Tag Archives: special effects

Review: Damon charms as stranded astronaut in ‘The Martian’

Without Matt Damon, the solitary fight for survival on Mars would be lonely indeed.

Alone on screen for most of his scenes as an astronaut stranded on the red planet, the Oscar-nominated actor is the winning heart of Ridley Scott’s epic space adventure, “The Martian.”

With Damon’s charm center stage, Scott has crafted an exciting, hopeful story about humanity at its best: The brightest minds working together for a common goal that bridges international borders and forges a feeling of unity.

Affable and intelligent, playful and determined, Damon’s Mark Watney is so endearing and entertaining as a narrator and subject, it’s easy to see why the world would want to save him.

The story begins with Watney accidentally left behind during a NASA mission to Mars. When a fierce storm forces an emergency evacuation from the planet, he disappears in the chaos and is presumed dead. He isn’t, of course, and as his fellow astronauts mourn him during their months-long journey back to Earth and NASA officials struggle with how to explain his death to the public, Watney wakes up, injured and alone.

But he’s incredibly optimistic and resilient. He fixes his wound with minor surgery and immediately goes about prolonging his survival, knowing it could be years before a manned spacecraft returns to Mars. He puts his skills as a botanist and engineer to work, devising a way to grow crops in the arid soil and make water by burning hydrogen. He rewires old equipment from a past Mars mission in hopes of communicating with NASA.

Watney is curious and talkative, keeping himself company by narrating his every move. He tracks his obstacles and progress in daily video logs. He chats to himself in footage from the helmet cam in his spacesuit, cracking jokes he knows no one can hear.

Seeing his efforts through various camera perspectives — the helmet cam, a bunk cam inside his sleeping quarters, a dashboard camera inside his space rover and the video diaries where he appears to talk directly to the audience — adds visual interest, though Damon would probably be just as magnetic talking to a hand-held camera in an empty room.

Meanwhile, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels at his most clinical) and Mars mission chief Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) learn through satellite photos that Watney is alive. As NASA spokeswoman Annie Montrose (a miscast Kristin Wiig) scrambles to protect the agency’s public image, the men strategize how to bring the stranded astronaut home.

“The Martian” unfolds in three settings, all spectacularly realized by production designer Arthur Max. There’s life on Earth, set inside NASA’s sterile Houston headquarters and the lively Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and life on Mars, a dusty, red, rocky expanse where nothing lives (which filmmakers actually found in Jordan). Then there’s life aboard the film’s elegant spacecraft, from the rugged rover Watney uses to explore Mars to the Enterprise-inspired ship that carries his fellow crewmembers and their commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). 

Unlike other recent big-screen space trips, the science here is presented simply enough that no suspension of disbelief or quantum leap through the time-space continuum is necessary. It all seems plausible, and author Andy Weir, upon whose novel the film is based, insists it is, calling it “a technical book for technical people.”

“I had no idea mainstream readers would be interested at all,” he said.

With Scott at the helm and Damon leading the cast, “The Martian” is accessible and beautiful, cinematically and intellectually. Even though it’s a big Hollywood production, Watney’s survival really does seem in question, and audiences will want to join the international crowds on screen in cheering for his rescue.

“The Martian,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.” Running time: 141 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

Review: No monkey business in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

Digital characters have by now long populated our movies like unwanted house guests. Some of these CGI inventions, like Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” have been pleasant, even precious company. But most have disrupted our movie worlds – and not just as monsters tearing our cities apart, but as awkward distractions to our cinematic realities. The name Jar Jar Binks will forever be followed by solemn head shaking. Never forget.

But in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the tables have turned, and not just because apes now rule a world where all but 1 in 500 humans have been wiped out by a so-called simian flu virus. No, the biggest uprising in the sequel to 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is by those digitally created, nonhuman characters which have finally and resoundingly come of age.

Hail Caesar.

That’s the ape played by Andy Serkis, the motion-capture maestro of creatures like Gollum and a much bigger ape, Kong. Serkis played Caesar in “Rise of the Planet Apes,” the surprisingly good origin story of the rebooted “Apes” franchise wherein chimps, injected with a serum meant to cure human brain damage, develop great intelligence.

Caesar was a fine character then, but in “Dawn,” he shifts to center stage.

It’s 10 years after the last film ended and Caesar is now a weary leader and firmly-rooted family man with a wife, a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a new baby. Who gets credit for Caesar’s deep, troubled eyes, Serkis or the effects by Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon? Does it matter?

Looking for a dam to restore power for a colony of human survivors, a group (Jason Clarke, Keri Russell) stumbles upon the monkeys’ Muir Woods home in the Redwoods outside San Francisco. The encounter sets off panic on both sides, as the firebrands in each community – the ape Koba, played by Toby Kebbell, and his human corollary, Gary Oldman – urge their species toward battle.

To a surprising degree, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” belongs to the monkeys. In the uncommonly sure-handed fusion of computer-generated and live-action images, apes are the more fully realized, expressive characters. Given that the apes communicate in sign language and spurts of English, this may be the biggest summer movie with so many subtitles.

Whereas Pierre Boulle’s original “Planet of the Apes” was satirical, director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback have given this “Apes” the grandly gloomy “Dark Knight” treatment, complete with an exceptional score by Michael Giacchino.

The movie feeds off a sense that, given the state of the planet, a reordering of the animal kingdom may be due. There’s a pervasive jealousy to the primates in “Apes”: their comfort in nature and simplicity of life. Audiences, in fact, will cheer the animals over the humans. And few will miss the gun control argument shallowly buried throughout the film. What would Charlton Heston have made of that?

But there’s also a question of putting too much gravity on an essentially absurd story. Eventually we have screaming monkeys on horseback firing automatic weapons amid roaring flames. One is tempted to lean forward and whisper, “`Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,’ your camp is showing.”

It’s gotten to be a very familiar ploy in Hollywood to remake previously light, cheesy entertainments with well-crafted, heavy grandiosity. So if there’s a failing of “Apes,” it’s that it feels like yet another manufactured franchise. Talented people like Reeves and Serkis are brought in like HGTV fixer-uppers to restore mossy pop-culture properties.

But, alas, they’re very good at it.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.” Running time: 130 minutes. Three stars out of four.

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ – what summertime movies are all about

The time-shifting sci-fi thriller “Edge of Tomorrow” has perfectly encapsulated what it is to be a summertime moviegoer. We’re dropped into a battlefield of digital effects with the fate of the world at stake. Torrents of gunfire and explosions surround. Some alien clonks us over the head.

We black out and it all happens again. And again.

“Edge of Tomorrow,” in which Tom Cruise plays an officer who continually relives a day of combat against extraterrestrials, probably isn’t a commentary on the repetitiveness of today’s blockbusters. Its star, after all, has been the unchanging, unstoppable avatar of big summer movies.

But in the film directed by Doug Liman (“Swingers,” “The Bourne Identity”), the action-star persona of Cruise is put into a phantasmagorical blender. As military marketer Maj. William Cage, he’s thrown into battle against his will by an unsympathetic general (the excellent Brendan Gleeson), and then finds himself stuck in a mysterious time loop.

Cruise dies dozens of times over and over, often in comical ways. Does this sound like a great movie, or what?

The selling point of “Edge of Tomorrow” may indeed be seeing one of Hollywood’s most divisive icons reduced to Wile E. Coyote. He’s like a real-life version of the video game “Contra,” with the code of seemingly endless life. Dying again and again, Cruise has rarely been so likable.

Based on the 2004 Japanese novella “All You Need Is Kill,” `’Edge of Tomorrow” begins in the de rigueur fashion of news clips that catch us up on five years of alien invasion that has – with historical symmetry – encompassed Europe and left the beaches of northern France as the primary point of battle.

Cage is dumped on an aircraft carrier, callously sent into battle by a commanding officer (a very fun Bill Paxton, spouting lines like, “Battle is the great redeemer” in a Kentucky accent), and outfitted in a high-tech exoskeleton he doesn’t know how to operate. When he lands on Normandy or thereabouts, he’s an easy target for the aliens, dubbed Mimics.

The Mimics resemble black, scampering dreadlock wigs or electrified Rorschach Tests. When a particularly big one swallows Cage, his day resets. This is “Groundhog Day” with guns.

This time around, though, it’s not Sonny and Cher that wake him up each day but a drill sergeant calling him “maggot.” Whereas Bill Murray got to learn how to play the piano and fall in love, Cage must become a better killer. He strives to make it through the battle, getting a little further each time before dying. He quickly pairs with the most celebrated fighter in the war (Emily Blunt), who recognizes his strange predicament.

“Edge of Tomorrow,” which was penned by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, entertains in its narrative playfulness – another entry in the burgeoning fad of puzzle-making sci-fi, as seen in “Inception” and “Looper.” Few filmmakers have Liman’s knack for smart plotting; his much earlier “Go” inventively connected three intertwined stories.

The zippiness does fade in the second half of “Edge of Tomorrow.” And the title (perhaps the most belabored way possible of saying “tonight”) could also use a replay. But among countless sequels and remakes, the high-concept “Edge of Tomorrow” – both a Tom Cruise celebration and parody – is the right kind of a rerun.

“Edge of Tomorrow,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material.” Running time: 119 minutes. Three stars out of four.