The Martian

For F*** Magazine

THE MARTIAN

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong
Genre : Sci-Fi/Adventure
Run Time : 142 mins
Opens : 1 October 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Disturbing Scenes)

Someone alert David Bowie – there is life on Mars after all. It comes in the form of astronaut Mark Watney (Damon), who is stranded on the planet after being presumed dead when a sandstorm strikes his crew. The rest of the Ares III astronauts, Lewis (Chastain), Martinez (Peña), Johanssen (Mara), Beck (Stan) and Vogel (Hennie) are bound for home, unaware that Watney is still alive. Watney is left to fend for himself, drawing on every ounce of resourcefulness as he makes the most out of extremely limited supplies, eking out an existence on Mars. Back on earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Daniels), Mars missions director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), public relations manager Annie Montrose (Wiig), Jet Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng (Wong) and others labour over devising a rescue plan once they discover Watney did not die as they had believed. In the face of sheer adversity, the “Martian” must survive and work towards finally coming home. 
The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, which was lauded for being thoroughly researched. There exists a scale, albeit a subjective one, of science fiction “hardness”, with something like Guardians of the Galaxy on the “soft” side and 2001: A Space Odyssey on the “hard” side. The Martian is a rare big-budget Hollywood hard sci-fi film and it emerges triumphant. Director Ridley Scott hasn’t had a spotless track record, coming off last year’s below-average Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings. His previous sci-fi film, 2012’s Prometheus, proved hugely divisive. With most of the key crew from Prometheus including director of photography Dariusz Wolski, editor Pietro Scalia, production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates returning, Scott has managed to more than redeem himself. 
The Martian boasts a sweeping, epic majesty juxtaposed with the intimate tale of one man’s survival. Jordan’s Wadi Rum seems to have made a steady career doubling for the fourth planet from the sun in films like Mission to Mars, Red Planet, The Last Days on Mars and this one. While everything does look a little too slick and Hollywood-ised, there’s still a sense of authenticity, the harsh environs and the sheer remoteness of the Martian landscape driving home how slim Watney’s chances of making it out alive are. Real-life NASA staffers must be drooling at seeing manned Mars missions depicted so gloriously on the big screen, given how bureaucracy, a lack of funds and myriad other obstacles stand in the way of this actually being realized. The 3D effects are superb, most noticeably when we get to see astronauts floating through the long hallways of their spacecraft and in the exterior shots of the detailed and realistic Hermes ship drifting through space. 
Screenwriter Drew Goddard adapted Weir’s novel for the screen, and on paper, The Martian certainly sounds like it could be boring, with too many finicky technical details potentially holding the viewer at arm’s length. A good portion of the story unfolds in voice-overs that are packed with scientific exposition, but there is just as much showing as there is telling and the script is light enough on its feet, not getting weighed down by the “boring stuff”. This is a film that celebrates and champions science, all of its characters being the best and brightest. It’s also an extremely human survival story that almost defiantly refuses to spiral into mawkish sentimentality, while still hitting many emotional beats. Perhaps most surprisingly, The Martian is extremely funny. There are stakes and dire straits, but the tone is pleasantly upbeat and optimistic throughout. Sean Bean even gets to make a Lord of the Rings reference, sending many audience members in this reviewer’s screening howling with laughter. 
The Martian has been described as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, and both films happen to star Tom Hanks. Here, Damon exudes an irresistible likeability that gives even Hanks a run for his money. Watney’s indomitable spirit and how he keeps his sense of humour intact throughout his ordeal keep us keen in seeing him alive. We cheer each instance in which his MacGyvering succeeds and wince whenever he’s hit by another setback. “Mars will come to fear my botany powers,” Watney jokingly proclaims as he sets about growing potatoes. Naturally, there are moments of introspection in which Watney considers the magnitude of his plight, and Damon is able to play those moments earnestly and compellingly. 
While the film is squarely Damon’s to carry, Scott has assembled a robust supporting cast to back him up. Cheesy as it sounds, there is something inspiring about seeing so many people put their heads together in working towards a common goal. Chastain proudly carries on the tradition of capable female characters in Ridley Scott movies, her Commander Melissa Lewis steely yet calm, a natural leader with an amusing penchant for 70s disco music. As NASA director Teddy Sanders, Daniels is the hard-nosed, pragmatic bureaucrat, but in his hands, the character does not become the stereotypical authority figure who’s standing in everyone’s way. Ejiofor does his share of hand-wringing, but it makes sense given the immense pressure on his character. Wiig is fine in a role that is not overtly comedic, though her presence at Mission Control might be distracting to those familiar with her prolific comedic exploits. 
There are places where the film falls back on formulaic genre trappings: the pilot Martinez tells engineer Johanssen to explain something “in English”; there are many scenes where characters take objects like pens and salt shakers and use them as stand-ins for spacecraft and planets in demonstrating manoeuvres and Donald Glover shows up as a hyperactive genius prone to Eureka moments. That said, it is remarkable just how refreshing The Martian is. In this day and age, it seems everything has been done before, especially in big sci-fi blockbusters. That The Martian manages to be so unique and engaging is certainly commendable. In telling the story of the efforts to bring Mark Watney home, Scott has hit a home run. 
Summary: A thrilling, surprisingly funny survival film with a grounding in actual science, The Martian features one of Matt Damon’s most charming performances to date and is a joyous ode to the merits of ingenuity and perseverance. 
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Fantastic Four

For F*** Magazine

FANTASTIC FOUR

Director : Josh Trank
Cast : Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Tim Blake Nelson, Reg E. Cathey
Genre : Comics/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 6 August 2015
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

Change is coming, whether we like it or not, with Marvel’s original superhero team getting a do-over in this reboot. Reed Richards (Teller) is a brilliant young misfit who has spent most of his life tinkering away on a teleportation device. Nobody really gets him, except for his best friend Ben Grimm (Bell). Dr. Franklin Storm (Cathey) sees the potential in Reed and awards him a scholarship to the Baxter Institute. There, he gets to work alongside Dr. Storm’s daughter Sue (Mara) and disgruntled genius Victor Von Doom (Kebbell) on a scaled-up version of his experiment. Dr. Storm enlists his hot-headed son Johnny (Jordan) to help out. Together, they crack the code to inter-dimensional travel. A journey to the alternate dimension, code-named “Planet Zero”, alters their physical forms in unfathomable ways. Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben must learn to use their newfound abilities for good and defend the earth from Victor, who has become the monstrous villain Doom.

The first two theatrically-released Fantastic Four movies are generally regarded as goofy, disposable fluff – silly and cringe-worthy but not outright disasters. Therefore, it makes sense that director Josh Trank of Chronicle fame wanted to steer the Fantastic Four in a more credible direction. Here’s the thing: the Fantastic Four are inherently goofy – and that’s fine! They’re a dysfunctional sitcom family with superpowers and it’s right there in the title – “fantastic”. This take seems to want to be as mundane as possible. We’ve arrived at a point where comic book movies no longer need to be embarrassed of their roots, and films of this subgenre have achieved considerable success by embracing the source material and being smart with how they go about adapting the comics. Fantastic Four tries to reject the silliness but becomes all the sillier in spite of this. This is not an uneventful film, but it feels like one. It lacks the crucial element of escapism and entertainment a movie of this kind needs, the buzz-words of “serious” and “grounded” be damned.

What is even more frustrating is that the film does not fall flat on its face in abject failure. There are aspects that work and that are intriguing. The screenplay by Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater and Trank is formulaic, but attempts to give its titular characters a fair bit of character development and have them become more than cartoon characters. Unfortunately, all the exposition makes this seem tedious rather than credible. Also, the visuals are extremely underwhelming. Following the logic that the team’s outfits are “containment suits” rather than superhero costumes, they look very dull. Reed’s suit is supposed to have a homemade feel to it, but that doesn’t make the slinkies on his arms and legs any less ridiculous. Planet Zero feels like a walk-through attraction at a theme park rather than an immersive, treacherous landscape. The Thing doesn’t wear pants. We’ve all heard the jokes, but it does seem like it would’ve been really easy for Trank to avoid the ridicule aimed at this aspect by just giving him pants. Dr. Doom probably suffers the most, looking like he’s covered in glowing gangrene and sporting a comically oversized hood. Many people have left the theatre after a superhero film thinking it would be really cool to own a collectible figure or statue of the characters as they appear in that film. It’s safe to say pretty much nobody will leave Fantastic Four thinking that.

One of the biggest aspects of this reboot that fans seized on was the cast. Nobody really resembled their comic book counterparts and on the whole, everyone just looked too young. To this reviewer’s surprise, the cast wasn’t too much of an issue. As an origin tale, perhaps it doesn’t hurt that they’re all a little younger. It may be a serious take on the whole, but there are still nice moments of levity when the team members are together. Miles Teller’s Reed is appropriately awkward and nerdy, just like Reed is in the comics. Kate Mara makes for a far more credible scientist than Jessica Alba did. The change of Johnny Storm’s ethnicity really wasn’t much of a sticking point for this reviewer, beyond feeling like an alteration merely for the sake of political correctness. Michael B. Jordan’s Johnny is impulsive and showy, but not to an annoying extent.

The casting that really doesn’t work is Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm. We can’t wrap our heads around how anyone looked at Billy Elliot/Tintin and said “there’s our resident big guy”. Apparently, he was cast because he’s the physical opposite of The Thing, which is kind of missing the point of the character, but that’s not Bell’s fault. Reg E. Cathey, a younger and more affordable Morgan Freeman, is a competent Obi-Wan-style mentor figure. Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom barely makes an impact, which is a shame considering how compelling a villain he was as Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Marvel Studios has been churning out superhero blockbusters that have generally been well-received by both fans and critics and have managed to be upbeat on the whole while still packing in sufficient emotion and some depth. Fox wants to hang on to the film rights for the Fantastic Four – that’s the primary purpose this film was made and nobody is going to be fooled into thinking otherwise. We all know it – the property would be handled better at Marvel/Disney. It’s been said before but it bears repeating: The Incredibles is likely the best Fantastic Four movie we’re ever going to get. To go a little more recent, Big Hero 6 did the “science-loving pals become a superhero team” thing with more panache as well. This version is not terribly made, it has its moments and the cast does have pleasant chemistry with one another, but it’s still very much a disappointment.

Summary: This take on the Fantastic Four wants desperately to be regarded seriously, and for the most part, fails. That should’ve been a four-gone conclusion.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong