matt damon

The Martian (2015) [Blu-ray]

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Contains some implied spoilers

I first read and reviewed Andy Weir’s book The Martian back in 2014 and was very impressed by its scientifically detailed story of how astronaut Mark Watney survives alone on Mars after a catastrophic accident occurs during a manned mission to the red planet. It was only after reading it I learned that a motion picture adaptation was already underway, and I was very much looking forward to seeing it.

martian1I felt that I needed a little time to allow my memories of the novel to fade a little in order to be fair to both versions, but it turned out that the book was so vivid that it’s stubbornly stayed firmly lodged in my mind. And from what I can tell, the film follows the the source material to a remarkable degree, with not only the events of the book faithfully recreated but also the tone and purpose respectfully retained: writers in general can only dream of a film version staying so close to their manuscript. Only toward the end does the movie start to deviate, with all the problems of the arduous land rover journey pretty much entirely dropped in favour of an extended sequence in space to give a more visual and visceral all-action finale together with a greater involvement from the supporting cast. While these changes may strain some of the hard-won scientific authenticity established by the rest of the story, I do think they make for a better climax to a feature film and so are changes entirely for the best. Read the rest of this entry »

The Martian, by Andy Weir

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Clearly Andy Weir started researching and writing his book well in advance but he could have hardly timed the publication of his first novel The Martian better, coming as it did in the wake of the enormously successful 2013 film Gravity starring Sandra Bullock. That movie shares this book’s overriding theme of one person struggling to survive against the odds in space when disaster strikes on what should otherwise be a ‘routine’ mission – although unfortunately, real life disaster as well as those in fiction remind us that space travel is a dangerous business and never as routine as we like to think it is.

While Gravity is set in orbit around the Earth, The Martian is located considerably further afield – and the title has probably already let slip the fact that it is set on the surface of Mars, sometime in the near future when such manned missions prove viable. An emergency mission abort and evacuation during a fierce dust storm results in one of the six astronauts being killed and left behind – only, it subsequently turns out that he’s not actually dead after all. It’s far too late for his crew mates to be able to turn around and come get him even if they knew he was still alive, so Mark Watney has to survive on his own as best he can with the woefully insufficient and inadequate equipment and provisions he’s been left with. Those were meant to last a month; now he needs to find some way to stay alive for two years. Read the rest of this entry »

True Grit (2010) – a bleak sunset in the West

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I’m a relative newcomer to Westerns, having mainly scoffed at them until I was dragged along to a digital showing of a remastered The Searchers at the BFI by a friend five years ago. Since then I’ve got to know and like the genre rather better, and would even go so far as so class 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as my favourite film of that year. I was certainly very much looking forward to seeing this much-lauded Oscar-nominated new adaptation of True Grit. I come out of it, as so often the case when I watch Coen Brothers films, with mixed feelings.

It’s common these days in studies of the Western to talk about ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ examples of the genre, and the film seeks to have and balance both at the same time. For the latter, there is an unflinching look at the harsh reality and brutality of the life in the 1870s’ American West, from casual racism (the Indian denied his last words before being hanged) to every urine, sweat and vomit stain on Rooster Cogburn’s long johns as he sleeps fitfully in a cot at the back of the local butchers among the animal detritus – this film seeks an unflinching physical realism at all times. The big bad bogeyman, when finally tracked down, is as wretched and pathetic a wreck as you can imagine, rather than the evil devil Mattie Ross needs him to be if he’s to be worthy of slaying her father. And the land around them is also an emphatic character – cold, harsh, drained of colour. It’s beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins who also shot The Assassination of Jesse James … – but whereas that film has dazzling drop-dead gorgeous vistas, this film refuses anything remotely “pretty”. This scenery is plain and ordinary, or threatening and alien, an environment to be endured rather than admired; a hostile place where the land would much rather see you dead than suffer you to live off it.

But at the same time the underlying story on which it is based (the 1968 novel by Charles Portis) is a distinctly conventional story of Wild West revenge, with main characters and character arcs quaintly old fashioned. It’s clear from the start that Mattie Ross will overcome scorn and derision to prove her worth; that LaBoeuf will finally earn those dandy spurs; and that the irredeemable wreck of a man, Cogburn, will be redeemed by a pure love. And they’ll get their man too: but in true revisionist style, it will be at a cost. In fact the film’s strapline is “punishment comes one way or another”, and this is a film where any victory, no matter how small, invariably comes with a high physical or emotional cost to all parties.

Even so, I expect John Wayne would still be quite happy and at home starring in this film. And Wayne is in some ways the film’s biggest problem because of the huge shadow he casts: every scene featuring Jeff Bridges, you can help but remember (or imagine, if you haven’t seen the 1969 original film version) how Wayne would do it, and truth is that it’s not that far apart – Cogburn is still rather too larger than life, over the top and borderline cartoonish for the hard, realistic context of the rest of the film. By contrast, Matt Damon has infinitely more shading to work with when it comes to the role of LaBoeuf (and to be fair far less competition from his filmic predecessor: Glen Campbell is many things but actor was never one of them) and as for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie – well, every bit of hyperbolic praise you’ve heard about her are true. Only, double them. (And it’s a crime that not only is she not nominated for Best Actress, her name isn’t even on the poster – while Josh Brolin’s cameo inexplicably warrants banner billing alongside Bridges and Damon. Absurd.)

Ultimately, the terms ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ simply don’t fit. The tag that does is ‘elegiac’ – in the sense of this being truly an elegy not for a lost time of place, but for a lost genre. It comes not to praise the Western, but to bury it once and for all. After all the physical reality of the West, the styling of the film is strangely more of a romanticised pastiche: from the opening Southern-drawl voice-over, to the nostalgic country guitar-picking soundtrack and final scenes set in a Wild West touring sideshow, this falls back into the familiar techniques and tropes of a Ken Burns documentary. We’re seeing a film of the West that no longer has any personal connection with its subject, not even memories of the Wayne films and classic 50s TV shows, just recent sepia-tinted reconstructions. We are so far removed now from the era depicted that it is irrevocably lost to us. Everyone who truly remembered any part of the West has passed on, and so have all those that knew them – we’re now on third- or fourth-hand memories. The West is no longer real – as it was to John Ford and Raoul Walsh when they started making films in the 1920s – but folklore, myth and fantasy fixed in amber.

Never has the Western felt more lost to us in the present day than True Grit makes it: this is no revival of the fortunes of the genre in Hollywood, rather the reverse. The final scenes of the film are set in a graveyard, and the epitaph on the headstone may as well read: “Here lies the Western. Beloved genre, finally laid to rest once and for all with the most tender and lyrical parting kiss.” But the evident sentiment of the filmakers can’t avoid the fact that as far as they are concerned the corpse is still dead, and the ground is now hard and cold.