Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

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Director: Peter Berg

Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Mike Williams), Kurt Russell (Jimmy “Mr Jimmy” Farrell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), John Malkovich (Vidrine), David Maldonado (Kuchta), Kate Hudson (Felicia), Dylan O’Brien (Caleb Holloway)

“Hope ain’t a tactic”: Director Peter Berg’s angry depiction of the well from hell sticks the knife into BP

Towards the end of Deepwater Horizon, based on the disastrous 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of survivors drop to their knees and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Upon the line “Deliver us from evil” the camera cuts to the rig, completely engulfed in flames, reminding us of a line spoken earlier: “This is the well from hell”. Indeed, the actual incident killed eleven workers, injured seventeen others and devasted marine life (210 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean).

I headed to the cinema with a certain degree of trepidation, concerned that this might in some way be an exploitative film that maximised thrills at the expense of reality. I never expect total accuracy from a cinematic dramatisation of real-life events – the demands of story-telling rarely allow that – but it is important that the broad picture is roughly accurate and, in the case of a tragedy like this one, is respectful to those who risked or lost their lives.

In any event, Deepwater Horizon struck me as deeply respectful to the plight of the riggers, though BP executives will no doubt feel they have been painted as pantomime villains (especially with Malkovich channelling his familiar evil side as BP representative, Vidrine). There isn’t much time for in-depth characterisation, but three people in particular are foregrounded to elicit our sympathies. The first of these is Michael Williams (Wahlberg), who we see in the opening scenes spending his last breakfast with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). The latter gives us a potted account of how oil is created, in the form of an essay written for school, and also demonstrates how drilling works, using a can of coke.

The second key figure is “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (Russell), a rugged no-nonsense figure of authority who has the last word on whether or not drilling can proceed. The third is Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez), the only woman that we see on the rig and whose sensible judgment when disaster strikes is overruled by a bullying male colleague.

The first hint of danger comes when the helicopter transporting workers to the rig experiences a birdstrike. Upon arrival at the free-floating Deepwater Horizon platform, Williams and Harrell are concerned to discover that the previous team have not conducted safety checks on the cement casing around the production equipment. BP’s representatives, Vidrine and Kuchta (Maldonado), blithely assert their confidence in the integrity of the cementing, on the basis of no evidence at all, and are obviously motivated by the fact that a planned experimental drilling operation is behind time and over budget. Harrell insists on a safety test, but when the results are somewhat ambiguous he allows himself to be pressurised into permitting drilling. This leads to a blowout in which methane escapes from the well and up the drillshaft, where it ignites on the platform.

The subsequent depictions of fire, explosions and desperate attempts to control the situation, whilst assisting the injured, are absolutely compelling. For those of us who have ever wondered what an oil rig disaster must be like, this imagining of such an event is a terrifying eye-opener. I was so swept up in events that it was only later that I realised that a considerable amount of CGI must have been involved. It doesn’t show.

If ever there was a picture of human vulnerability, it is surely Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell waking from unconsciousness, naked on the floor of what used to be a shower, half-blind, and his body peppered with glass. After being rescued by Williams, he himself resumes the direction of operations.

It is quite something that a Hollywood movie should so clearly stick the knife into a multi-billion dollar corporation, but that is exactly what Deepwater Horizon does to BP. And it does so without resorting to cliché. Director Peter Berg has chosen to tell this story in a straightforward unfussy way. It just happens to be one hell of a story.

Director: David Street

Country: UK, Spain, USA

Runtime: 104 mins

The Flying Scotsman rides again

Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree is a sporting figure of remarkable tenacity. The 2006 dramatic biopic The Flying Scotsman tells the story of how, despite psychological difficulties and run-ins with the cycling authorities, he twice broke the world one-hour distance record on a bicycle (“Old Faithful”) that he had constructed from scrap metal and parts of a washing machine.

David Street’s new documentary film, Battle Mountain, covers a subsequent period in Obree’s life and career after the cyclist decides to enter the World Human Powered Speed Championships. Adopting a filming strategy in which Obree is never asked to repeat any behaviours for the camera, Street observes as the Scot constructs a new bicycle, to be ridden prone-style, in his kitchen at home. Obree complains that people only remember him as a bloke that made a racing bike out of a washing machine (“It was only one part”, he says), yet is soon proudly cutting pieces out of a saucepan to make shoulder supports. There are some wonderfully comic moments, not least when Obree enlists his two sons to squeeze him between the living room wall and a piece of furniture in order to determine the width of the narrow aerodynamic shell that will encase his bike.

During the course of developing and testing the new machine Obree opens up about the psychological problems that he has faced in his life, partly explored in the earlier film, and the contributory factors, which have resulted in suicide attempts. In terms of his psychological well-being a lot appears to be at stake for Graeme in taking on the challenge of breaking the world speed record. However, things do not go smoothly. At one point during training he experiences an unfortunate side-effect from anti-depressant medication, leading to a hospital operation and an enforced period of recuperation.

But perhaps worse than this, the new bike – nicknamed “The Beastie” by Sir Chris Hoy – turns out to be highly unstable. Nonetheless, Obree persists through all the psychological, physical and technical difficulties and finds himself at the allocated location for the Championships – Battle Mountain in Nevada – in September of 2013. His psychologist, he opines, would not be pleased to know about the pressure he is putting himself under. For those who don’t already know the outcome I won’t spoil things by revealing what transpires, but suffice to say that you would need a heart of stone not to come away full of admiration for this most extraordinary of athletes. Battle Mountain is an enthralling, funny and ultimately joyous addition to the pantheon of against-the-odds sports stories.

Rating: 4/5

Speed Sisters

Director: Amber Fares

Country: Palestine, USA, Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada

Runtime: 80 mins

A high-octane documentary that offers thrills as it rides roughshod over stereotypes

Amber Fares’s thrilling high-octane documentary about the first all-female street car racing team in the Middle East begins with a statement of intent from the 19 year old reigning champion: “I want the whole world to know there is a girl called Marah Zahalqa who represents Palestine”. By the end of the film I felt like shouting not just Marah’s name in the street, but the names of all the other team members. They are Maysoon (the manager), Noor, Mona, and Marah’s closest challenger – Betty.

Speed Sisters follows these racers through two seasons of the street car championship, during which director Fares drives donuts over stereotypes about Palestinian women. In the conservative city of Jenin we see the young women walking around with their heads uncovered, long hair flowing. Marah’s father tells us he has always supported her ambition to race cars and has made sacrifices for her. When her grandfather says she ought to have a job that would get respect, such as being a doctor, dad points out that she is respected. He’s right, too. It’s not just the female audience at races that cheer on the women; the men are cheering for them as well. The biggest problem for the team is not the conservatism of Palestinian society, but the Israeli occupation.There are few places to practice and to get to race events the women must waste hours getting through checkpoints, sometimes with soldiers tear-gassing stone-throwing youths as the traffic passes through.

Towards the end of the first season some tension arises within the team after Betty is awarded a race win despite having infringed the rules. There is a suspicion that the racing authorities recognise the publicity value of her photogenic good looks and are trying to tilt the championship in her favour. Betty herself emphasises her femininity, getting herself prettified so as not to appear a “tomboy” and doing pouty photoshoots after getting a sponsorship deal. However, just when it appears that Betty might be turning into a sporting pantomime villain (rather like Tony Hawk in All This Mayhem), the occupation rears its ugly head and draws our sympathy back to Betty.

Whilst on the way to practice, the car carrying a few of the girls runs over a rock and they stop to check for possible damage. A hundred or so metres away there is a group of Israeli Defense Force soldiers. One of them, completely unprovoked, fires a tear gas canister which hits Betty in the back. This act, deliberate and cruel, is caught on camera for all to see. The girls speed away with Betty on the back seat, in pain and crying. The attack leaves a particularly nasty bruise, from which she recovers, but who knows what psychological scars might remain? On another occasion, one of the girls, upon smelling teargas, remarks that it reminds her of her childhood.

I don’t want to give away the results of the championship, but the rivalry between Betty and Marah continues until the last moment of the final race, and the final update before the credits tells us that the rivalry will continue into the next season.

Speed Sisters is troubling, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. This is the best documentary I have seen so far this year.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

Hooligan Sparrow

Director: Nanfu Wang

Writers: Mark Monroe and Nanfu Wang

Country: China / USA

Runtime: 83 mins

Feminist activists in China run up against the authorities as they try to expose corruption and child abuse

Nanfu Wang’s extraordinary debut documentary covers a story of horrific child sex abuse involving corrupt Chinese government officials. Wang’s reward for her effort is that she is now unsure whether she will be allowed entry back into China or, if she is, whether she will be allowed out again.

The story begins with the disappearance of six schoolchildren in the city of Wanning. They are discovered alive but traumatised. The girls, aged between 11 and 14, have been forced to have sex in a hotel with their school principal, Chen Zaipeng, and a government official from the housing department. It transpires that the children were given to the official as a bribe, something that is distressingly common in China.

The police initially try to deny that anything untoward has happened, but when a hotel security camera shows the children with their principal a new tactic is adopted. The principal’s story is that the two men paid the girls for sex, an important distinction in Chinese law. Paying children for sex is treated under child prostitution laws and carries a less severe penalty than rape.

Wang’s film follows a group of activists, led by Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow), as they call for justice. They begin by protesting outside the school, an act that clearly carries some risk. One onlooker notes that the women won’t be stopped from protesting, but that the police will come for them later. This turns out to be the case and the women find themselves, variously, imprisoned, harassed by demonstrators in the pay of the government, and run out of town.

After a campaign that becomes international, including the involvement of famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the women achieve a justice of sorts, albeit a rather inadequate justice. Many of those who stood up to the authorities are now paying a price. Wang Yu, the human rights lawyer who assisted the activists has been held without trial since July 2015 and the Chinese authorities announced in January this year that she will be prosecuted on charges of subversion, an offence that can carry a life sentence. Five feminist activists (Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong) were arbitrarily detained for over a month and are now on bail but under police surveillance.

This is a film that deserves to be seen.

#FreeWangYu

Shown at the Curzon Soho as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

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Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Screenplay: Emma Donaghue

Country: Ireland / Canada

Runtime: 118 mins

Cast: Brie Larson (Ma), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Sean Bridgers (Old Nick), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker)

A tender mother-son relationship is the focus of this tale of captivity and its aftermath

Recent years have brought to light several cases of women being kept captive by men, most notoriously in the case of the Austrian Josef Fritzl who kept his daughter captive in a basement for 24 years. She bore seven children as a result of his abuse.

In Room Emma Donaghue has adapted for the screen her own novel of the same name, which itself was inspired by the story of five-year old Felix in the Fritzl case. The film begins with young Jack (Jacob Tremblay) walking around a small room saying hello to various objects. It turns out to be the morning of his fifth birthday and his mother, Ma (Brie Larson), bakes him a cake. However, there are tears when Jack discovers there are no candles for the cake. Gradually, we discover that Jack and Ma are being held in captivity, and are living on basic rations supplied by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). He turns up in the evening and slips into Ma’s bed, whilst Jack sleeps in a cupboard.

To young Jack, however, their room is the whole world. He has never known a life outside and Ma has kept from him the truth about their situation. His only knowledge of anything external to the room is the sky, which is visible through a skylight, the sole window.

Eventually, Ma arranges an escape from their prison, but adjustment to a new life is not at all straightforward.

At the time the story starts, Ma has been led captive for seven years. Thankfully, perhaps, we are spared the details of her capture and of the abuse she has suffered.The focus of the story is on the mother-son relationship, both before and after captivity. This is beautifully depicted by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. The latter is in reality a few years older than the boy he plays, but has deservedly garnered awards and nominations for his portrayal of a child whose entire understanding of the world is suddenly turned upside down.

Brie Larson is likewise utterly convincing as a mother who will do anything to protect her child, but who then struggles to adjust once she has obtained the freedom she craves.

For most of us it is almost impossible to imagine the travails of someone who is kept in illegal captivity.  But with Room, Emma Donaghue and director Lenny Abrahamson have given us a glimpse into such a world. With its emphasis on the psychological effects of captivity and its aftermath, the film makes clear that the title word has connotations beyond its physical meaning.

Rating: 5/5

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Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire)

A brilliant performance from Johnny Depp is just one of the good things about this superb crime movie

In Black Mass Johnny Depp gives us the acting comeback that so many have been waiting for. Playing the real-life Irish-American crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp dons a bald-wig and puts any memory of his heart-throb good looks behind him. His portrayal of Bulger as a cold, ruthless psychopath is eerily convincing.

The story concerns an unholy alliance between Bulger and the FBI, both of whom have an interest in breaking the grip of the New England Mafia on Boston. FBI agent John Connolly is a childhood friend of Bulger and persuades the latter to become an informant, a decision that Bulger justifies to himself as a sensible business deal. However, the end result of this pairing is that Bulger’s empire grows,  as does the body count of his victims, whilst Connolly himself becomes compromised and corrupted. One wonders if there is a hidden message here for Western governments: doing business with your enemy’s enemy may not work out the way you were hoping.

Black Mass can’t avoid one or two genre stereotypes, notably when Bulger chews out a terrified looking colleague of Connolly’s, only to reveal that he was just putting him on. But in the main, a strong story, strong characterisation, and refusal to romanticise mobsters give this a sense of realism that makes it a cut above the average gangster movie.

Whilst Depp is superb, the script also allows the other performers to shine and there are strong performances from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch as brother Billy and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly.

Rating: 5/5

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Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Joy Mangano), Robert De Niro (Rudy), Bradley Cooper (Neil Walker), Edgar Ramirez (Tony), Isabella Rossellini (Trudy)

Jennifer Lawrence wipes the floor with the rest of the cast in this against-the-odds tale of a housewife-turned-entrepreneur

Hot on the heels of Carol comes another end-of-year title consisting only of a woman’s first name. Joy opens with the statement that the film has been inspired by true stories of daring women, and one woman in particular.That woman is Joy Mangano, an Italian-American who, in the 1990s, devised a “Miracle Mop” and made a lot of money selling it on the QVC home-shopping channel.

It isn’t clear how much fictional license  writer/director David O’Russell has taken with Joy’s story, but as told here it is a pretty gripping rollercoaster. An inventive child and valedictorian in her class at school, any aspirations Joy may have had have been crushed by family demands and a failed marriage. Her ex-husband, a failed musician, is still living in the basement two years after their divorce and is joined at the start of the film by Joy’s father Rudy, who has bailed out of another broken relationship. Her mother spends most of the day in bed watching soap operas.

Joy is constantly cleaning up after everybody. After an episode where she cuts her hands squeezing out a mop-head containing broken glass, she comes up with the idea for a mop that avoids any such inconvenience to the user. From this point on Joy has to battle a variety of forces ranged against her, from sceptical family members to unsympathetic corporate executives and corrupt business operatives. Just when you think Joy has made it, there always seems to be another knock-back.

If the real Joy Mangano only had to face half the battle depicted here, then I’m full of admiration for her. Perhaps other women will draw inspiration from this film, though I did find myself thinking that the business world appears to be so awful that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a part of it.

David Russell doesn’t present Joy as a linear narrative. The film opens with actors in a black-and-white soap opera delivering stilted dialogue and is followed by a flashback to Joy’s childhood, as narrated by her grandmother. References to TV soap operas recur throughout the film, explicitly linking the QVC channel’s marketing of Joy’s mop to the target audience. There are also dream sequences that tell us something about Joy’s hopes and fears.

Jennifer Lawrence gives another stellar performance as the title character. I particularly liked a scene in which she marches away from father Rudy’s auto business, a look of furious determination on her face, then picks up a rifle at the nearby shooting range and starts blasting away.

However, it must also be said that Russell’s script does not really give any of the other actors room to shine. Bradley Cooper does well enough as a top executive at QVC, but we never really feel we know him. And Robert De Niro is sadly wasted as Joy’s father. His role here is little more than a slightly more serious version of the father in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. De Niro’s opening scene requires him to angrily smash up some crockery, a largely pointless action that the film could easily have lived without.

In short, this is Lawrence’s film through and through, and whilst the other performers are completely overshadowed I nonetheless enjoyed this a lot.

Rating: 4/5

 

Director: Stephen Frears

Screenplay: John Hodge (from the book by David Walsh)

Country: UK / France

Runtime: 103 mins

Cast: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Dr Michele Ferrari), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman)

It’s not about the bike; it’s about the massive doping program

Based on the book by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, The Program is a gripping dramatisation of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour De France until those titles were stripped from him in 2012 following revelations about doping.

Walsh meets Armstrong early in his career, before the Texan starts winning races. A knowledgable sports writer, Walsh finds Armstrong to be likeable but judges him not to be capable of winning endurance races. This is an assessment that Armstrong himself receives from a team doctor, being told that his physique doesn’t provide an adequate power-to-weight ratio. When he starts winning races, Walsh is rightly suspicious, but his concerns are not shared by other journalists. Later, when Walsh really starts to rock the boat other journalists worry about their own privileges being taken away. “We’re all drinking soup from the same trough”, one tells him, to which Walsh responds “Didn’t you ever wonder why we have to drink soup from a trough?”

Armstrong undoubtedly suffered when he was being treated for testicular cancer. This is not a condition you would wish on anyone. Someone trying to find some good in Armstrong might point to the huge sums of money his charitable foundation subsequently raised to assist other cancer survivors. But he also used his foundation as a shield behind which to hide his doping activities. These did not just include his own personal drug use. Armstrong was responsible for setting up the entire doping program within the U.S. Postal team. Members of that team also bullied and intimidated other cyclists, as well as journalists, in order to prevent the truth being revealed.

Armstrong’s story is compelling enough, but the film benefits from the casting of Ben Foster in the lead role because he bears a distinct resemblance to the cyclist. It is quite spooky to watch as Foster’s Armstrong repeats to journalists his mantra that he has never failed a drugs test (a speech that he hones by saying it over and over to himself in the mirror). Appearance aside, Foster’s performance is excellent throughout. Chris O’Dowd brings a touch of humour to his portrayal of David Walsh, which provides a welcome contrast to the otherwise serious subject matter. John Hodges’ script and Frears’ direction ensures that the whole thing moves along at a good pace.

One thing that comes across very strongly in The Program is the willingness of so many people to believe in the myth of Armstrong the superhuman cancer survivor. Why do people have such a need to believe in heroes, especially when this leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous? But an even bigger question, perhaps more important than the issue of Armstrong’s cheating, is why so many journalists allowed themselves to be hoodwinked. Even when there were strong reasons to be suspicious of Armstrong many sports writers simply failed to ask the key questions. Of course, this is a failure that extends beyond sports writing, which is why it is so important.

Rating: 4/5

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Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenplay: Amy Jump

Country: UK

Runtime: 112 mins

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (Dr Robert Laing), Jeremy Irons (Anthony Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte Melville), Luke Evans (Richard Wilder), Keeley Hawes (Ann Royal), Reece Shearsmith (Nathan Steele)

A mordantly witty adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about a concrete apocalypse

Watching the opening scenes of High Rise, I found myself musing how film adaptations of a book one has previously read can change forever the way you envision the book. I can’t now read J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun without imagining Christian Bale and John Malkovich as the main characters. I also recall one contemporary reviewer expressing disappointment that the film’s depiction of drained swimming pools – one of the central motifs in many Ballard stories – just seemed a bit underwhelming when viewed on the big screen.

It will probably now be impossible to read High Rise without imagining Tom Hiddleston as physiologist Dr Robert Laing and Jeremy Irons as architect Anthony Royal. But I am delighted to report that Ben Wheatley’s film really brings to life the imagery and spirit of Ballard’s novel. More than anything, he brings to the fore the mordant wit of the book (something I recently discovered upon re-reading but missed entirely when I read it as a younger man).

The story begins with Laing cooking a dog on the balcony of his apartment, part of a luxury tower block complex that has somehow gone to wrack and ruin. Then we flash back to the early days of the building three months before in order to learn just how the concrete apocalypse has come about. The inhabitants are all middle class professionals, but even within this privileged group social divisions arise and are exacerbated as the building itself becomes increasingly dysfunctional. People don’t care about those two or more floors above or below them and, in particular, those on higher levels have greater disdain for those further below them.

In a dreamlike fashion (reminiscent of Wheatley’s earlier A Field in England) anti-social behaviour escalates, from people blocking the rubbish chutes with used nappies, to parties that get out of hand, through to outright violence. As food stocks run out living takes on the characteristics of an urban hunter-gather existence, with the stronger men vying to monopolise the female inhabitants. Where Ballard presciently satirised the behaviour of a group of proto-Thatcherites, Wheatley is more explicit about the political nature of the material. Following an uproarious party on the middle levels, Royal’s acolytes plan a grander party to show the others how it ought to be done. As one of them explains, competition is at the heart of a modern economy. They then decide that the first step in their party planning must be to commandeer all the resources, surely as pointed a commentary on the nature of capitalism as it’s possible to make? High Rise actually closes with an excerpt of a speech by Margaret Thatcher.

Tom Hiddleston is totally convincing as the canny survivor “hiding in plain sight” who, as with so many of Ballard’s protagonists, embraces the catastrophe around him. And Jeremy Irons is an inspired piece of casting as the patrician architect of the luxury apartment complex, who watches with fascinated amusement at the creation of a new kind of society within his decaying empire. From the men’s terrible moustaches to the cars in the parking lot, Ben Wheatley does a great job of depicting the mid-seventies whilst nonetheless making it seem like the dystopian near-future that Ballard first envisioned. And if it won’t be possible to read his novel in the same way again, the same will be true of Abba’s song S.O.S. which is featured at several points in the soundtrack.

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (novel)

Country: USA

Runtime: 141 mins

Cast: Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Melissa Lewis), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Vincent Kapoor)

Ridley Scott’s latest SF blockbuster is mildly diverting but don’t expect too much

Ridley Scott is responsible for some of cinema’s best-loved science fiction films, such as Blade Runner and Alien, as well as successful movies in other genres (Thelma and Louise). However, recent years have seen duds such as The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Does The Martian represent a return to form? Well, not quite, though it’s definitely an improvement of sorts.

The story follows the plight of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars, believed dead, after his crewmates abandon the planet to escape an oncoming storm. A botanist by training, Watney devises a way to extend his limited food supplies by growing potatoes on Mars’ barren surface, though he does remain suspiciously healthy for a man who spends months and years eating only spuds (albeit garnished with ketchup). When he eventually manages to mend his damaged communications he contacts NASA, who then have to figure out how to rescue him.

I enjoyed the early parts of the film best, as Watney patches up a wound  sustained in the storm and then sets about the business of surviving incommunicado on the inhospitable red planet. However, once NASA begin putting their rescue mission together disbelief becomes harder to suspend. The number of problems that arise and the increasingly far-fetched and risky solutions that are developed simply serves to remind us that we are watching a Hollywood blockbuster. All these critical problems are presumably a device to distract us from the story’s main shortcoming – we never seriously entertain the possibility that Watney won’t survive (I’m not even going to flag this up as a spoiler).

Although realism may be too much to ask of a SF movie set in the far future, nonetheless The Martian doesn’t even strive for psychological plausibility. Would Watney really be so relentlessly cheerful after months on a barren planet with no one to talk to? For most of the film we know nothing about his life. Does he have a wife? Children? Is there anyone he might be thinking about and anyone who might be worrying about him? Is there any particular reason for us to emotionally invest in this character other than that he seems like a generally ok guy?

Back at NASA big name actors are wasted in roles that are not fleshed out. Jeff Daniels is the Head of NASA who must push the organisation’s top brains to put together a rescue plan, whilst managing PR with a view to future funding. Sean Bean is the no-nonsense team leader for whom the rescue takes precedence over PR bullshit, even if it means breaking the rules. Even more cruelly wasted is Chiwetel Ojiofor as a boffin who must convince everyone that his mad ideas will work.

Despite these shortcomings, The Martian is diverting enough, especially if your expectations aren’t too high.

Rating: 3/5

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