Reviews

The Martian balances hard science and human interest perfectly

Actor Matt Damon in a still from the movie The Martian.
Actor Matt Damon in a still from the movie The Martian.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
A still from the movie The Martian.
A still from the movie The Martian.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Ignacia Allamand (left) and Ariel Levy are attacked by cannibals in The Green Inferno.
Ignacia Allamand (left) and Ariel Levy are attacked by cannibals in The Green Inferno.PHOTO: CATHAY-KERIS FILMS

A stranded astronaut struggles to survive in The Martian and do-gooders become cannibal food in The Green Inferno

Two films this week could not look more different, yet they share the theme: Nature has sharp teeth and is always ready to make a meal of you.

The Martian (PG13, 142 minutes, 4.5/5 STARS) is a massively entertaining old-fashioned castaway adventure set 200 million kilometres from Earth, in a future just a few years away.

Nasa astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on the Red Planet, a Robinson Crusoe with no communications with Earth and no hope of rescue until long after his supplies have run out.

The botanist and engineer has to, in his own words, "science the s**t out of the everything" to stretch his resources until the next Mars mission arrives.

What follows is an utterly fascinating and extremely nerdy thought experiment, first realised as free chapters on author Andy Weir's website before a Cinderella publishing deal turned it into a 2011 best-selling novel.

Survival stories are frequently frustrating because, for the sake of drama, characters lose all common sense - they press their faces into weird objects or wander into mazes without an objective or contingency plan... No such nonsense happens here.

The what-if scenario presented to Watney sounds very much like a test that Google sets for potential hires: What can you do with this many litres of water and rocket fuel, some vegetables, plastic pails, a tent and two rovers to survive four years on a planet with practically no atmosphere and minus 60 deg C nights?

Survival stories are frequently frustrating because, for the sake of drama, characters lose all common sense - they press their faces into weird objects or wander into mazes without an objective or contingency plan.

Both plot sins, by the way, were committed in director Ridley Scott's last foray into science fiction - Prometheus (2012), the underwhelming Alien (1980) prequel.

No such nonsense happens here. Scott, this time working with Drew Goddard's (The Cabin In The Woods, 2012) lean, snappy adaptation of Weir's book, is the Scott of Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001) - the maker of popcorn movies that feel substantial, not self-important (Kingdom Of Heaven, 2005, and Prometheus).

Except for a couple of events, the physics is plausible. The hard-science and human-interest elements are in perfect balance. There is none of the navel-gazing that passed for depth in Interstellar or Transcendence (both 2014).

Watney is given no backstory - there is no fiancee or pigtailed cherub waiting at home. He is elemental, reduced to the sum of his physical needs.

But there are formulaic elements here and there. The Mars mission, for example, except for the inclusion of one German astronaut, Vogel (Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie), is entirely an American project. This strident flag-waving flies in the face of fact. Major space programmes today are multinational, as seen in the International Space Station. Hollywood economics once again defeats real economics.

 

The villain here is Nature and the narrative engine is the survival of one plucky individual, embodied in Watney, a blokey Everyman. He is genius-level smart, but just snarky enough, with the tartness mostly directed at a crewmate's disco and Abba collection (that he considers the desert-island discs from hell; one presumes he is a Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen kind of guy).

For hell of a different kind, there is The Green Inferno (R21, 98 minutes, 3.5/5 STARS ), a cartoonishly bloody yet strangely poker-faced homage to cannibal exploitation movies that were all the rage in the 1970s, which Singaporeans mostly caught up with in the 1980s when VCRs and pirate tapes arrived.

Here, director and co-writer Eli Roth returns to the body-horror genre he shook up with the gruesome Hostel (2005).

After a group of do-gooder Twitter and Facebook slacktivists crash-land in the Amazon, they are set upon by natives with a taste for imported, free-range and organic American products (#lookwhodroppedinfordinner).

There are a dozen things to dislike about the movie, but it is hard to fault Roth's honest affection for gore like they used to make.

He sets up his ensemble as unlikeable, and therefore disposable, so their scrunchy, squishy and slushy deaths can be enjoyed as guiltlessly as a sugar-free dessert.

His ham-fisted attempts at shock-comedy - team leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy), while caged like a pig, pleasures himself for stress relief; later, a captive fights for his life while plagued with diarrhoea - are about as funny as you would imagine.

If you are wondering if the sight of college-educated charcuterie is too much to handle, note that the version screened in Singapore has had a scene of tribal noshing edited for "detailed or gratuitous depictions of extreme violence or cruelty", according to the Media Development Authority.

So do not worry about taking in the full spread; you are getting the light meal here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'Two kinds of hell'. Print Edition | Subscribe