Written by Films

The Martian and Sicario

There seems to be a spate of pretty decent films coming all of a sudden at the moment, so after a bit of a barren period when endless super-hero films haven’t inspired me to go to the cinema, I’m suddenly going a little more.

The Martian is Ridley Scott’s new film, based on the book by Andy Weir. I must confess that although I’d heard many good things about the book, even buying a copy when it first came out, I’d not quite ever got around to reading it. That was until the bus-sides for the film started appearing and I decided I should give it a go before the film arrived.

That was no hardship since it’s a terrific page-turner. Mark Watney is part of the crew of Ares III, a NASA mission to Mars. The crew are supposed to spend about a month on the surface, but a sudden storm means that they have to leave in a hurry, and an accident during that departure means that Watney is seemingly dead and they have to leave him behind.

But he’s not dead. And now he’s alone on Mars with limited supplies and the need to survive perhaps four years before the next planned mission is due to arrive at the planet.

To say that the book is full of science is to do it a disservice. The book is all about science. Basically Watney’s survival is going to require him to solve problems and use the limited resources he has at his disposal. In the novel, the scientific background to generating water or planting potatoes is explained in quite some detail. You feel as though you could survive on Mars with, perhaps an illustrated copy of the book.

The film necessarily simplifies things. We understand that it’s science that Watney is working with to hack together tools and materials, but we’re not worried too much by the detail. In the novel, when Watney starts fitting out his rover, this is quite a detailed undertaking. The film simplifies this.

But that’s not to do the film any disservice. It’s a pacy, at times funny, and others nail-biting tail. Many have commented on the fact that there are no real bad guys in this film. NASA must love it because it paints them as having a real can-do attitude. They managed to announce more proof of the presence of water in the run-up to the film’s release, which I’m sure was just a coincidence. More than once you recall that scene from Apollo 13 when a filter problem is solved by a roomful of scientists and box containing all the materials the astronauts have. (In the novel, there’s a reference to that in that Watney says that all fixings have been standardised since Apollo 13.)

Like the book, the film flicks between earth and Mars, where NASA belatedly realises that Watney is alive and have to set about building communications with him and coming up with a plan to rescue him. I thought that this was really well handled, and the earth-bound actors are all excellent including Jeff Daniels, Kirsten Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean.

Meanwhile there is the “guilt” of the crew to deal with Jessica Chastain in Watney’s commander. But the film also has a great deal of humour. Watney isn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself – he’s solving problems, watching Happy Days re-runs and listening to a diet of 70s disco music, because that’s what his fellow crewmates brought with them as digital files.

In terms of tension, I must admit that I was more on edge with the book than the film – but that was because I genuinely didn’t know how the story was going to end, whereas by the time I saw the film, I did know how at least the book ended.

As an aside, I saw The Martian in 3D, and it really wasn’t worth it. I don’t believe that it was actually shot in 3D, and it added nothing to the experience.

The film, however, is very much worth seeing and is Scott’s best film in ages. It looks great, and the story moves along nicely.

Sicario, we are told near the beginning of the film, means a hitman, particularly in Mexico and Latin America. Exactly why it’s called that is not explained. But this is a film that only reveals itself slowly.

Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent who we see at the start taking place in the first of a number of fantastic set-pieces. She’s part of a big operation, raiding a house in Arizona where they believe hostages are being held. The FBI team actually drive what is effectively a tank through a wall of the house, and once they’ve secured the site, they make a horrifying discovery.

The story moves on and Blunt is signed up to a multi-agency taskforce that seems to be targeting some Mexican druglords. But there are a couple of interesting characters who seem to be leading this. Quite who they are, and which agency they work for is never entirely clear. But all of sudden they’re part of an operation to transfer a prisoner from a Mexican court back across the US border.

The sequence that sees this happen is superbly handled. The ominous tones of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s outstanding score; the long aerial shots, often looking down vertically; the thumping sound of helicopters monitoring the operation; and then all of sudden we’re on the back of an armed Federal police vehicle being driven at speed as part of a convey through the mean streets of Ciudad Juárez.

Exactly what is going on is never quite explained. How does this all link together?

Slowly things become clear, and a bigger operation is revealed. This task force seems to have permission from the very top. Josh Brolin’s character could be CIA, but if he was, he shouldn’t be carrying out operations on US territory. And who on earth is Benicio del Toro’s character? He seems dangerous.

There follow another two outstanding sequences and everything is ramped up, and slowly the picture reveals itself.

What’s great about Sicario is that you never quite know what’s happening. Like Blunt’s character, you’re drawn along for the ride. She want’s to do something to curb the gang warfare, but is this it?

I don’t think I’ve seen anything previously made by director Denis Villeneuve, but he loves holding a scene. There aren’t fast cuts – scenes just play out. And Roger Deakins’ cinematography is to die for. The aerial shots are outstanding, and whether it’s helicopters showing the border fence, the camera revealing the city of Ciudad Juárez, or in one amazing shot, seeing a group of soldiers silhouetted against the setting sun, this film looks gorgeous. I could bask in this film.

Blunt, Brolin and del Toro are all superb, as is the rest of the cast including Daniel Kaluuya as Blunt’s partner who’s even less in the picture than she is, and Victor Garber as Blunt’s boss. We also get a bit of a picture from the other side of the fence as Maximiliano Hernández’s flawed policeman’s life is revealed to us in short scenes.

A fascinating film that deserves lots of attention.