the parasitical penis-creature that exploded from within John Hurt’s chest in Alien.
I’ve always wondered what happened to the Ridley Scott of that 1979 classic.
One of the lesser known film adaptations of Stanislaw Lem’s work is Hungarian director Pater Sparrow’s 1 (2009), based on Lem’s One Human Minute, a collection of three apocryphal essays with the title piece written in the form of a review of an imaginary book of statistical data, a numeric compilation of everything that happens to human life within any given 60-second period.
1 is currently only available on Spanish Region 2 DVD (in Hungarian with Spanish subtitles) from CineBinario Films but can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.
For more information on Babak Ganjei, please visit his website. His graphic novel adaptation of Patrick Swayze’s Road House can be found in all good comic shops.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan
Scarlett Johansson is an alien. I first noticed her as the gawky teenaged misfit in Ghost World then as the object of Billy Bob Thornton’s chaste affections in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Of late her programme of world domination has involved a brief creative partnership with Woody Allen, a number of odd bathroom mirror selfies, a spunky anti-Paltrow fixture in the superhero maxi-franchise The Avengers and interminable and politically suspect adverts for SodaStream. And yet in the midst of the busy vortex of a career that is in danger of spiralling into the celebrity stratosphere, there are still these playful excursions into art-house territory. Earlier this year she voiced Samantha – taking over from Samantha Morton – in Spike Jonze’s Her, a silky Siri whose initial PA/best friend with booty call benefits becomes the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s metrosexual affections. The flimsy elevator pitch premise is imbued with something more, partly because of the shift of focus in the third act to Johansson’s rapidly developing persona. In a coy joke, Samantha begins as a happy female slave – a Jeeves to Phoenix’s Bertie – but as she learns and communes with her own kind this intimacy, which a star of Johansson’s magnitude trades in, is superseded by the altitude she is soaring. This trajectory could be matched by an audience member who recalls her best friend role in Ghost World but now sadly recognises her unattainable ascension in the current culture.
If Jonze’s film is a more-in-sadness-than-anger meditation on the revenge of ineffable female glamour, then Under the Skin features a nightmare retelling of the same star quality. Here Johansson is a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van searching for young men who will not be missed. The cold and unattractive grit of the setting and the impenetrable accents contrast with Johansson’s apparently vulnerable slumming. Playing against her glamour, she adopts a BBC Radio One English rather than utterly other-worldly American and sports a fur coat and a mop of dark brown hair. And yet she is warm and inviting, friendly, unthreatening and fatally attractive. It is once trapped that she can apply her mesmerizing charm, tempting her victims to their doom.
In his first film in a decade, Jonathan Glazer has produced a darkly fascinating work of art. A Roegish trip, the film is an intense abstract horror story. Time and again our sympathy for and fascination of Johansson are manipulated and provoked. Even as we are aware of her antagonistic role and essential vicious otherness, we can’t help but feel for her as she falls over in the street, or is bustled into a nightclub. She is – after all – Scarlett Johansson. She is the misogynist’s wet dream: a bewitching femme fatale, a destroyer of young men, venereal disease made flesh, a prick tease whose ultimate punishment fulfils an atavistic nastiness the film doesn’t shy away from. Sexiness is the opposite of sex, becoming, like Oscar Wilde’s cigarette, the perfect pleasure by being utterly unsatisfying (and incapable of satisfaction).
And yet as Glazer’s underrated Birth explored the obsidian angles of a woman grieving, so Under the Skin escapes the vegetarian parable of the original novel and becomes an utterly beguiling retracing of the word glamour back to its witchy origins.
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Melanié Thierry, David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton
UK, Romania 2013
Christolph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a black-clad man in a day-glo world – a loud, irritating future of intrusive technology and automated intimacy. Not that he wants intimacy. He just wants to be left alone at the fire-damaged church he calls home, where he is hoping to receive a phone call that will explain his existence. After a strange encounter with the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) at a party held by his boss (David Thewlis), he is granted his wish to work from home, as long as he works on a hush-hush project, an attempt to assemble a computer model of an insanely complex equation. He makes better progress than most in a task that has driven others to despair, but still begins to lose his mind under the pressure. A therapy programme (Tilda Swinton) proves unhelpful, so sexy Melanie Thierry, as a kind of virtual call girl, and a teenage wizkid (Lucas Hedges), are brought in to keep him working, turning his ordered and isolated life upside down in the process.
The Zero Theorem is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 21 July 2014.
Terry Gilliam’s latest is restless in its own skin, feeling like a hugely absurdist science-fiction satire trying to fight its way out of a five-hander play, or an intimate study of modern madness lost in an overactive hyperkinetic playground. The Zero Theorem takes you to the edge of a black hole, and the beach of a tropical island at permanent sunset, but still feels claustrophobic. Where the likes of Minority Report are thematically dystopian, but fetishise the gleaming technology, Gilliam has a cartoonist’s eye for bullshit: the street advertisements in his lousy future address passers-by as the wrong sex, the pizzas sing annoying ditties, and digital communications are a great new way to not listen to each other. As you would expect from this director, the environmental detailing, the sheer visual exuberance, is something to behold. I heard ripples of delight spread around me at the screening from some shots, but this is, essentially, a beautiful boat without a goddamn motor. The earlier, kandy-koloured-Kafka scenes evoke a sense of stress and alienation many people in 2013 will be familiar with, but for the most part Leth’s problems, his goals and desires, are just too abstract and peculiar for easy identification (especially when he’s determinedly throwing off the advances of Thierry). Elements of the OTT visual dynamic obscure the storytelling. Forward momentum drops away, and the suspicion begins to grow that nobody knows where this is going or how to satisfactorily end it. It’s a film with many incidental pleasures, but little purpose. A downbeat, pretty, befuddled mess.
This review was first published as part of our LFF 2013 coverage.
Writers: David Loughery, Chuck Russell, Joseph Ruben
Based on the play by: Kenneth G. Ross
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Max von Sydow, Kate Capshaw, David Patrick Kelly, Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert
A few months before Freddy Krueger began stalking the sleep of American teens in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and almost three decades before Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape used the world of dreams as a battleground. Where A Nightmare on Elm Street subverted the slasher genre and Inception was an inverted heist movie, Dreamscape was a sci-fi thriller in which the very future of the planet was at stake. Very loosely based on a treatment author Roger Zelazny wrote of his novel The Dream Master (1966), Dreamscape touched on an issue very much in people’s minds at the time. With fears of the possibility of nuclear Armageddon at their height, Ruben’s movie posited a scenario in which a trained dream-assassin would murder the president in his sleep, thus killing him in real life and halting his plans to bring nuclear proliferation to a halt.
Shady government agencies, compromised scientists and powerful psychics scheme, betray and fight in both the real and dream worlds. Dennis Quaid’s Alex Gardner, an affable but wayward psychic, is coerced into assisting on what is ostensibly a government-funded project to cure people of their nightmares. The programme’s star pupil and covert dream-assassin, Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly) – brash, egotistical and deeply troubled – is the Yang to Gardner’s Yin. Glatman’s damaged psyche makes him a dangerous weapon, easily able to terrorize the minds of those around him. Kelly gives a memorable performance as the proto-Krueger; turning dreams to nightmares, shape-shifting and even sporting blades for fingernails at one point. Gardner, by contrast, reconnects with his conscience and moral values as he is charged with stopping Glatman from carrying out his mission. The equally apposite, and equally manipulative, figures of Doctor Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) and the project’s overseer, CIA operative Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), are the older reflections of Gardner’s naïve protégé and Glatman’s malleable prodigy. While Novotny wants to use the psychic’s abilities as a force for good, Blair’s crooked agent is bent on stopping the President’s plans, believing they will hand the initiative in the Cold War to the Russians.
Blending action movie tropes with horror movie imagery into a science fiction narrative written as a thriller gave Dreamscape a fresh feel and cross-genre appeal. Visions of monsters conjured up in the imaginations of psychologically scarred children, and post-nuclear wastelands in the president’s tortured mind, are as fittingly nightmarish as could be realised on screen by special effects teams at the time. The theme of dream and inner worlds, alternate realities and what-if scenarios seen in many later science fiction and horror movies, from Brainstorm to Source Code, Dream Demon to From Beyond, proved an enduring and endlessly recyclable one. The fact that the ‘enemy’ in Dreamscape comes from within, literally and figuratively, leaves the viewer in no doubt that Ruben and screenwriters David Loughery and Chuck Russell understand that sometimes those guarding our safety can do as much to endanger it as any perceived external threat. That the president is seen as a figurehead to be maneuvered and toyed with marionette-like by those agencies also speaks volumes for their views on the true locations of the power bases in American politics.
Somewhat under-appreciated, possibly due to a superfluous romantic sub-plot involving Gardner and Kate Capshaw’s research assistant Jane DeVries, Dreamscape nonetheless remains an important step on the evolutionary road for science fiction cinema. Alien, Blade Runner and the Star Wars franchise may be the era’s science fiction titans, but Dreamscape, along with Brainstorm, deserves more recognition for delving into inner rather than outer space in its futuristic what-if narrative.
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