They can be found laying in their seats with their heads tilted back while loud growls leave their mouths. They are the snorers who appear at most films during this point of the festival. I mention this because I’m having a hard time believing I saw a new film by Ridley Scott that I actually enjoyed. Was I dozing off into a different world too?
The Martian (7/10) is a thoroughly entertaining survival story that is notable for its low-key approach to a very familiar narrative. In many ways, The Martian resembles this week’s Everest – both simple survival stories of man vs. nature – but Scott’s spectacle has a better pace and is consistently more entertaining.
When Mark (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after being hit by debris during a vicious storm on Mars, the rest of the crew head back home while he wakes up alone on the red planet. The crew and NASA have no way of knowing he is alive and there is no equipment nearby for Mark to contact any of them. We cut between three different places: NASA as they try to bring Mark home, the crew who are thinking about turning back to get him, and Mark who is trying to survive alone.
A supergroup of a cast led by Matt Damon also features Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Donald Glover and Kristen Wiig – all of whom are underwritten. Yet that is probably one of The Martian’s greatest virtues. The film never gets bogged down by flashbacks, tacked-on backstory or “important” themes. Although there are a few instances with mumbo-jumbo and thingmajiggers, the film treads its exposition-heavy waters with humor and simplicity. Extra time may have been devoted to make the science sound but a lot of the jibber-jabber was still incomprehensible to a science-challenged artsy like me.
If The Martian doesn’t engage with any of the grandiose ideas of Interstellar, it also never succumbs to the pretentious stupidity of Prometheus. With dazzling CGI landscapes and a few good set-pieces, Scott never strays too far from the studio framework. Where he shines as a storyteller is by showing restraint. Damon never talks to beach balls; he doesn’t have to fight off wolves to get out of purgatory. We follow his ingenuity and growing sense of optimism as he solves different puzzles to move onto the next level and task. The best scene is not a loud opening action scene or even the lengthy climax; it’s a quiet moment of devastation where Damon finds his potato crops dead and shriveled up. He will have enough food for the next hundred days but the devastation comes from the thought of a slow and painful death. So it is with The Martian, a film that is all the more powerful because it takes its time.
Scott seems to have his groove back. Bring on Prometheus 2? I’ll sleep on that one.
Some peoples’ snores in The Martian gave way to audible sobs in Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donogue’s Room (8/10). Like trying to summarize the Bible without mentioning Jesus, Room is almost impossible to discuss without unveiling the subtext of why Ma (Brie Larson) and her son Jack never leave a 10×10 room. It’s perhaps best to know as little as possible, but Room doesn’t lead to a final twist or offer a huge shift in perspective. It is intentionally vague because it is a macabre tragedy told from the perspective of an innocent 5-year-old boy. Jack knows nothing of the outside world. The objects in the room, which he calls “Room” (notice the proper noun), are the material objects that exist whereas everything else is merely fake or TV. Jack can only see the shadows in Plato’s cave.
In many ways Room resembles Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close but, because of Jacob Tremblay’s astonishing performance as Jack and some ingenious direction from Abrahamson, the film rarely feels mushy or fake. Tremblay gives a viscerally believable turn as the young boy. He assuredly captures Jack’s erratic mood swings from understated gestures to loud outbursts.
Abrahamson, who is restricted to tight spaces and mundane situations, shoots the room without any establishing shots that would give away how big the living quarters are. “Room” is Jack’s entire world so for the spectator the space never feels claustrophobic. Funny, sad, and powerfully moving, the only time I closed my eyes in Room was to wipe the tears from beneath my eyelids.
I wish I could say the same for Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (?/10) – not a poor film by any means but one that was far too challenging this late into the day and festival. Running close to two hours, this experience’s charms wore thin well before the end. Forbidden Room is an ode to the silent era with intentionally incoherent flashbacks that barely connect. It’s designed as a cinephilic delight that uses a barrage of intertitles (which are sometimes in different languages), superimposed images, and grainy visuals that look like they came from a 100-year-old tin stored at The Library of Congress. Forbidden Room is visually unique but way too long-winded. I’m not a Maddin aficionado (I have enjoyed the films I’ve seen by him) and I couldn’t handle two-hours of his avant-garde filmmakking. I wasn’t snoring but it felt like I had slept through the entire thing.
Tomorrow: Remember, The Reflektor Tapes, Office