‘The Martian’ and ‘Sicario’ highlight the best and worst humanity has to offer

Curious how two major releases this past weekend would, while being utterly different, compliment each other so well.

As I write this, I am laying on my bed hating life. Today I had to have 5 cavities filled and I now know the valuable lesson of going to the dentist every six months. (Ah to have dental coverage again. I’m going to  soak it up as long as I can.) I write this only as an excuse to how drug-addled my ramblings are about to be.

Let me be upfront and say that you aren’t going to go wrong with either one of these movies. It just boils down to what you’re in the mood for. If you’re ready for some hope, excitement, and fun than I’d say The Martian is probably your best bet. But if you’re in the mood for some white-knuckle tension, haunting yet often-time stunning visuals and a cinematic experience that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater, than give Sicario a shot.

The Martian 

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The plot:

“During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I am in no way, shape or form a scientist. I do not claim to be an expert in any sort of scientific field. If anything, I take the Jesse Pinkman route when it comes to understanding any given science. I know very little but what I do know I get very excited about…

Or better yet…

That being said, I love a good “Huzzaw for science!”  movie. They’re starting to come out with a somewhat relative frequency, particularly ones that take place in space. Last year we saw the release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and the year before that we got Gravity. (I’m sure I’m missing some fantastic examples in the interim but let’s keep it general.) The Martian is the newest addition to the canon (if we can even call it that) and it may just well be the most enjoyable of the bunch. (I still love Gravity but I’d be a stone-faced liar if I didn’t say that is a movie not made for viewing on anything less than the biggest screen possible.)

Ridley Scott may just be the most prolific director Western cinema has to offer. You name a genre and the man has dabbled in it one way or another. Perhaps what he is best associated with though is his work in the science fiction genre. That being said, a great deal of his cinematic output over the past decade has been less than stellar to say the very least. I cannot stress this enough: RIDLEY SCOTT HAS NOTHING TO PROVE. He can make whatever he damn well pleases and I will see it nonetheless. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a return to form for the man. I mean, it’s Ridley Scott, but this movie is the return of Ridley Scott having fun or at the very least the fun he is having is being conveyed by the movie itself and the us, the audience, being allowed to have fun as well.

The Martian is a fairly simple story with a lot of complicated science thrown in that held the possibility of alienating a grand portion of the audience (myself included). Luckily the movie never (well sometimes) talks down to the audience for the most part. None of the scientists (well except one played by Donald Glover) act like this…

They work like actual scientists. There are only brief glimpses of nerdy high horses here. (One being an admittedly hilarious scene with Lord of the Rings references dropped made all the more hilarious with involvement of Sean Bean.) We also get a very likable main character that we actually want to see make it through this ordeal.

Matt Damon is perhaps the best choice to play Mark Watney. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Damon has this everyman charm that really sells the fucked situation he now finds himself in. It’s rather important we like the character (and actor) that we are about to be stuck with for the next two hours, and Damon’s Watney is that right mix of really smart but lighthearted enough to where we actually want to see him make it through this and not feel like being with him and him alone is a chore. Damon does a really good job at keeping the situation light by cracking a lot of jokes (the guy is an incredibly underrated comedic actor as his 30 Rock appearances would attest) but he is a good enough dramatic actor to sell us on some of the more dire scenes as well. There is a scene after an airlock explosion when he’s trying to count potatoes during the storm just floored me. He has created flimsy protection to cover the gaping hole that is now in his shelter. He knows full well that if his makeshift repair gives out, that’s it he’s dead. He portrayed that raw emotion of refusing to give in yet knowing that he could literally die at any moment amazingly well. Their is an incredibly annoying noise from the tarp reminding him how close to death he is while he’s trying to concentrate was so clearly grating on him without him saying anything or even looking at it. I doubt he’ll be in the Best Actor race come awards season but he did a great job here in a role that could have easily been annoying or bland.

The rest of the cast (Watney’s crew mates on the Aries III returning back from Mars and NASA back on earth) is comprised of characters that basically serve as means to an end but are played by some of the best actors and actresses Hollywood has to offer. Scott pulled no punches in casting this thing. Big names like Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Sean Bean and Donald Glover all appear and if this movie were to have any sort of major flaw it would be that some of these utterly great talents feel kind of wasted. It’s like casting Bryan Cranston in your movie and killing him off 30 minutes in. 

Having just read the bestselling book this movie is based over the summer, I still have a pretty good handle on what the filmmakers kept and did away with in the adaptation process and for the most part everything made it through. There were some tweaks here and there (the climax is a bit different here and goes a bit more fantastical than the science-first stance the book takes) but all of the major beats are the same with even some of Mark’s best one-liners coming to life such as the now famous, “Science the shit out of this” and “Fuck you, Mars.”

Speaking of Mars, this movie is assisted immensely by the decision not to show Mars as a CGI-exclusive landscape. Instead, the filmmakers opted to go out and use actual (remember those?!) locations in Jordan as well as enormous sound stages. The immensity and barrenness of these locations help add a further isolation to Watney’s situation as well as give some stunning visuals assisted by CGI rather than depending on them.

I also need to go out on the record and say this movie was so much easier to sit through than last year’s Interstellar. While it may not be fair to compare the two, the have similar themes beyond just being “space movies.” Whereas that movie often felt almost too self-important (Love truly is the only thing that transcends time and space, guys!) and often monotonous, this movie was pretty breezy and never once felt its length. I attribute that to neither of the parallel story-lines (one in space, one back on earth) felt more important and more entertaining than the other. In Interstellar, the earth sections felt unnecessary and could have easily been trimmed or cut completely. Here, both stories are compelling enough to sustain their own respective film but this movie finds that sweet spot where both play off one another in way that neither is cheated for time. This movie also doesn’t force a contrived villain in the story (which Matt Damon played in the earlier movie ironically enough). The only “villain” is space, and the conflict is survival. It’s rather refreshing to have a movie where scientists are allowed to act like scientists and face actually scientist problems. There are no cliched asshole politician characters nor another survivor on Mars that is trying to kill Mark for his supplies.

And that leads me to this film’s biggest strength (at least in my non-professional opinion) and that is how much it fucking cheers for humanity. More often than not, science fiction is genre that speaks to our failings as a species. It serves as a commentary for whatever short fall we find ourselves in now. There isn’t a lot of hope in our future according science fiction. So it’s refreshing to see a quasi-movement in the genre to fight for a better tomorrow.  While it was flawed, Tomorrowland was another movie that tried to spell out how fucking great humans can be when we get past our in-fighting and such nonsense. Similarly, The Martian gives us a world where people of different nationalities put aside all the bullshit to bring back one guy safely. When we see someone in trouble, the best of us rise to the occasion. When we see some psycho has committed some heinous deed, we shouldn’t look to the pathetic asshole committed the crime but the people stepping up to undo the damage. When a natural disaster hits and we see the devastation; don’t look to the wreckage, look to those rushing in asking what they can do to help. This isn’t a “Fuck yeah, USA!” movie. This is a “Fuck yeah, the human race!” movie, and I often need a reminder of how great, just how fucking great, we can be sometimes even if it has to take place in a fictional world where NASA is acutally afforded the money to reach its potential.

Sicario

sicario

The plot:

“When the drug raid worsens in the USA and Mexico border region, the USA government sent a passionate and idealistic FBI agent, Kate Macer in a mission to eradicate the drug cartel network of Manuel Diaz, who responsible for a bombing which killed the members of her team- with the help from Alejandro, a hit-man- which in Spanish called ‘Sicario’.” – IMDb.com

The review:

God, I love a good bleak movie to counterpoint all that “hope” from the last movie. I love a movie that sings a siren song to the bitter, slimy, heaving, little pustule that is my cynical heart. Oh, Sicario. Sing me your bleak, drug-funded, blood-soaked melody!

Denis Villeneuve has risen to the ranks as one of the best directors currently working today. His last four films (IncendiesPrisonersEnemy and now Sicario) are all bitter pills but all equally stunning in different ways. As a director, he reminds me of David Fincher (not in a copycat way, but in his choice of scripts and the way his movies are paced and directed as well as his constant collaboration with only the best cinematographers in the business) which if you know anything about my taste in movies that that is a very, VERY good thing.

Speaking of Fincher, this movie reminded me a lot of Se7en, in that this movie is incredibly tense and incredibly bleak. All those looking for a movie to provide you with a happy little narrative bow need not apply as you will not find it here. This movie is an unflinching look at the War on Drugs, and without spoon feeding or sugar coating it for the audience, and informs us just how fucked up and utterly hopeless the situation is.

The action is played for tenseness(?) instead of spectacle which to me is a million times more effective. For example, there is a shootout that takes place on a crowded highway. A more conventional director probably would have actually had the focus be the shootout with guys doing badass moves highlighted with flashy, over-the-top editing or lots and lots of slow motion. Here, the build up to the shoot out is the main course with the actual shoot out being the cherry on top. Like any good horror movie, it is almost a billion times more memorable to raise the tension so high that aftermath is almost irrelevant. You need to feel like you have literal anchor in your stomach that only gets heavier with each passing second. That tension is what sucks you into the scene. The release will come but until then you are the utter mercy of the director, editor, and all involved. A truly talented team makes this shit look easy buy pulling you in so close that you forget you’re watching a movie only have them surprise you with a knife right to the heart.

Before I get to the actors, I have to talk about who the most obvious star of this movie is and that is of course Roger Deakins’ cinematography. I think I’ve spent more time drooling over this man’s work than any other person (director, actor, actress, screenwriter, etc) working in the film industry. It’s just absolutely incredible what this man does with lighting, camera placement and tracking. AND HE STILL HAS YET TO WIN AN OSCAR.

I highly expect him to get nominated next year only to lose once again to Emmanuel “I have won two years in a row” Lubezki’s work on the upcoming The Revenant, which by all accounts is going to be revolutionary. (Hard to argue given what we see in the trailer AND the fact that the man only worked with natural lighting which is just downright insane given this movie appears to take place exclusively outdoors.) Still, Deakins delivers visuals that escalate the story beyond anything a lesser cinematographer would have brought to the table. His flyover shots here. Be still my beating heart. The pair (Villeneuve and Deakins) are apparently set to team up once again for the upcoming (and no longer unnecessary given these two are working on it) Blade Runner sequel.

Now onto the cast. All are great but I want to speak specifically about two in particular. A lot has been said about Emily Blunt’s role here. Some say its sexist how she’s edged out of her own movie in favor of a man. Others counter that it is a larger statement on women’s role in the world as a whole. I can’t argue for either. I personally saw her as the perfect lead (until a point) for the kind of story being told here. Much like the audience, she isn’t informed on the situation. When she gets information, so do we. She isn’t some unstoppable badass. She’s someone who is good at her job, but not an unstoppable force.  She is an audience surrogate and a very-well written and acted one at that.

-Mild Spoilers Ahead-

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It should be no secret (as the marketing has made it pretty clear) that there is something rather..let’s say shady about Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro. Well there is, and then some! I won’t spoil the reveal (although it isn’t THAT big of a shocker if you’ve seen any movie or television show relating to the cartel) but it is dramatically important that viewers not be spoiled given some of the big surprises this movie throws at you with his characters involvement. Throughout the most of the movie, he is a presence. His often lurking silently, more of a presence than a character, only giving us little glimpses at the man beneath instead of the animal we eventually see the U.S. has unleashed upon cartel. (Never have I seen a wet willy used so menacingly.) It’s about the last quarter of the movie where the film switches perspectives from Blunt’s character to del Toro’s and once it happens the film kicks from an already high 10 to an incendiary 11. The scene at the dinner table combined with the scene back at Kate’s apartment will have to fight it out as the flat out most tense scene of the year, and the power from the both truly stem from del Toro’s performance, and that isn’t to take away from Blunt’s performance either. She gives a career best performance here and the switch off from her character’s perspective to  del Toro’s makes complete thematic sense.

It’s been a good long while since del Toro has had the opportunity to really shine in a role. Hell, he hasn’t had a staring role in a major release since 2010’s The Wolfman. He’s been great in the few supporting roles he’s appeared in since then, but this guy deserves to be back in the big leagues with actors like George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Given he’s just been cast in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII, Hollywood seems to agree. I’m hoping this role leads to another Best Actor nomination for him, because he is just phenomenal here. His last shot in the movie is an absolute stunner and the testament to the “less is more” approach to acting. He says nothing yet everything with one look.

-Mild Spoilers Over-

I guess it should go without saying that I rather enjoyed this movie. I like movies without easy answers. Movies that challenge you and shake you. While it sports a rather simple (I’d even go so far as to say cliched at times) story, Sicario is a movie made by some of the best in the industry with the acting needed to elevate it from your average, run-of-the-mill cartel movie.

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One thought on “‘The Martian’ and ‘Sicario’ highlight the best and worst humanity has to offer

  1. Pingback: The Fateful 15: My 15 Favorite Films of 2015 | Sharks with Laserbeams

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