Thursday, November 26, 2015

New Releases! The Martian (2015); Spotlight (2015)

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

A strong, sober take on outer space adventure, but one that takes no true risks.

Set in an undetermined but not-too-distant future, The Martian is the tale of Doctor Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astrobotanist who is accidentally abandoned by his crew on Mars during an exploratory mission on the red planet. Once he awakens after being knocked unconscious, Watney must attempt to survive on a planet with almost no water, very limited food, and no immediate way to contact Earth to send a rescue team.

The strength of the film is in seeing just how a top-notch scientist uses all of his knowledge to fend off impending death at multiple turns. Watching Watney diagnose and solve problem after problem offers plenty of fascination for those who wonder exactly how someone might survive in the worst environmental circumstances.

Buoying the compelling plot is the performance of ever-reliable Matt Damon. Damon does excellent work in conveying the affable doctor's fear, frustration, elation, bemusement, and excitement at various turns in the film. He humanizes Watney in a way that stokes our hopes that he somehow safely return to Earth.

Watney takes a little break during one of his lower moments.
Not surprisingly, director Ridley Scott oversaw some
incredible visual effects within which Matt Damon could
bring Watney to life. 
These immense strengths make the movie well worth watching. However, I couldn't help but see some places where other, similar movies have outdone The Martian. The 1995 drama Apollo 13 tells a similar, albeit historically true, tale in which the NASA engineers and astronauts are less romanticized or glamorized while still being granted extreme respect for their intelligence and abilities. The 2013 film Europa Report is far more similar to The Martian, being a futuristic tale of speculative fiction about space exploration. However, this earlier film avoids Hollywood tropes such as the sometimes-misplaced playful humor and occasional caricatures which we see in The Martian (just note the socially awkward, uber-nerdy astrophysicist Rich Purnell)

The main reason that I think more highly of a movie like Europa Report is that it takes the risk of actual peril with its characters. I never for one moment watching The Martian doubt that Watney would be saved. The movie sets a tone early on that tells us viewers that we shouldn't worry too much about the lovable doctor. What I respect so much about Europa Report is that strong, dignified characters must literally die for a higher purpose - in this case broadening humanity's collective scientific knowledge. It may not be the most crowd-pleasing element, but it is one that I hold in high regard. The Martian misses out on some of this, in the name of finding a broader appeal.

Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Quite simply one of the best movies I've seen in years.

Spotlight depicts the lamentably true story of how a handful of dedicated journalists working for the Boston Globe exposed nearly 90 Catholic priests in the Boston area who had molested young children, only to have church authorities and other local institutions cover up and bury the story for decades.

The Boston priest scandal was a bombshell when it broke in 2002. The story of the victims and the protection of their abusers is one that required the utmost respect, diligence, and skill of a filmmaker. Fortunately, director Tom McCarthy and his team were clearly up to the task. Spotlight conveys just how hard it can be, even for the most skilled and dedicated journalists, to construct and publish an immensely impactful story in the proper way and at the right time. This movie truly is the All the President's Men of our time.

When watching a film based on true events, I am always wary of directors' attempts to romanticize or glamorize the real characters or actions. I found none of this in Spotlight. What we get is a group of always committed, sometimes conflicted professionals who are chasing down a social disease. The facts of the story provide all of the drama, without need for anything extra. In fact, I cannot think of a single scene or character in the movie which was superfluous to the primary story. There are no romance stories or relationship dramas thrown in for inattentive viewers, and every character feels completely fleshed out.

Liev Schreiber as editor Marty Baron. He may look and talk
like a human tranquilizer, but underneath lies the steady hand
that urged and supported the revelation that was the Boston
Catholic priest abuse scandal.
The acting, with one exception, is above reproach. My only little gripe is that I found Mark Ruffalo trying a bit too hard to display righteous indignation in an overt, twitchy way that I felt oversold the emotion. I did grow accustomed to it as the movie progressed, though. All of the other actors, major stars and lesser-knows as well, are outstanding. In particular, I found Liev Schreiber's understated yet extremely powerful turn as new editor-in-chief Marty Baron to be quietly amazing. The depiction of his character is the very portrait of a restrained yet unwavering sense of what is right and how to do it correctly. He and all of the other actors seemed well aware that this movie was far less about them or their performances, but rather it was about the horrible story that they were dramatizing. They clearly went to great lengths to get it right, just as their source people did in their jobs as journalists.

I can very easily see this film becoming an inspiration for young people who see it. Just as All the President's Men stoked the fires of meaningful journalism in the 1970's, Spotlight could very well do the same these forty year later. I certainly hope so.