Reviews: ‘The Martian’ has you rooting for a survivor while James Bond faces the ‘SPECTRE’ of job loss

by | Oct 30, 2015 | History | 0 comments

While all films look to the past, especially as this column has pointed out, science fiction ones involving spaceflight, ‘The Martian’ (2015) has really stolen the plot from a much more distant forefather: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which was written in 1719. That story obviously inspired the book by Andy Weir which is the basis of the film, ‘The Martian’ (2015), directed by past space story supremo Ridley Scott.  While this Ridley Scott film has no “aliens” to speak of, instead it tells the story of how an astronaut and botanist called Mark Watney, as played by the excellent Matt Damon, tries his best to survive on that barren planet for long enough for a rescue effort to reach him.

As a sort of part remake of the films, ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ (1964) and ‘Conquest of Space’ (1955), it details an amusing view of his decision making and resourcefulness as he even manages to grow his own crops.  As such the movie goes on more like a diary rather than a flash-bang-action motion picture.  Nevertheless, as the story unfolds, there are, of course, some spectacular views and sequences to be had on, and in orbit around the planet  – albeit that you have had a feeling that you have seen some of these before: Brian De Palma’s ‘Mission to Mars’ (2000) comes to mind.

Interspersed with this core survival story, is the backroom one back on Earth in which NASA’s high command, at first, tries to forget that they have a moral obligation to go after the stranded astronaut before finding themselves forced to do so by public and internal opinion.  Jeff Daniels is excellent as NASA’s Director (sure that should be “Administrator”) who shows the partially callous style that is symptomatic of modern-day management.  Well, that is, until his own rear-end is on the line.  T’was ever thus.

In truth there are more action packed if less realistic space stories have hit the celluloid recently, most memorably including multi-award winning pair ‘Gravity’ (2013) and ‘Interstellar’ (2014), but this film has a more realistic take into what can, and cannot, be achieved with contemporary space hardware.  True, it has some technical errors, not least a failure to have the 1/3 Earth gravitational acceleration on Mars. Nor does show the planet having its characteristic blue sunsets. However, it remains a close depiction of what might a Mars mission would be like in say 30 years time, if NASA ever really does get its “Journey to Mars” plan underway.

Seradata Rating:  7/10  While it is not “out of this world” in terms of action, it is a fun look at how a man has to battle the planet Mars for survival, and how his friends back on Earth have to battle both with orbital physics and with a callous management in order to save him.

The ‘SPECTRE’ at the Feast is that the Bond series is running out of ideas

There is not much space content in the latest and 24th official entry in the James Bond spy series despite being called ‘SPECTRE’ (2015) which will make some space cadets think of Russia Mir space station and its Spektr module.  Having said there is no space content, this is not quite true. There is use made of satellite tracking of transponders in 007’s bloodstream (don’t ask) with some other notable references to spying drones and mass internet surveillance. ‘SPECTRE’ is the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, and the fourth starring Daniel Craig in the 007 role. It has our secret agent superspy facing job loss as the result of the onset of new drone technology and the rise of the surveillance state – a political issue that the plot as an indirect pop at – while at the same time having to fight a mysterious organisation that seems to dog his life.

While the first of the successful reboots of James Bond film series, the very good ‘Casino Royale’ (2006) directed by Martin Campbell, wisely stuck closely to Ian Fleming’s book, for commercial and political reasons, it lacked the courage to name the Russia’s spy service as the story’s underlying villains.  This was despite the fact that the new Cold War was just starting to refreeze with the nuclear poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko (an assassination method that is briefly noted in ‘SPECTRE’ by the way).

Instead, the ‘Casino Royale’ film had an Al Qaeda or IS-like organisation (sans religion) behind all the mischief.  This criminal consortium called SPECTRE (which also features in some of the other Fleming-written Bond novels) is intent on terrorism, assassination and extortion…and trying to make James Bond’s life as miserable as possible.  This underlying plot of fighting the as-yet unnamed SPECTRE was continued in the next two Bond adventures: in the forgettable ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008) and in the excellent Sam Mendes-directed ‘Skyfall’ (2012), and it again features heavily in the new ‘SPECTRE’ film, which, like, ‘Skyfall’ also has a narrative involving Bond’s childhood past.

There is some obvious miscasting. The principal, if not very scary, villain in the new film is played by Christoph Waltz whose character’s infamous name is finally revealed.  While the weedy Waltz fails to scare, one who, despite being similarly sized, feels much more threatening to the double-O squad, is a Whitehall apparatchik dubbed “C”, as played by Andrew Scott.  Scott effectively reprises the psychopathic style of his menacing Moriarty role in the Sherlock Holmes TV series, this time as a control-freak psycho-manager attempting to shut down the human intelligence department of MI6.  Those pesky psycho-managers seem to be getting everywhere!

Like past Bond films, ‘SPECTRE’ also falls into the superstitious shorthand trap of equating those who those who have been disabled, maimed or facially disfigured, as being cursed in this way for their past evil deeds.  Actually, pretty people can be pretty awful too.  By the way, the point is brilliantly made in a 4Creative advertisement for next year’s Paraolympics. See:

James Bond’s leading lady and “damsel in distress” is the beautiful and brainy Dr Madeleine Swann as played by the French actress, Lea Seydoux. Her character has a PhD in Psychology and who acts on Bond’s sense of guilt.  Like a good “Bond-girl” she, of course, wows in her slinky satin evening gown, while, at the same time James Bond looks the business in his white dinner jacket, even though one was left wondering just who exactly “dresses for dinner” on a train in this day and age?

In an overhyped role, Monica Belucci, briefly provides Bond’s “older woman” sexual interest at the start as a curvaceous Italian widow (the sex scenes are tastefully faded away from) – albeit that Bond mainly wants her for her information.

So is this movie any good?  Well – yes and no.  The movie has the typical seductions, car chases, torture scenes, and fist and gunfights that tend to formulaically happen in James Bond adventures.  Nevertheless, the script is sound and some of the scenes are very entertaining. Ben Wishawe steals some of these with a series of funny lines as “Q” the techno-geek colleague (and friend) of Bond.  He appears along with the very loyal black secretary that no secret agent would be without, Miss Moneypenny, as played by Naomie Harris.

It also has the typical 007 “travelogue” starting with the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City, and onto Rome, Austria, and oh yes…good old cold grey London (it does sometimes have sunshine Mr. Director!).  Unlike the older Bond adventures which at least had the occasional shot of a flying or landing PanAm Boeing 707 or Air France Concorde, there were no filmed forms of air (or any other kind of) transport between locations in the ‘SPECTRE’ film’s narrative.  Thus the main characters confusingly just seem to pop up here and there around the world.

Thankfully, at least, there is none of the really overt product placement in this film that has marred Craig’s previous outings.  Previous crass impositions have included showing Ford cars with shiny badges or, worse, making Bond drink Heineken lager – and not even under torture. 🙂

Cars do however feature strongly in this film with the obligatory car chases involving James Bond in his Aston Martin DB10 followed closely by a SPECTRE henchman called Hinz driving an even prettier Jaguar X-J75 sportscar.  Automobile aficionados will also be pleased to spot that Bond’s new boss M (as played by Ralph Fiennes) does at least have the better-looking old style Jaguar V8 four-seater as his motor, while a classy 1948 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith (which this correspondent recognised as the same type as his wedding car) also puts in an appearance late in the movie.

The acting is good in ‘SPECTRE’ and Daniel Craig continues to convince as a slightly too short, slightly too fair haired, but nevertheless, tough and resourceful, Bond – even if his Tom Ford suits do look a little too small for him to be fully suave.  However, unlike its better predecessor,’Skyfall’ (2012), whose style it tries to mimic, this film lacks the commanding presence of a really scary psychotic villain as so memorably played in ‘Skyfall’ by Javier Bardem.

‘SPECTRE’ also lacks new ideas and has several scenes which have, in effect, been stolen from early Bond films. These ‘best bit’ steals – or more politely “references” – include a gruesomely violent SPECTRE organisation directors’ board meeting and which gives Bond a genuine look of fear when he is found out to be there – think of ‘Thunderball’ (1965) – and a very violent fight on a train – think ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963).

It was, of course, ‘Thunderball’ (1965) which outperformed its better predecessor, ‘Goldfinger’ (1964), at the box office.  And the box office takings to date are suggesting that the same may be true for the just-about-good-enough  ‘SPECTRE’, which is reportedly already outselling its better predecessor, the very good ‘Skyfall’ (2012).

Seradata Rating: Just about 007/10  ‘SPECTRE’ is a competent performer which just about merits its 007 rating, but at times it just seem to go through the Bond-film motions. And while the increasingly craggy Daniel Craig has hinted that this Bond film might be his last, as he walks away with a CCTV camera tower symbolically shown above him at the end, you could tell that Craig’s James Bond just might have wanted a better exit…


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