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a la Mod:
DE PALMA'S FILM "IS BETTER WHEN IT FOCUSES ON THE SCIENCE, LOSES GRIP WHEN STORY TURNS HOKEY"
"In 2000, two films emerged that were obviously inspired by recent successful NASA missions that uncovered evidence Mars had once borne water (and possibly life). As such, they felt less rooted in that Western spirit—instead, both serve as darker parables on the dangers of exploration. Antony Hoffman’s Red Planet, starring Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss, is a grunting techno-thriller with a terrific electronic score but horrible, muddy visuals. In the 2050s, Kilmer’s character and his NASA team discover evidence of giant insect life on Mars, somehow awakened by human exploration. It’s ultimately a grim tale of survival against the odds, with its colorful ensemble (including Terence Stamp and Benjamin Bratt) getting picked off one by one. At the end, Kilmer blasts off the surface with a middle finger raised to it, screaming 'Fuck this planet!' Budgeted at $80 million, Red Planet grossed only $33 million worldwide.
"Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars is a more elegant beast in the hands of a director who happily apes Stanley Kubrick’s greatest hits from 2001. The film is most assured when its crew is in space, en route to Mars to rescue the survivors of an exploration mission gone wrong. It also plays on some of the planet’s most recognizable and strange surface features, like the Cydonia region that features an outcropping that looks, from satellite imagery, like a giant face. But on the whole, Mission to Mars feels like a religious pilgrimage. There are nasty moments, like when a sand tornado rips one astronaut into pieces, but the film dwells on its final realization that the planet once harbored alien life that seeded human existence on Earth. Like its genre-mates, Mission to Mars is best when it focuses on the science, and it loses its grip when the story turns hokey.
"That’s the ultimate achievement of The Martian. When Watney grows his potatoes, the director Ridley Scott makes each sprout feel like an achievement; every effort to cross Mars’s terrain follows weeks of forethought. Though it’s lacking Martians, ancient edifices, or even a threatening algae bloom, it comes closest to Burroughs’s original romantic conception of the world as one so similar, yet so frighteningly different to the one we know. There’s a reason pundits are predicting the film will set off renewed interest in manned exploration of the Solar System. Though Watney clings to survival throughout, the idea of creating life and a home in such an empty new world is as challenging and stirring as the most idyllic visions of the Wild West."
AND DE PALMA'S "VISUAL POETRY" IN 'MISSION TO MARS'
Writing for National Review, Armond White reviews Ridley Scott's The Martian:
"Scott’s extravagant, hackneyed approach to genre overtakes The Martian’s drawn-out narrative. As Watney struggles, his crewmates atone, NASA watches, China lends a hand, and a diverse gathering of Earth-bound well-wishers wish each other well, the pile-up of clichés reminded me that all this has been seen and done before: Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, James Franciscus, Richard Crenna, and Lee Grant were more relatable at it in John Sturges’s conventional but effective Marooned. James Caan’s stranded yet ecstatic astronaut in Robert Altman’s Countdown was the purest expression of space-age aspiration. The distress metaphor was singlehandedly accomplished by Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Robert Redford in All Is Lost. Watney’s crew captain Jessica Chastain just endured a similar predicament in Interstellar. Best of all, Brian DePalma turned the dilemma into visual poetry with Mission to Mars (2000). It owed little to Kubrick’s 2001; instead it boasted DePalma’s exquisite languor, tension, and humor. Mission to Mars leapt beyond death to spiritual evolution in vibrant sci-fi hues. The ultimate disappointment of The Martian is Scott’s lackluster post-Alien style. He can’t disguise his detachment. Without highly aesthetic imagery, Scott’s just a low-NRG J. J. Abrams."
Scott orchestrates all of this like a pro. Two of his last three movies (Exodus: Gods and Kings and Prometheus) were so grand in scale that making this one probably wasn't a leap. He's workmanlike in his approach to science, which always trumps magic in The Martian — that's the point. But if we can't feel a sense of wonder at the magnitude and mystery of space, why even bother? In 3-D, at least, The Martian is handsome only in a perfunctory way: As with so many 3-D movies — Hugo and Gravity are exceptions — its hues look somewhat anemic and drained. (Stills from the film look brighter and richer, suggesting it might be best viewed in 2-D.) Even Mars's craggy landscape is less than vivid. Portions of the film were shot in Wadi Rum, in Jordan, but cinematographer Dariusz Wolski fails to make this desert landscape look otherworldly — the Death Valley of so many B westerns looks more mysterious and threatening.
Or, flipping to a more recent reference, what about the satiny red sandscape of Brian De Palma's 2000 Mission to Mars, a half-dreamy, half-plausible effect achieved in part by cinematographer Stephen Burum's use of light reflectors made of copper sheeting? If I have to be stuck on Mars for any length of time, that's the one I want. The most affecting sequence in The Martian comes late, after Damon's Watney has been stranded on this dangerously semi-hospitable planet for such a very long time: His previously robust frame is bony. His face — that of a man who, even in his mid-forties, looks barely old enough to shave — has sprouted a rangy, mountain-man beard. Watney has refashioned himself as a space pirate. Finally, he's gone potty, but only just a little — he'll spring back to normal soon enough.
But for a few moments, he's a spiritual twin to Don Cheadle in Mission to Mars, another left-behind astronaut who managed to make stuff grow. By the time Cheadle's friends and colleagues finally rescue him, he has become the prisoner of a greenhouse that has also saved his life — it's enemy and sustenance at once. And even though he, like Watney, regains his sanity, there's a glimmer of madness in his eyes that will never fully dissipate. Mission to Mars was derided on its release, but there are few movies about space exploration as visually resplendent, or as delicately perched between mournfulness and optimism. And have we really reached the point where advanced special effects count for more than visual imagination? De Palma, himself a high school science fair winner, approached space as a mystery, a problem beautiful in its vast unsolvability. Scott, all about solutions, gives us the most seemingly authentic Mars money can buy. That doesn't make it the best.
In past years covering TIFF, I’ve generally avoided the parties. There are a few reasons for this.
First, I am generally contemptuous (or at least wary) of celebrity and everything it connotes, and really don’t care if I am, technically, standing in the same room as George Clooney or Susan Sarandon or Pete Postlethwaite or whoever. Second, as a working journalist, parties have previously served a purely utilitarian function, providing free food and booze that I can suck back, hunched over a tiny cocktail napkin, wearing a knapsack like a cartoon turtle. I also generally try to avoid any social event where I’d have to wear much more than jeans and a t-shirt.
But in the spirit of experiencing new things, pushing myself outside my comfort zone, wearing pants that aren’t stained with mustard, etc., I accepted an invitation to the cocktail party celebrating the premiere of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, starring Matt Damon as a NASA botanist accidentally left behind on the Red Planet.
The movie itself is a fairly hollow crowd-pleaser, workshopped to feel massively appealing — funny enough, tense enough, propelled by Drew Goddard’s glib, Sorkin-lite dialogue. It’s fine. Is it as good as Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, in which Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen’s slow dance in Zero Gs to Van Halen’s Dance the Night Away? No. Of course it isn’t. But then, what is?
No matter what he did, though, two things could be counted on: bubble-headed critics would still call him a clone of Alfred Hitchcock with an obsessive interest in voyeurism and kinky sex,..and the hardest core De Palmians would stand by their man.
Until...Well, every story has one...Until he put out a completely non De Palma movie entitled Mission to Mars. And you'll have to travel far and wide to find a movie this reviled.
I mean, really, imagine a De Palma Movie with just one splashing bloody sequence, no kinky sex and almost no trademark camera work. What is [it] about? Well, it combines, quite wonderfully, elements of Gravity, Interstellar and the upcoming movie, The Martian. We begin, Interstellar-like, with a sequence set on earth, in which we get to know the characters. The 15 minutes are well-spent. The flight to Mars is shown in an interesting compression of time. The astronauts land, explore--and are gruesomely dispatched by--we cannot be certain if it's a force of nature or...maybe an alien presence. A rescue team is sent. Lovely scenes aboard their craft until the rocket springs a leak. Gravity-style repair work. Not entirely successful. Exquisite suspense and a heartbreaking loss as they abandon ship and try to reach the dispatched rescue vehicle. They land...search...find graves, indicating someone's still alive. And then...
Now comes the movie's first big surprise--which I won't reveal. Another, still bigger, is coming. What I will say is that, in a two-hour film, the structure and pacing are both spot-on. The acting and scripting are equally good. ('I didn't travel 100 million miles to stumble in the last ten steps.' Or: when chided because he can't dance, the hero tells his wife: 'Hey, some couples tango and some go to Mars.') The movie's inner Swiss watch ticks as we advance on schedule to the Big Reveal.
As for the last fifteen minutes...Here we come to the great I Don't Know. I didn't like the ending. I'd wanted something different. Many viewers have hated the ending and condemned the entire film because of it. Stand back, though. We can't have it all ways.
We can't have a Real Deal Rebel who's been completely housebroken and repeats all the tricks we love best, at our call. The Real Deal is subversive and loves to thwart expectations. The Real Deal will transform a kinky, borderline sleazy film like Femme Fatale into a dream, onto which he then tacks on a lush, romantic ending. The Real Deal, late in his career, [will] thwart all expectations with a beautifully calm thriller, Passion.
Because he refuses to 'heel' on command, we should never grow too comfortable in the presence of such an artist. The best are loving people--with a streak of junkyard dog.
But relax. They're not out to hurt but delight us as they take us by the throat. Now and then they succeed at that by showing us their hearts.
"The tragedy that divides Woody and Terri echoes, of course, the loss of Jim’s wife Maggie, whom we see only once, in a video (played, touchingly, by Kim Delaney) their friends prepared when they were chosen to helm the Mars mission. Jim watches it on a monitor in the ship when he winds up traveling there without her. It’s a double-time frame sequence – the video contains images from this joyous time interspersed with earlier ones from the McConnells’ wedding. I might not have made this connection had I not just rewatched The Fury, but the visual dynamic of an image embedded within another image and two sets of observers recalls the scenes in that movie where Amy Irving is caught in a psychic link with a besieged Andrew Stevens while someone else – who can’t see what she sees – tries to communicate with her. This is a visual notion with amazing emotional resonance for these stories of loss. In The Fury, Irving’s Gillian longs to meet the boy who shares her freakish psychic gifts; her separation from him, except in these imperiled visions she has no power to alter, underscores her isolation from the rest of the world, from the people she loves who don’t share her abilities. And when she finally does get close to him, it’s too late: he’s already destroyed. The video that brings Jim’s wife back to him, if only for a few minutes, is a trick of technology that is finally just a reminder of the uncrossable distance between them. He can replay this moment of happiness and relive not only his loss but also his bafflement: here they are at the peak of their lives together, anticipating a future that, though neither knows it, will never come to pass. In the video Maggie makes a toast to them standing at the threshold of a new world, but mere months later she was sick and he stood on the threshold of life and death, watching the most important person in his life fading away from him. De Palma gets at this idea in another way, too. The transmissions the first Mars crew sends back to earth have a twenty-minute delay. Back at home, Jim and the others watch as Luke and his companions, full of good humor and optimism, light a candle in a slab of cake to honor Jim’s birthday before setting out across the sand to explore the structure. The NASA observers have no way of knowing that even while they’re watching this transmission, twenty minutes after Luke sends it, his crew is being torn apart."
(Thanks to Hugh!)
Cuarón is even more of a romantic than De Palma, if such a thing is possible. He finds all kinds of ways to link survival in space with life on Earth. There, as here, anyone might have reason to feel loneliness, despair, fear, or exaltation, and homesickness — for a place, a person, a planet — is universal. Incidentally, the first person who tries to tell me Gravity is "unrealistic" or "implausible" is going to get a mock-Vulcan salute and a kick in the pants.
Given the amount of balderdash we have to swallow just to get through a typical summer movie season, taking a small leap of faith and imagination with Cuarón should hardly be a problem. Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing.
One of cinema's biggest proponents of the extremely long tracking shot is Brian De Palma, who I wrote about last week. Long tracking shots are a cool idea, but can be very difficult to pull-off without calling attention to the filmmaking. Hitchcock was a fan too; as was Robert Altman; but De Palma's voyeuristic style always best suited the technique in my mind - until Children of Men came along, that is.
Brian De Palma was also behind a widely-derided (but secretly awesome) film which now stands as a noteworthy antecedent to Gravity - 2000's Mission To Mars.
There's a full-on sequence near the beginning of the film which involves a space walk and a desperate attempt to grab on to a satellite. When details about Gravity started emerging, I hoped that it would be a movie-length version of this scene. And it is. In the best possible way.
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