Director Robert Zemeckis takes the art of filmmaking to dizzy new heights, quite literally, with “The Walk,” a brilliant dramatic recreation of Phillipe Petit’s death-defying wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Even though the amazing feat was chronicled in the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” and we know how the story ends, Zemeckis — through the stellar acting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit — still expertly manages to place the viewer right on the wire with the famed wire walker and creates an air of uncertainty. Before that, Zemeckis recounts the extraordinary events leading up to the walk, ingeniously framing them within something you’d see in a heist film.
“The Walk” can only be seen on IMAX screens until its wide opening Oct. 9, and quite frankly it’s the only way to see it. It’s a film experience that might not play well for those afraid of heights, as Zemeckis creates one of the most intense film atmospheres in recent memory. While “The Walk” is an uplifting film, there’s obviously a looming sense of sadness as the vision of the Twin Towers recalls the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 — an event that Gordon-Levitt handles with heartbreaking subtlety with a beautiful soliloquy at the film’s conclusion. It’s one of the best films of the year.
“The Martian” 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
The curse of lukewarm Red Planet movies is lifted by director Ridley Scott with “The Martian,” a smart, sci-fi epic that wonderfully mixes action, adventure, drama, comedy and great visual effects into a relatable narrative about a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars. A movie that respects its audiences’ intelligence, “The Martian” works real science into the story, yet presents it in a way that we can all understand. Following the brilliance of director Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” Scott continues to raise the bar that future space films should strive for.
Unlike his classic space thriller “Alien,” and “Alien” prequel “Prometheus,” Scott’s monster in “The Martian” is time, as astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left alone on Mars and presumed dead after a storm separates him from his crew. Featuring a stellar ensemble cast including the likes of Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor as astronauts and NASA personnel scrambling to assemble a rescue plan, “The Martian” proves that Scott is once again at the top of his game.
Although he’s been in the movie and television business the past 12 years, the last four have been especially eventful for Sebastian Stan, morphing from good guy Bucky Barnes to the villain The Winter Soldier in the “Captain America” movies, and playing Sigourney Weaver’s son in the acclaimed USA Network miniseries “Political Animals.”
Given his role opposite Weaver, though, makes you wonder if the 33-year-old actor has a secret agenda to work with the people who brought the sci-fi classic “Alien” to life — including Ridley Scott, who directed Stan in his latest film, “The Martian.”
“I didn’t think of that
at all. I should have said that to Ridley when we were shooting. I didn’t even think about Sigourney,” Stan told me with a laugh in a recent phone conversation from Toronto. “But now I should try (to work with everyone). It was a good cast.”
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “The Martian” stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut who is separated from his crew during a mission on Mars and presumed dead after his fellow astronauts evacuate the planet. Watney is very much alive, though, and with a base camp and limited supplies, must find a way to establish communication with NASA on Earth and find a way to survive for months if the agency is to approve a rescue mission.
Stan plays Chris Beck, who with his fellow astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie) must decide to defy NASA’s orders and commit mutiny by turning around their ship to return to Mars and save Watney.
In order for the rescue mission to work, the crew members have to be 100 percent on board with the plan, or the already dangerous plan will put Watney in greater peril. Stan said that the reason that the crew seems so unified in the film is that the actors are also 100 percent committed to what they’re doing in their characterizations, which made shooting the scenes all the more exciting.
“It is about commitment, and that’s why it works with this group. They’re so versatile and not afraid to take chances,” Stan said. “Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena — everybody — they elevate you when they’re around you. It makes you realize, ‘I’m a better actor because of these guys.'”
Also making Stan feel like he was in the moment was Scott’s insistence — just like his other films — that he used practical special effects as much as possible.
“We really had a set to work with — it wasn’t just green screen — we really wore those astronaut uniforms and the ship was very detailed and intricate, and built from scratch,” Stan said. “Ridley and the filmmakers constantly spoke with NASA to finalize everything, including the overall look of the astronauts. It always pulls me in more when I watch a movie and I know that there isn’t that much CGI in it. It’s crazy to think that ‘The Martian’ didn’t have that much CGI.”
“The Martian” was almost an exercise in wish fulfillment for Romania native, who wanted to be astronaut as a child. But Stan, who moved with his mother to New York at age 12, said, audience members don’t have to have their sights set on the stars to relate to “The Martian.”
“The movie has right amount of humor and suspense, and you invested when you’re watching the film,” Stan said. “It feels very grounded and there’s an everyman feeling in Matt Damon’s character, just because he’s so relatable.”
Stan, who also recently starred opposite Meryl Streep in the music-themed family drama “Ricki and the Flash,” is currently reprising his role as The Winter Soldier in the hotly anticipated Marvel superhero sequel “Captain America: Civil War.” Look for that to hit theaters in May.
As legendary director Ridley Scott found out filming “The Martian,” making a movie about Mars does have its privileges — especially when NASA personnel are major consultants.
That’s because while the space agency revealed to the world Monday that there’s running water on the Red Planet, Scott and his “Martian” team got early word about the discovery.
“They told us months ago,” Scott told me in a phone conversation a few hours after the announcement. “We’ve had several casual meetings with NASA making the film. They’ve talked about several big slabs that looked like white rock that appeared and disappeared, and actually what they realized it was, was ice. Of course, they just made the official statement that it was ice, and therefore, water. A couple months ago, they thought it was fresh water. This morning, thoug
h, they think it’s salt water.”
Opening in theaters nationwide Friday, “The Martian” follows the arduous plight of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), part of a team conducting experiments on Mars when a violent storm hits and sweeps him away before he can get to safety and evacuate the planet with his fellow crew members. Amazingly, Watney survives and is able to sustain himself on the Red Planet, and eventually re-establishes contact with NASA on Earth. But with limited time, resources and potentially harsh, if not deadly, elements, Watney could easily die unless NASA and the members of his crew can defy the odds and attempt a daring rescue mission.
Starring along with Damon is a diverse ensemble that includes Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie as Watney’s fellow astronauts, and Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davis among the NASA personnel guiding them.
Scott, of course, is no stranger to science fiction, having directed such genre classics as “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” The exciting thing for him is, what is considered science fiction today with a film like “The Martian,” could very well be science fact tomorrow — especially since the science of Watney’s survival and the mathematics behind the conceivable rescue mission to Mars is in theory — and much, much more — quantifiable.
Ultimately, presenting plausible scenarios is Scott’s way of showing his respect for his audiences’ intelligence, instead of relying solely on visceral visual effects to entertain them.
“It’s always great when an audience can walk away, saying, ‘I’ve learned something’ or asking, ‘Is that true?’ That is cinema at its best,” Scott said, humbly. “We need to keep raising the bar.”
And Scott believes those visions have a better shot at becoming reality — but it’s going to take a collaborative effort.
“You can be optimistic, but you can’t ever assume it will happen if you don’t have the budget it would take to get to Mars,” Scott said. “I still question why it can’t be an international joint effort, and therefore, share costs. That would make more sense. You could even share the crew. You take the best of the best and off they go.”
The great thing is, said Scott, is that going to Mars isn’t about landing there to say we’ve done it. Before realizing dreams of living there, there is the possibility that Martian resources could be retrieved to help us here on Earth.
“We’re not mining there yet, but I’ve seen discussions of going to the nearest places,” Scott said. “The only practical ones, really, are either the moon or Mars because everything beyond that is a quantum jump into astrophysics and hibernation. Mars probably has massive mineral wealth and capabilities, but whether it’s practical enough to ship it down to Earth, I’m not sure about that.”
Keeping atmosphere light
While the circumstances are dire in “The Martian,” Scott injects plenty of humor into the film and for right reason. Ultimately, life isn’t made up of entirely serious moments or humorous moments, but both — and without humor, Watney might not have the wherewithal to survive alone, Scott said.
“You have to sometimes take a humorous stance to help you through certain situations, and I think that’s what we see with Mark Watney. He has to take on a humorous stance or else he would lose it,” Scott said.
That’s not to say Watney isn’t serious about his situation. He very much is, and he has the courage in “The Martian” that harks a classic space film, Scott said.
“There’s a film that I like quite a lot called ‘The Right Stuff,’ which relates to courage — courage under fire. You can’t weaken and have to utilize your inward strengths to see you through,” Scott said. “Courage under pressure is in the film, but it’s a life lesson as well.”
Scott plans to return to space soon, in the cinematic sense, of course, with “Alien: Paradise Lost,” a sequel to his 2012 sci-fi hit “Prometheus” pegged for a 2017 release. After that, considering the director turns 78 in November, retirement hardly seems like an option.
To man, retirement means time for taking vacations, but truth be told, Scott’s been taking trips here and across the universe for nearly 40 years through his experiences as a filmmaker.
“Once I finished ‘The Martian,’ I felt like I’d been to Mars. People ask if me if I’d like to go there for real and I say, ‘No, I like it here,'” Scott said with a laugh. “But you really do feel like you’ve been there once you finished prepping, shooting and post production. That’s the beauty of filmmaking, you know. You get to go to the 18th century, you get to go to the future and you get to go to the present in some other forms. That’s why I love what I do.”
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers