(Video on Demand, January 2016) It’s a good time to be a hard-Science Fiction fan. After decades of repeating that there were no hard-SF movies (save for maybe parts of 2001 and Contact), here are Gravity, Interstellar and now The Martian in successive years to prove us wrong. The Martian has the added benefit of being perhaps the warmest and the purest hard-SF of the three, blending a likable character with reams of effortless exposition about the technical details of being stuck alone on Mars, years away from any potential rescue. Much of the story plays like an endless series of problem-solving mini-dramas, which is closely aligned with the basic ethos of hard-SF. Matt Damon is very, very good in the title role, alone on-screen for a chunk of the story, separated from the rest of the cast. But director Ridley Scott is the one who excels here, delivering his most purely enjoyable film in a long while, making the most out of a terrific script by Drew Goddard that faithfully adapts Andy Weir’s page-turning novel. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Manuel Pena make great impressions in smaller roles, while the special effects work is dazzling. A note should be made of the film’s use of pop music, from cheap shots at disco (leading to an apt spot for “Staying Alive” during the end credits), to a spellbinding montage set to David Bowie’s Starman. Such touches help humanize a script that easily could have been far too dry (in the manner of so many hard-SF novels written by scientists) to attract popular acclaim. Fortunately, The Martian seems to have hit the right chords: It was a massive commercial and critical success, paving the way for similar movies. The drought of hard-SF on-screen may have lasted decades, but chances are that it’s down for good.
(On-demand video, October 2012) Horror fans won’t have to think twice about whether to see this film: The Cabin in the Woods is as essential a horror film as any in the past few years. A gleeful deconstruction of the good-old “cabin in the woods” horror scenario, it’s a commentary as much as it’s a comedy. It takes the good old tropes and plays with them until they fall apart. I have some evidence that the film won’t play very well to an audience that is unfamiliar with horror films, making it even more specially targeted (for better or for worse) to a specific public. Coming from geek-favorite co-writer Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a blast-and-a-half for those in the know. Is it perfect? Of course not: one danger with parodying tropes is forgetting a few, and it sure seems as if one “upstairs sabotage” plot thread has been left dangling. (My theory involves the audience getting bored.) Still, what the film does manage to deliver is enough to mandate a viewing. It helps that The Cabin in the Woods is competently-made: Goddard knows how to deliver the laughs, and the actors do passable jobs in the roles they’re given. Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz and Richard Jenkins stand out, by virtue of their places in the plot as much as anything else. There’s plenty of freeze-frame fun, and the film does a fine job at playing with the demands of the various genres it has taken on. For a while, The Cabin in the Woods is going to be the horror movie to watch with friends and that’s great: the horror genre was taking itself a bit seriously lately what with the icky torture-porn trend, and this is a welcome corrective. One final note about spoilers: it’s perfectly possible to spoil yourself rotten about the film, and still enjoy it immensely… so don’t panic if you think you already know too much.