Screen Themes: The Martian and other movies about the Red Planet

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It’s time to indulge in an inter-galactic experience as entertainment editor John Turnbull takes us on a tour of the latest space movies.

The Martian (2015) — directed by Ridley Scott

On first appearances, The Martian looks like a bit of a dodgy prospect. It’s Castaway on Mars! It’s Gravity with a guy! It’s the space-based sequel to Saving Private Ryan! It’s directed by someone who seems determined to dig up their cinematic legacy and set it on fire!

Telling the story of astronaut and biologist Mark Watney, The Martian starts off with a somewhat confusing series of events that result in Watney being stranded alone on Mars as his crew make the journey back to Earth, thinking him dead. Rather than give up and die, Watney decides to “science the shit out of Mars”, while NASA discover his plight and work frantically to put in place a rescue plan.

Matt Damon is excellent in the role of Mark Watney, bringing the right combination of humour, determination and frustration to the role. In comparison to the similar character played by Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Watney seems like someone you’d actually want to spend time with, as opposed to a dramatic cypher just there to face problem after problem.

The supporting cast is also superb, with two distinct groups reacting to the crisis in different ways. Led by NASA director of operations Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the Earth-bound response team is comprised of passionate and highly competent scientists, including Sean Bean as flight director Mitch Henderson, Chiwetel Ejiofor and newcomer Mackenzie Davis playing a pair of engineers, and cast against type comedienne Kristen Wiig playing PR director Annie Montrose.

Jessica Chastain plays the captain of the mission that mistakenly abandoned Watney, bringing a level of emotion to the role that proves that she is one of the best actresses of her generation. Chastain is ably supported by Michael Pena (the scene-stealer from Ant Man), Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan, while Norwegian writer/director/actor Aksel Hennie shows that he has far more range than the bad guy roles he has been cast in to date.

While an Oscar nomination for Damon would not be surprising, the real star of The Martian is science. Author Andy Weir consulted extensively with the scientific community (including astrophysicists, astronauts, chemists and botanists) while he was writing The Martian, and as a result seemingly insurmountable problems are solved with real science. For the most part, The Martian avoids the “made up as we go along” feel that plagued the final act of Interstellar, where solid science was thrown out the window in favour of some quamtum time travel nonsense.

For viewers still carrying the mental scars from watching Promethius, be assured that The Martian is Ridley Scott at his Alien/Blade Runner/Black Hawk Down best. The film is beautifully shot, and moves along at a relatively brisk pace despite the 2 hour plus running time. There is also an unexpected vein of humour that runs through the film, notably in a scene where Sean Bean discusses the Council of Elrond from Lord of the Rings. Meta!

Overall, The Martian is an exceptional film, well-directed, well-acted, suspenseful and hugely enjoyable. Worth seeing on the big screen for the visuals, but will still play well on DVD due to the compelling story and performances.

Verdict: 9/10 — one of the best movies of the year

The Top 5 Movies About Mars not Starring Matt Damon

Total Recall (1990) directed by Paul Verhoven

Total Recall tells the story of common man Doug Quaid who is haunted by a recurring dream about Mars. When he visits a virtual travel service that implants memories of holidays, Quaid discovers that he is actually a secret agent fighting against the evil corporate stooge Cohaagen, played by a somewhat typecast Ronnie Cox. The action that follows verges on the ludicrous, but is held together by Arnie’s magnet screen presence and some great practical effects from SFX maestro Rob Bottin.

Released after Predator and Running Man but before Terminator 2, Total Recall marked a time when the Austrian Oak was becoming the biggest action star in the world, both literally and figuratively. He was bigger than Jen-Claude Van Damme, had more hair than Bruce Willis and was inexplicably easier to understand than Sylvester Stallone, despite his thick Austrian accent. All together now: “Get your ass to Mars!”  

Mars Attacks (1996) directed by Tim Burton

A love letter from Tim Burton to the space films of the 1950s, Mars Attacks is an odd movie to say the least. Starring a highly recognizable cast including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J Fox, Annette Benning and Danny DeVito, Mars Attacks is one of the few movies based on a Trading Card series.

A deeply polarizing movie, many viewers hated this film on initial release, turned off by the wooden acting, slapstick gags and dark humour, while others appreciated it for exactly the same reasons. Like many Tim Burton movies, Mars Attacks could fairly be classified as an interesting rather than a good movie, notable for its production design and camp sensibilities.

Red Planet (2000) directed by Anthony Hoffman

Released the same year as the batshit chazy Mission to Mars, Red Planet stars Val Kilmer, Carrie-Ann Moss and substance-aficionado Tom Sizemore as astronauts who travel to Mars with the aim of establishing a colony. Unsurprisingly, things go wrong.

With an old fashioned plot and some “screw logic” moments (Val Kilmer can breathe on Mars!) Red Planet bears some similarity to The Martian in that the protagonists use science to solve problems. Where it departs is the charm Matt Damon brought to the role, as Val Kilmer looked like he didn’t want to be there, Tom Sizemore often looks bleary eyed and confused, and only legendary thespian Terence Stamp is given dialogue that rises above the pedestrian.

Ghosts of Mars (2001) directed by John Carpenter

Set 200 years in the future, Ghosts of Mars tells the story of a team of Martian cops who discover that mining workers are being possessed by the ghosts of an ancient Martian civilization. The most recognizable star in Ghosts of Mars is a pre-fame Jason Statham, which suggests that the budget of this movie may not have been as high as John Carpenter wanted.

Also starring Natasha Henstridge (from Species. Remember her? No, me neither), rapper/actor Ice Cube and blaxpolitation favourite Pam Grier, Ghosts of Mars is far from a good film. The dialogue is awful, the special effects are rubbish and the plot is so confusing it may have been edited purely at random. Only for Mars completists.

John Carter (2012) directed by Andrew Stanton

Based on the classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter tells the story of a deserting civil was soldier who discovers a portal to Mars and becomes a key figure in the battle between good Martians and bad Martians. It stars Taylor Kitsch in the title role and Mark Strong as his nemesis, with the cast filled out with quality actors including Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Bryan Cranston and Ciaran Hinds. So what went so wrong? 

Known in some circles as the movie that almost killed Disney, John Carter is a not actually a terrible movie, but was killed by a series of poor studio decisions. The first problem was the title — the source material was called John Cater: Warlord of Mars. Why would you drop the most interesting part of the title? Another was the running time —rather than a tight 90 minute adventure, Wall-E director Stanton delivered a bloated 132 minute epic. The final nail in the coffin was the marketing, with the movie mis-targeted at little kids and advertising budgets cut to shreds after poor test screenings spooked studio heads. Good thing Marvel came along to save the day…

Like what you read? John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

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