The Martian (2015)

★★★★ / 👍

The Martian (2015) posterRidley Scott directs his best film in years (if not decades), and it’s an inspirational science fiction epic about human ingenuity in the face of enormous obstacles, rather than timey-wimey space magic and the power of love over the laws of thermodynamics.

The least plausible element in the film is, of course, the initial premise of a series of American-led human missions to Mars in a recognizable near-future. The obligatory disclaimer in the closing credits that NASA doesn’t actually endorse this film is a bit disingenuous; this film is, however unofficially, propaganda for the space program.

I am personally too cynical to fully accept the vision of scientific and political cooperation on display in The Martian, and sometimes the optimism is a bit forced. (As when the film pointedly uses Bowie’s “Starman” rather than, say, “Space Oddity” for a musical montage.) Still, I would like to believe that human beings could accomplish things like this within my lifetime, and that certainly colors my perception of the film.

Probably my favorite part of The Martian is not any of the stirring inspirational drama, or the technical aspects of the science fiction, but the matter-of-factness with which the movie asks us to treat interplanetary travel. For the most part, the script doesn’t shy away from the implication that pretty much every character in it is, by definition, smarter and better at their jobs than almost any member of the audience. The film’s worst missteps are precisely when it plays to the crowd: an eccentric genius making infuriating comedy-relief rocket noises as he explains his plan; a fully-qualified astronaut and pilot demanding things be explained to him “in English!”

There are characters and scenes which seem practically irrelevant to the story. Not having read the novel, I can’t tell whether their purpose will be clearer in the inevitable director’s cut, or if they are simply vestigial elements of the source material which could have been eliminated. Along those lines, there is one gag presumably from the novel which, though amusing, also pulled me out of the film because of a casting choice. (One does not simply walk into Tolkien references.)

Finally, I do hope that The Martian sets a precedent for more lenient MPAA ratings for films not from major directors; it gets a PG-13 despite explicitly drawing attention to its multiple examples of “strong language” through a self-reflexive bit of self-censorship that is the funniest thing in the film.

Ex Machina (2015)

★★★★ / 👍

A gorgeous display of minimalist style, and minimal substance, in a film as limited as the week-long Turing test that is the basis for its plot.

I’m an antisocial nerd over-reliant on an inflated measure of my own intellect, who dabbles in non-specific contempt for the human race. The cold and distant aspects of Kubrick or Nolan films are frequently the only things I find tolerable about them. I loved this movie, and I find that disturbing, because it has very little to say.

One difficulty in stories about AI—particularly ones based around the notion of a Turing test—is the difficulty of constructing fictional people who seem like real, baseline human beings. Garland doesn’t do this (or try to). All of the characters in Ex Machina, be they human or android, are simulacra whose moving parts and emotional subroutines are conspicuous in their operation.

The most consistent theme in Ex Machina is not the wonder of intelligence in an artificial being, but rather the limits of sapience in Homo sapiens. If the subject of Ex Machina is a Turing test, the form of Ex Machina is a reverse Turing test, in which very talented actors spend two hours trying to confuse the audience as to whether their characters are actually as stupid as they seem, or merely pretending to be so. (That the film tends to the latter more than the former doesn’t necessarily make it less tedious to watch.)

This is a remarkably well-crafted film, and I sincerely respect that. But I don’t particularly want more films like it.

Selma (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

Selma (2014) poster

Selma is an occasionally clunky morality play, featuring numerous recognizable actors in a self-congratulatory parade. It is also, by far, the most visceral, moving, and important film of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture of 2014. It’s a travesty that the Academy didn’t recognize any of the performances in this film, particularly David Oyelowo’s or Carmen Ejogo’s.

Like all movies “about race” and the American civil rights movement, Selma serves as a Rorschach test. For some, it’s a simplistic fable about how bad those evil southern racists used to be, and how we’re all so much better than that now. For others, it’s a reminder of how little fundamental attitudes have actually changed in the half century since the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

In a more reasonable world, Selma‘s relatively mild caricature of LBJ wouldn’t attract the same level of controversy as Oliver Stone’s insinuation that LBJ was involved in a conspiracy to murder the President of the United States. (Or more pushback than Oscar-bait Frost/Nixon‘s insinuation that a cartoonishly venal Nixon was aware of the Watergate burglary in advance.)

In a fairer world, Selma would at least spark conversations the way The China Syndrome did after Three Mile Island, with the often striking parallels to the events in Ferguson, MO and beyond in 2014.

In a better world, Selma‘s painful and occasionally brutal reminders of continued systematic racism in America would be unnecessary.

Interstellar (2014)

★★★★ / 👎

Interstellar (2014) poster

(If seeing Interstellar as I did—theatrically, in 70mm, on a genuine IMAX screen—is an option for you, stop reading reviews and go buy tickets. Seriously.)

I don’t care for most Nolan films, and I didn’t particularly care for this one, either. That said, Interstellar is a technical marvel which should absolutely be seen theatrically, with the best presentation available, and possibly more than once.

Despite the degree to which it buries 45 minutes of undeniable sensawunda under two hours of egregious bullshit.

Despite a script that literally telegraphs its story beats, and dialogue that had me rolling my eyes so hard I may have seen God.

Despite the most unpleasant Hans Zimmer score I have ever heard, which bludgeons the point home at all times with overbearing rumble and incredibly distracting mickymousing.

I hated the majority of this movie, and I can’t wait to see it again.