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.)

Jupiter Ascending

 

Big dumb movie. There’s a reason Jupiter Ascending’s release date was pushed back from July 2014 to February 2015: it’s not very good.

Co-directors/co-writers Andy and Lana Wachowski make movies that contain gorgeous, imaginative visuals. But their stories and their storytelling abilities leave much to be desired.

Here’s the Jupiter Ascending scenario: Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a Chicago housecleaner, just an ordinary (if beautiful) schlub whose 4:45 a.m. alarm gets her moving into another day of the drudgery of cleaning toilet bowls. Turns out that she has in her DNA some special stuff that several folks on a distant planet want.

Jupiter is transported to this faraway place where she encounters three siblings who are interested in her. Played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tupence Middleton, the three Abrasax nogoodniks do their evil while good guys Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and Stinger (Sean Bean) line up on Jupiter’s side.

Redmayne should probably have his recent Oscar nomination rescinded based on his overacting in this film. Tatum, with goatee, resembles Will Ferrell’s character in Zoolander. Kunis looks good, if occasionally baffled, throughout the film. The wedding outfit she wears as a bride-to-be is nothing short of stunning.

For what it’s worth, Jupiter Ascending, presents a welcome positive view of Jupiter’s U.S. extended family of Russian immigrants. (Several films of the past few years have depicted Russians as evil, treacherous people, often worse than the Cold War Russians.) Maybe this portrayal is a result of the Wachowskis’ eastern European family heritage. (A subtitle in Jupiter Ascending revealed a Russian curse that I may include in my repertoire: “Stalin’s Balls!”)

The effects are spectacular, the battles are amazing. But, ultimately, Jupiter Ascending fails. It’s a shame that the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 is no longer being produced. Jupiter Ascending, I think, would be an excellent candidate for an MST3K treatment.