The Efficient Martian

THE MARTIANThere is something almost brutally efficient regards Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Its a mean, lean machine- I think Scott says in his commentary that the film was shot in just 74 days, which is formidable indeed for a film of its scale, of its visual complexity. I would not suggest its a great film- like Interstellar, its a film I can enjoy and quite admire but its far from a personal favourite or a film I love. Which is, considering its subject, like that of Interstellar, rather strange- you’d think this kind of film would be right up my street. Maybe its the lack of tension, which may have something to do with the film’s particularly laid-back, relaxed score. I’d read the book beforehand so I knew how the film would play out the first time I ever saw it, but I don’t think anyone unfamiliar with that book has any doubt how it will turn out. At any rate, I do think that had this film got a moody, tense Jerry Goldsmith score, it would be a different experience entirely.

So anyway, The Martian certainly looks gorgeous (I watched it this time in 4K UHD, and in its slightly extended cut), with brilliant art direction, it has a fine cast, and a great story and screenplay, and no matter my misgivings is clearly superior to Apollo 13, the film it obviously is most similar to. Its just misfiring a little, and I’m beginning to think its because of its brutal efficiency- there’s little chaos to it, its all… not mundane exactly, but it just feels so calculated. Every shot, every line, its all like a machine with a particular purpose, to tell its story.  Its possibly a film via a committee, rather than a passionate and involving film from a single visionary director. Its quite true that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but somethings missing, and whenever I watch this film,  I’m never sure quite what.

NOS 4R2 by Joe Hill

nos4r2NOS4R2 is the first book I have read by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King (‘Joe Hill’ is his pen name, his full name is Joseph Hillstrom King, but all credit to him not riding on his old man’s monicker). Its the story of Charles Manx and his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the licence plate ‘NOS4R2’ which, yep, spells out ‘Nosferatu’. Manx is a serial killer who is over a century old, a vampire that lives on the youth of children, who he abducts and spirits away to Christmasland, a place where it is Christmas everyday and from where children never return.

I guess its a little bit Christine, a little The Shining, a little The Dead Zone… which is not to depreciate Hills achievement here, its just that the style of Stephen King is so heavy in this, if I hadn’t been aware it was written by his son, I would have been convinced that King himself had written it under a pseudonym.  Its even as overlong as so many of King’s novels are, totaling almost 700 pages long when a bit of editing would have helped no end. But length not withstanding, its a rollicking read, a real page-turner and a reminder of back when King himself was at his best.

Inevitably, there’s a damn good film here in these pages- I haven’t read a book so certain there’s a great movie on the page since Andy Weir’s The MartianI think the book has actually been optioned as a mini-series on TV, which on the one hand makes sense as its such a big book, but really, I’m certain it could make a better film with a little editing.

Great summer read though. I’ll try other books by Joe Hill in the future.


Bring Him Home: The Martian (extended cut)

marty2017.75: The Martian Extended Cut (2015)

While it’s debatable just how much ten minutes of footage can impact or benefit a film (I suppose fans of the cocoon sequence in the first Alien might have an interesting opinion), I must say I certainly enjoyed this repeat viewing of The Martian, and perhaps this was aided by that ten minutes of extra footage. Mostly tweaks/extended scenes, nonetheless I think that while it may not have improved the film greatly, I did appreciate the additional shots of Mark Watney’s emaciated figure towards the end, clearly establishing the physical ordeal and impact of his lengthy stay on the red planet, and some of the other character beats littered through the movie.

Indeed, I think the extended cut (note it isn’t called a ‘Directors Cut’, I wonder what is the distinction?) does improve the film, and the fact it’s only ten minutes extra footage means the film doesn’t slip into the longer attention-span/pacing issues pantheon of extended cuts that, say, leave me still preferring the theatrical cut of Dances of Wolves or Apocalypse Now.

One of the biggest impressions from rewatching this film is just the observation of how good a Ridley Scott film it is, just how good he is given a decent script. Tellingly, the film is not one he himself developed; instead its one he was hired -onto during development and it clearly benefits from his keen eye and visual techniques whilst not being harmed by some of his aesthetic choices idea-wise that probably harmed Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. It makes me think about the case of Terry Gilliam and The Fisher King (but also the case that a John Carpenter movie was never a ‘real’ John Carpenter movie when he was simply hired-in to direct some studio project) . The distinction is sometimes lost these days between a film-director as a film-maker and perhaps as an auteur/director whose sole ‘vision’  or voice dominates a film for good or ill. Film-making is a collaborative enterprise and I think some directors would be advised to be more directors than producers, and perhaps leave professional writers etc to do their jobs. But what do I know? I’ve yet to see if Luc Besson dominating the Valerian movie resulted in a great or flawed movie, but yeah, it just makes me wonder.

It still feels wrong feeling thankful that Ridley Scott didn’t make BR2049, but as that film clearly had a great script etc maybe it would indeed have turned out okay directed by Ridley- but would Ridley have been unable to resist insisting Deckard be revealed as a Replicant, forcing that personal view onto the other film-makers less inclined to agree with him (or an actor for that matter)? Ridley still has great films in him in the right circumstances, as evidenced by the successes of The Martian.  It’s quite possible some viewers/critics are of the opinion that it is in fact his best movie, period.

While I’m unable to watch the 4K disc in this package (a regular refrain going forward into 2018, I’m sure) I will say this release/double-dip does benefit from a solid bunch of extras, including a commentary and a fine series of docs produced by Charles de Lauzirika whose name on a doc always means quality (and to whom I will always be indebted to for the stupendous Blade Runner Final Cut release several years ago). The visual-effects breakdowns alone are enough to make me reassess the achievements of this film and the ‘genius’ of Ridley and his team- so much taken for granted is the result of huge amounts of trickery (they even CGI’d his beard in on some shots, it’s bizarre, where were the make-up crew?). Some interesting Q&A discussions involving NASA staff regards the real exploration of Mars round out a great all-round package.

So if nothing else, my estimation of The Martian, towards which I was always a little reserved, has improved no end. It’s a great film with a hell of a lot going for it, and whilst the extended cut’s differences/additions are perhaps not substantial enough to be an essential purchase for those happy enough with the film in its original form, I do think its an improved movie and the extras package finally gives the film the treatment it deserves. And who knows, maybe the film really sings in 4K with HDR etc.- for me that will be a pleasant discovery for some other time down the road.

2017 Selection Pt.7

2017gWell, after a  year of some success regards curbing my disc-buying, everything went out the window towards the end of the year. I mean, just look at that haul above, which dates from around Sept onwards I think. This 2017 selection update is clearly way overdue, and with so many additions I almost gave up on it, but I suppose that would have defeated the point of all those preceding posts so here we are.

So a quick run-through seems in order. The sales caught up with me with The Walk and Nocturnal Animals. You can’t go wrong at about £4 each. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was my favourite cinema experience up until BR2049 swept me away- I may be in the minority, but I do think Galaxy 2 is superior to the original. Wonder Woman didn’t particularly fill me with wonder but it was still cheaper than a cinema visit and I’ll inevitably rewatch it sometime.

While I quite enjoyed Alien:Covenant at the cinema, it fared less well on disc, but I chiefly bought it for the Ridley Scott commentary, which unfortunately I haven’t heard yet (come on Ridley, explain it to me, what’s going on with the Alien franchise?).  The Vikings, meanwhile, is a great catalogue release- it’s a brilliant film brought to HD with a beautiful picture quality and worthwhile extras. Brilliant. Then of course we come to one of  the releases of the year- the simply gorgeous Arrow edition of The Thing, here in its LE variant- a lovely matt-finish hard box with the Amaray slipped inside with a book and artcards and poster. Regardless of the package, it’s the remaster of the film that is the big draw- it’s perfect. I almost dread the inevitable proper 4K release one day- I’ve really brought this film too many damn times already.

Then Indicator’s Hammer box (the first of four, I believe) heralded the Autumn of big releases coming up. I just cannot resist Hammer, and while the Sony Hammers that Indicator have access to are not exactly the Premier league of Hammer their treatment is exemplary and I really rather enjoyed them all. Some nice surprises in this set.

So here we come to the start of the spending madness.2017h

In My Mind was an impulse purchase, a great documentary about The Prisoner, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Season three of The Leftovers was another import due to there being no HD release here, which was followed by the exact opposite- a release that tempted me with one too many HD options. HBOs Westworld really impressed me when aired and was a disc release that I was looking forward to all year, and it turned out to be my first dual-HD format purchase, as I bought the tin with both 4K and blu-ray discs. Of course, I don’t have a 4K telly yet and have no idea when my current perfectly-fine Bravia will fail and cause any 4K replacement. Months? Years? It feels a bit silly but already future-proofing is on my mind. That slick packaging likely swung it.

La La Land was another sale purchase, and I really enjoyed it- I only hope I won’t regret not waiting for the 4K edition to come down in price. The Farthest is a simply brilliant doc about the Voyager space mission and Captain Scarlett in HD needs no explanation for anyone like me who grew up on a diet of Gerry Anderson magic.  Then of course two blockbusters I didn’t see at the cinema- Spiderman Homecoming and War For the Planet of the Apes, both great movies. They look great in HD but again, should I have stretched out to the 4K editions? I have a feeling that question will be a routine one going forward.

2017g (2)So then we come into Decembers offerings. Two more tv series boxsets follow- season 7 of GOT and the sublime wonder that is the Twin Peaks series three set. When in the world I will actually get to watch them I don’t know (the last three sets of GOT have sat on the shelf waiting for the past few years- I love the show and having only seen them on Sky Atlantic over the in-laws are surely ripe for proper viewing without breaks etc but somehow it never happens). A few more sale buys follow- 4K/Blu-ray of the notorious marmite flick Valerian that might prove to be a disastrous purchase (haven’t seen it yet) and two anime titles from a Christmas sale at All the Anime; the tv series Terror in Resonance (actually in a deluxe set in a huge box that’s hardly shelf material) and the twin set of Genius Party/Genius Party Beyond, two rather curio films that I have been interested in for years but never seen.

Finally, last weeks Arrow release of The Apartment, one of my top ten fave films in a lovely set with some new extras and a book, and the extended 4K/Blu-ray release of The Martian. The latter has been on my radar for ages but was in one of those flash-sales at Amazon last week (I bought it whilst surfing on a break at work, and the price had already gone up again by the time I got back home later in the day). Bit daft really, I wanted it mostly for the commentary and addl extras but figured if I was double-dipping I might as well go the 4K route whilst doing it.

Christmas presents/festive sales may yet add to the selection and require another post. But clearly I already have my work cut out for me regards the to-watch pile. Breaking the barrier into 4K purchases is a troubling event that may prove to be a trend next year (I already have the 4K BR2049 pre-ordered) which frankly feels a bit silly knowing a 4K telly and Ultra HD player may yet be over a year away. But double-dipping is so frustrating maybe it’s the only solution. Will 2018 be the year I buy discs I can’t even watch yet? Shudder.





The Last Days on Mars (2013)

last22016.80: The Last Days on Mars (Network Airing, Film Four HD)

The Last Days on Mars isn’t a terrible film by any means, its just badly flawed and hampered by a thin script, poor editing decisions and the fact that its missing what should be its first reel. That aside, considering its low budget it looks pretty terrific and remains fairly impressive visually even compared to Ridley Scott’s rather more handsomely-budgeted The Martian of a few years later.

In the failing hours of a six-month mission on Mars, the second manned expedition to the Red Planet starts wrapping things up in anticipation of the long journey back home. The mission has been successful but is still deemed a failure by one of the frustrated science leads as no evidence has been found of life once existing on the planet. However, one scientist notices some tantalising clues in some of the extracted soil samples and in an effort to presumably claim the discovery for himself (why?) sneakily goes out on one last excursion pretending its forced on him due to faulty sensors at the dig site. His attempt for scientific immortality goes terribly wrong however when in the midst of his euphoric confirmation of life on Mars a tremor opens up the ground beneath him and he plunges to his death, whilst unleashing alien microbes upon the rest of his team that turn his corpse and that of his victims into, er, Space Zombies.

Okay. It sounds terrible.

The thing is, so much wrong about this film was easily fixable. Take that missing first reel. Part of the genius of Scott’s earlier Alien is its slow build-up, the first forty-five minutes spent introducing the characters, the dynamics of their individual relationships, the space of the Nostromo and its hardware. By the time they land on the alien planet and the shit hits the fan, we know who they are and where they are and the mechanics of it all. We don’t have that in The Last Days on Mars. We are thrown into the events not knowing who is who or the mechanics of their mission (it later transpires they are waiting to be ‘picked up’ rather than launching on a rocket themselves). We don’t understand why Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) is acting a bit oddly and isn’t looking forward to the trip home, or why  Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams) is such a bitch, or why Capt. Charles Brunel is so weak-willed (Elias Koteas getting so typecast now as such hopeless leaders we just know everything he decides is just plain wrong).

Just twenty minutes spent with them in the base beforehand, explaining their relationship dynamics and the mechanics of their mission and timeline for getting home would have benefited the film immeasurably. There is a reason why the first important scene in Alien (and likewise in Sunshine) is a communal meal in which the banter of the crew sets everything up.

Instead we are launched into the crisis almost immediately, something intended to be gripping but ultimately just proves confusing. We don’t know anyone or what they do. We don’t understand why there are two habitats or that they are linked by subterranean tunnels. We don’t understand where the base is compared to the dig site or where the pick-up location is or when it is due. Thanks to clumsy editing we don’t even know why Campbell keeps having odd visions of a spaceship (they are actually flashbacks to a claustrophobic attack on the journey to Mars, but I didn’t work that out until much later- for most of the film I thought they were visions of the future or messages from the aliens or something).

last3It doesn’t help that these characters are such lousy astronauts who can’t obey commands or keep their cool and ‘work the problem’ in NASA tradition. If any one of these guys suffered the fate of astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian they would be dead within a week. They are stupid and selfish and emotionally strung-out; maybe they were intended to be like the working-jock space truckers of Alien but they should instead be trained astronauts on a billion-dollar expedition.

So the film has its moments, but most of the time its painfully frustrating. It could have been good. After all, the cast is pretty high-profile for the most part and they could do much more with better material. In the end its all just a pretty vacant, dumb b-movie about alien bugs on Mars turning people we don’t care about into Space Zombies. It might have been more fun had it looked a bit more low-rent akin to the old Hammer movies; as it is, its a competently-shot, overly-serious film hampered by a weak screenplay needing much more work in an impressive-looking but frankly vacuous sci-fi/horror movie. In a way, its a bit like a modern-day Space:1999. Bit of a shame really. We need more competently-made, low-budget sci-fi films like this, but ones with great ideas, not the stupid stuff usually reserved for the big blockbusters that use spectacle and bombast to get away with it.

Space Zombie Martians. Ugh.

But the Max Richter soundtrack is pretty good- deserves a better movie infact.

Returning to Mars

martian1I watched The Martian again last night…

The standard, theatrical version, you understand, not the Directors Cut recently released in the States (and out here in a few months). Yes, (sigh); another Directors Cut. Still, at only ten minutes addl running time, I doubt that this particular Directors Cut is anything too major, likely just a few trims removed to get the theatrical version down to a premium running time (perhaps calling it an ‘Extended Cut’ would have been a fairer title).

The best, ‘proper’ Directors Cuts have additional sub-plots or additional characters, added depth… what The Martian Directors Cut does have though is more substantial extras, particularly a commentary track sorely lacking from the copy I own. Well, maybe after several months when its cheap enough to justify buying for that commentary…

Studios can be like a Bond villain sometimes. Home release strategies encouraging/necessitating double-dipping- say what you like about Warners and Batman v Superman, at least their Ultimate Cut is on the first home video release rather than six months down the line (although with BvS you have to wonder if that particular strategy would be a dead duck from the start with only a minority bothering to double dip later on- then again, that strategy somehow worked with Avatar...).

So anyway, I watched The Martian again.

Hell of an achievement that film, if only on a technical level. Say what you like about the films aesthetic merits (and they are pretty fine anyway), but what Ridley Scott, at his age (ouch- Ageism!) managed to do with The Martian… I mean, considering its scale it was made on such a tough schedule for an impressively tight budget of just over $100 million. It looks fantastic, marshalling a big crew and balancing several plot-threads and a large ensemble cast with considerable style, skillfully shot with a great sense of pace that never really falters. Sure, its not perfect but crikey, what a fine movie. And pulled off by a producer/director who was 77 years old at the time. Several moments during the film I just had to shake my head in some awe at what Ridley accomplished here. Puts these young turks to shame who think they just need flashy effects and a handheld camera to make a movie. Ridley’s best days are likely behind him, but he can still pull off a great movie experience, particularly if he has a good script to work with. Almost had me wishing he was shooting Blade Runner 2 rather than Villeneuve. Almost…

So anyway, yeah, returned to The Martian yesterday, and to this blog today.  Been a bad month for obvious reasons. I guess life goes on, but it’s bloody grim sometimes though. 2016 is proving to be A Very Bad Year… aside from losing Ben, my health hasn’t been great of late and we had particularly bad news in the family recently. 2016 needs to be over. Soon.

(Ridley made a film several years back titled A Good Year. A minor film. He should consider a sequel with A Very Bad Year for a title… it’d be very apt the way 2016 has gone…)


The Martian (2015)

marty1As I write this, Ridley Scott’s The Martian has reached a US domestic haul of more than $197 million, with foreign receipts added its worldwide take is some $459 million, making it one of the directors most successful films. It hasn’t been released in China or Japan yet either so there’s plenty yet to be added, so it is sure to cross that magical $500 million barrier. It’s nice to see Scott with a genuine hit under his hat after a decade of his films struggling to find a sizeable audience.

It’s just a pity its The Martian. It is easy to assess why it has been so successful- it is based on a very popular book, has a likeable and popular lead, and is pretty much the perfect Ridley Scott vehicle for mainstream audiences- a simple story told with great visuals. It’s a good movie. But it’s a pretty weak Ridley Scott movie. Think Thelma & Louise over 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

marty2Maybe ‘weak’ isn’t the right word. Its just that… well it didn’t involve me somehow. Maybe its unfair, I read the book so I knew what to expect. Other than an unnecessary coda the film is largely faithful to the book and doesn’t take any liberties so any weakness in the film is surely inherent in the source material. And it certainly looks as spectacular as you’d expect for a Ridley Scott film. Indeed, how he manages to make a film as ‘big’ as this for ‘just’ $108 million is quite astonishing, frankly (something he likewise achieved with Prometheus). You certainly get plenty bang for your buck. And yes its great to see Ridley back in the sci-fi groove now after so many decades. There are some amazing sets and shots in The Martian that reminded me of 2001, and hints at what a film like that might look like if done today. But that’s just it; 2001 would never get made today. We can do better visuals now than Kubrick could ever have dreamed of, but we cannot tell the same kind of story. There is no room for the awe, the strangeness, the alien-ness of space anymore. Its more cosy and familiar now. I don’t think there is any moment in The Martian where we doubt our hero will ever fail to survive, or we really feel the stark terror and loneliness of life alone on an alien world. We’re too busy smirking at disco music.

God that planetoid in Alien was so strange and alien… so dark and moody and dangerous and nightmarish. Mars looks spectacular enough but its just another desert, frankly. I guess I just prefer Scott’s more arthouse, darker, rawer works, those films with his flair for visuals coupled with a darker twist. They are inevitably more esoteric, less audience-friendly. Not necessarily better movies, I’ll admit that, certainly, but I do find even a flawed film like The Counsellor rather more interesting and rewarding. However some might say that I’m talking utter tosh and The Martian proves that Ridley is better when he keeps it simple. The box-office would seem to confirm that. The tone of the film just felt wrong, somehow. Maybe it was just that disco music. It rather worked in the book, but onscreen, it was just distracting, undermining any tension.

Maybe I’ll enjoy it more second time around. I just expected Ridley to stamp some of his darkness on the project but it just turned out light and fluffy and entertaining like the book. I expect that, knowing that now, I’ll react to the film better next time. But I’ll still wonder at what it might have been. Maybe he’s keeping a three-hour version under his hat for a Directors Cut edition that will add some of that darkness and awe. You never know with Ridley. Afterall, Kingdom of Heaven was pretty poor at the cinema, but its later extended version is one of the very best films he has ever made.

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianWhen I read the announcement several days ago that Ridley Scott’s next film (following his biblical epic Exodus) will be The Martian, based on a recent book by American first-time author Andy Weir, I was both surprised (had rather expected his next film to be Prometheus 2) and curious, as I had never even heard of the novel. Reviews on Amazon were mostly positive so I took a punt and ordered a copy- at the very least it would give me a break from my Game of Thrones marathon read (just started book three folks for those interested).

So The Martian arrived last Friday on a rainy afternoon and I picked it up to give a few chapters a go before starting my chores… and a few hours later I was still reading it (chores undone), already midway through it, thoroughly captivated by it. Okay, it won’t ever win any literary awards but good grief, as I read it I kept thinking, ‘this will make one hell of a bloody movie!‘. Its also one hell of a page-turner- if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was going out that evening, I’d have cracked on with the book and likely finished it in one sitting, something totally unheard of for me. It really is one of those ‘couldn’t put it down’ books.

Its got a killer premise- the third Nasa mission to Mars is beset by a mission-threatening sandstorm on its sixth day on the planet. Nasa informs the party to abort the mission and launch back  to orbit for return to Earth, but during the hazardous trip through the storm to the launch vehicle, one of the crew is left behind – presumed dead when he is struck by flying debris from the wrecked communications array and separated from the others in the storm, the life-signs from his suit indicating he is dead.

He awakes stranded on Mars, a space-age Robinson Crusoe- without any way to communicate with Earth, in a habitat designed to last  just 31 days. His crew-mates already on their way home, everyone on Earth believes him dead. “If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m screwed.” 

So anyway, I got back to the book at first opportunity the next day and completed it. I’d read the whole damned book in just two days. Weir obviously did plenty of research, and it certainly seems realistic and the technology plausible. He keeps the tension levels up with plenty of twists and turns, a tale of survival against incredible odds and the ending is great- it’ll bring the house down in cinemas.

As a pitch for a movie, its a no-brainer; its Apollo 13 times ten, hot on the heels of the hugely successful Gravity, and its clear what kind of a thrilling movie this might be if handled properly- indeed with Ridley Scott at the helm I’m salivating at the prospect. Its supposed to be coming out in 2015 which seems a bit of a quick turnaround considering that Scott hasn’t completed Exodus yet, but who knows? Matt Damon seems to be already attached so things are evidently moving with it. Whatever one thinks of the book, this really could be a great movie (I could see it in my head as I read it). Besides, if he’s busy with this, Ridley can’t crack on with that damned Blade Runner 2 project we’re being threatened with, so its a win-win in my book.