The Martian

Is there such a thing as too much comic relief? Yes, and The Martian is plagued by it.

The Martian has a heck of a story. A NASA mission to Mars chooses to begin its journey home to Earth hurriedly as a giant storm stirs on the red planet. One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is blown away by the high winds and left for dead as the others blast off for home.

But, wait! Watney’s not quite dead. He heads back into the Mars mission habitat the next day and evaluates his chances of surviving until the next NASA Mars mission occurs. He constructs an indoor potato farm to provide an ongoing food source and makes other accommodations to stay alive.

Meanwhile, the NASA crew in Houston (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover and others) eulogizes Watney but soon realizes that he is still alive. Watney manages to communicate, crudely at first, with the crew back on Earth.

As the other members of the departed Mars crew (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara) hurdle through space on the long journey home, they learn that Watney is alive and that he does not blame them for abandoning him.

Will Watney stay alive? Will NASA rescue him? Will NASA send him food and supplies? Will NASA move up the next scheduled MARS mission? How will Mark Watney’s story end? The tension builds. But each time it begins to crescendo, here comes the comic relief.

The funny stuff IS amusing. But it lightens the mood a bit too much, in my opinion. (This was an issue with 2013’s Gravity where George Clooney’s jokey character seemed more like the real-life Clooney than a believable astronaut. In 2000’s Cast Away, a similarly stranded Tom Hanks had some lighter moments—notably with a volleyball—but the underlying peril level was maintained throughout his ordeal.)

The Martian looks great, particularly in 3D. It is directed by one of our best directors, Ridley Scott. Matt Damon, as usual, is solid in the title role. The script is by Drew Goddard from the popular novel by Andy Weir. (That’s the one that started in 2011 with the author sharing one chapter at a time online, followed by a Kindle version, followed by publication in hardcover last year.)

The Martian comes close to being a home run, but doesn’t quite clear the fence. It’s a solid three-bagger, however, and that is not a bad thing. (Baseball is on our minds these days here in St. Louis.)

Interstellar

 

“Time is a flat circle,” said Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle in TV’s True Detective last winter. In Interstellar, McConaughey’s character Cooper is concerned with time, space, gravity, wormholes, black holes, extra dimensions as well as family and love. It’s a sci-fi fantasy filled with suspenseful adventure, memorable spectacular effects and heartfelt philosophizing about the fate of our species.

Director Christopher Nolan’s newest movie is big, loud and ambitious. In an IMAX theater, with speakers aplenty, you almost feel the G forces of Interstellar‘s space travel scenes. Hans Zimmer’s score is not shy about bringing emotion and volume. The composer is a certain Oscar nominee.

Cooper is a widower with 2 kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Their welfare is his #1 concern. He’s a former astronaut, now working as a farmer in a Kansas-looking flatland. (Plains scenes were shot in Alberta.) Dust storms—not unlike dustbowl storms of the 1930s—have ruined all crops on earth, save corn. The planet is in big trouble.

When mystical happenings occur, young Murphy suspects ghosts. Her dad suspects something more physical. Magnetism, gravitation anomalies or other forces lead him to a hidden fortress in the mountains where he finds… NASA!

The population has become so disenchanted with the U.S. space program that history books have been revised to tell of moon landings that were staged in an effort to bankrupt the Russians. So, NASA has gone underground, literally.

In short order, Cooper’s former boss Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) recruits him to fly a mission to Saturn where a wormhole appeared a few decades back. Earlier brave astronauts made it to the other side of the wormhole; Cooper and crew are charged with bursting through, checking on the prior travelers and determining if three particular worlds in that new dimension are suitable for sustaining human existence. Is their mission to save their own families or to save the species?

Cooper’s crew includes Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Dr. Brand’s daughter, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). After 2 years of travel, they touch down in shallow water on a new planet. Shortly after exploration begins, an enormous wave approaches, leading to a harrowing escape. They go off to a new, very cold planet where they find Dr. Mann (Matt Damon in an uncredited role) in suspended animation. Events there lead to another hasty exit.

Interstellar’s final act involves many back-and-forth cuts between events in space and those on earth. Our heroes have not aged significantly during their time in space, but back home, Cooper’s kids have become adults (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck). The earth continues to be ravaged by dust storms. Meanwhile, beyond the wormhole, Cooper and crew work to define and to achieve satisfactory results.

Nolan’s Interstellar (co-written by the director and his brother Jonathon AKA Jonah Nolan) is a gigantic movie, clocking in at 2:45. It is efficiently made. Scenes that don’t necessarily advance the story help delineate the characters and the settings.

Some notes about Interstellar: The underground bunker where NASA is based reminds me of a Bond villain’s lair. The excessive exposition about time and math and gravitational anomalies quickly becomes tedious—I wonder if Steven Hawking will pause the DVD to see if their blackboard formulas are correct.

The little girl who plays the child version of Murph looks like a young Anne Hathaway. A few of the film’s effects recall similar bits in Nolan’s Inception. I loved the cool robots TARS (voiced by Bill Erwin) and CASE—loyal servants and deftly mobile. The cast also includes Topher Grace as adult Murph’s doctor friend and John Lithgow as Cooper’s father-in-law.

Interstellar is not the best movie I’ve seen in 2014 but it has enough going for it to merit an Oscar nomination. Nolan should receive a best director nomination. McConaughey is a possible contender for best actor. Effects, makeup and sound production crews could be taking home awards as well.

I think audiences will enjoy Interstellar because it infuses science with humanity. Last year in Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone talked about her earthly concerns; in Interstellar Cooper’s family is onscreen and is a major part of the film. Interstellar plays on our survival instinct. Several times in the film, Caine’s Dr. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas’s poem about fighting off death, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Interstellar does not go gentle. It rages against the dying of the light.