Making things work: The Martian, The Walk, Sicario, 99 Homes.
by Bill Stamets
Four new films– “The Martian,” “The Walk,” “Sicario” and “99 Homes”– are factually informed fictions of efficacy. Each one is a tribute to ingenuity in many guises. Characters obey laws of physics on Mars and atop the World Trade Center, and break other laws in Mexico and Orlando.
Four filmmakers impart distinct agendas to plots about making things work. Towards what ends? Getting home to Earth, walking on a wire between the Twin Towers, assassinating a narco-cartel CEO, and profiting from foreclosures to recover a home of one’s own. Apart from the pragmatics of technique and teamwork, the writers and directors are moralizing– more or less intently– in their respective narratives.
“The Martian” is set in an optimistic near future of robust funding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by Congress. Ares III, the third mission to Mars, goes awry. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind in a blinding dust storm after his malfunctioning sensors transmit no vital signs. “The Martian” details the dire task at hand. “He needs to go home home,” as earthling Elliot (Henry Thomas) explains in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982). To survive, Mark will re-engineer more than a Speak & Spell toy.
Director Ridley Scott (“Prometheus”) directs a science-is-really-cool screenplay that Drew Goddard adapted from a techie novel by Andy Weir titled “The Martian.” The son of particle physicist, Weir says he began his computer science career at age 15 at Sandia National Laboratories in his hometown of Livermore, California. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located in Livermore, figures in the book and the film. He later wrote code for the real-time strategy game “Warcraft II” and worked as an Android programmer.
Weir begins his novel, originally posted as a online serial in 2012, with Mark writing: “LOG ENTRY: SOL 6. I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked. Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life and it’s turned into a nightmare… So yeah, I’m fucked.” Or, as Val Kilmer’s character turned the phrase upon departing Mars in Antony Hoffman film “Red Planet” (2000): “Fuck this planet!”
“The Martian” splices themes of two films about voyagers imperiled by vehicular collisions. In “Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, debris from a decommissioned Russian satellite hits a NASA shuttle in a nearby orbit. In the Indian Ocean a stray shipping container breaches the hull of a yacht in “All Is Lost,” directed by J.C. Chandor. The mechanics of surviving lend urgency to both of these 2013 releases.
As Mark verbifies in “The Martian”: ”I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” Damon also played an intrepid tech improviser in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (2013), a sci-fi film set in 2154 about the ultimate in class-based health care. Its costly access is literally orbital– limited to residents of Elysium, a deluxe space station circling Earth. Terminally ill, Damon’s character engineers a life-saving treatment for other doomed commoners.
Earth is “vastly overpopulated” reads an opening title in “Elysium.” That updates the opening voiceover of “Red Planet,” set in 2050, stating “we had begun to overpopulate” our planet in 2000. The fix was to terraform Mars to make it habitable, then move there.
Wernher Von Braun proposed we colonize Mars in an October 24, 1960 speech in Dallas. The former German rocket scientist had joined NASA when the agency was created two years earlier and took over the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Man has learned to live and multiply so proficiently that if he keeps it up for another 500 years he won’t have a place to sleep because there’ll be `standing room only’ on this planet,” Braun told the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Under the headline “Colonies on Mars Seen Answer to Birth Boom,” the Associated Press reported: “Dr. Wernher Von Braun said Monday the United States could put a man on Mars and keep him alive longer than a native in the tropics could exist in the Arctic.”
Mars colonization is underway in John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” (2001), set in 2176, and Andrzej Bartkowiak’s “Doom” (2005), set in 2046. In the latter two films archaeologists inadvertently unleash lethal pushback by indigenous life forms. Visitors from Earth are not attacked, though, in Byron Haskin’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964) and Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars” (2000).
Mark is the only sign of sentient life on Mars in “The Martian.” His psyche is a cypher to NASA’s director of Mars missions back on Earth. Before making radio contact with the marooned Mark, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) observes: “He’s 50 million miles away from home, he thinks he’s totally alone, he thinks we gave up on him– I mean, what does that do to a man, psychologically? What the hell is he thinking right now?” In one of too many simplistic cuts, the next shot answers. Mark is blasting vintage disco music.
Weir is not into nuance. “The only reason I write is to entertain,” he admits in a Google Talk. “I never have a point. I never have a moral. I never want to do anything other than make the reader go `Cool!’ and that’s it.” In the last scene of “The Martian” Mark is back on Earth briefing fledgling astronauts on what to do when things go wrong on another planet: “You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem. Then you solve the next one. And then the next. If you solve enough problems you get to come home.”
It is not all about engineering when Mark works on his homecoming. Trained as a botanist, he finds a way to grow potatoes on Mars. Besides exchanging emails with NASA and JPL, he gets one from the president of the United States. “The coolest one. Coolest, though. The coolest one I got was from University of Chicago, my alma mater,” he shares. “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So technically, I colonized Mars.”
Mark figures he must be the first Martian. And in a further flight of theorizing– with nothing to do with orbital dynamics– he decides under international law he’s a pirate to boot.
“The Walk” salutes a trespasser. The lengthy tagline for the film is: “Twelve people have walked on the moon. Only one has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.” That one risk-taker receives an affirming paean fixated on his methodical planning to lessen the odds of gravity putting him in an early grave.
With civic sentiment on his sleeve, Robert Zemeckis directs a screenplay he co-wrote with Christopher Browne based on “To Reach the Clouds,” the 2002 book by Philippe Petit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays this French-born wire-walking artiste who put on an illegal show 110 stories above lower Manhattan on August 7, 1974.
Philippe regularly addresses the camera for garrulous and self-congratulatory exposition, in contrast to Mark voicing his log entries with sarcastic self-deprecation in “The Martian.” A charming trickster, Philippe is more introspective, make that narcissistic, than Mark and his skills are more screen-friendly. I flinched at the sight of his footwork during his playful walks between the Twin Towers, even though Alan Silvestri’s uplifting score dispenses with notes of suspense.
Press notes bill “The Walk” as “A love letter to the World Trade Center.” (So call “The Martian” a valentine by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) Philippe’s feat may feel like a Paris-accented segment from the old ABC show “Wide World of Sports” show, but Zemeckis packages his parting message with patriotic tropes familiar from his allegorical one-man saga “Forrest Gump” (1994).
“The Walk” renders the World Trade Center as monuments by indirectly referring to their ruins. The death of the Twin Towers is implied by valorizing the date of August 7, 1974 as their birth in the eyes of New Yorkers. Last reel shots of uniformed NYPD and FDNY responders to Philippe’s stunt evoke their comrades at that same address on September 11, 2001.
Philippe imagines he’s transformed the Twin Towers: “They’re different.” His girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) wonders, “So did you bring them to life?” One local boasts: “Now every New Yorker I talk to now says they love these towers.” Philippe changes his citizenship. “I was proud to become a New Yorker,” he narrates. He also cherishes his special visitor’s pass to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. Its expiration date is filled in as “Forever.”
Zemeckis’s closing shot embraces a sun-burnished World Trade Center, circa 1974, with a slow fade to black. Martin Scorsese’s coda to “Gangs of New York” (2002) also frames the World Trade Center in an elegiac light. The takeaway line from “The Walk”: “Look at that. We did it. We showed the world that anything’s possible.” Not only can someone do what Philippe did on a wire, but others can do what al-Qaeda did with two Boeing 767s.
“Sicario” takes on the post-9/11 targeting of so-called narco-terrorists by the United States. Covert operators play a tough and dirty game of offense against drug cartels in northern Mexico. Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners” and “Incendies”) directs an incisive, screenplay by Taylor Sheridan for a unsettling procedural. Cinematographer Roger Deakins indelibly surveils the unforgiving borderlands infiltrated by traffickers of drugs and laborers. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson suffuses the vexed terrain with an ominous thrum. Adrenaline-driven scoring cues kinetic action sequences.
The film’s title predates by many centuries the creation of the Office of Homeland Security on September 20, 2001 and the Homeland Security Council that convened five weeks later. Scholars of antiquity variously identify the Sicarii as first-century Jewish dagger-men (from the Latin sica for small dagger) as well as assassins, insurrectionists or terrorists. In the 1980’s Colombian cartels deployed hit men called sicarios (paid assassins).
“Is Narco-Violence in Mexico Terrorism?” ask anthropologists Howard Campbell and Tobin Hansen in the Bulletin of Latin American Research. Defining “narco-violence” as “intra-cartel, inter-cartel, cartel vs. government” violence, they weigh their wording: “Yet, if narco traffickers were labelled ‘terrorists’ then militaristic counter-terrorist measures might become more politically acceptable to the general public.” If “Sicario” has any agenda, it is precisely to complicate that issue.
I recall hearing “terrorist” and “Homeland Security” maybe once or twice in “Sicario” but the dialogue includes no serious or sustained points using either expression. Nor does Sheridan’s screenplay draw on items like this one posted at FoxNews.com in 2013: “Mexican cartels hiring US soldiers as hit men.” Five years earlier one cartel reportedly put up a banner (a narcomantas) over a Mexican thoroughfare that read: “Members and Ex-members of the Military, Los Zetas Wants You. We offer good wages, food, and benefits for your family. …We pay in dollars. We offer benefits, life insurance, and a house for your family and children. Quit living in the poor neighborhood and riding buses. You choose, the latest model car or pickup truck. What more do you want?” (Original in Spanish.) Militarization has reached the point where narcotanques is a new coinage for heavily armored “narco-tanks” that travel openly on Mexican highways in cartel convoys.
For a Mexican point-of-view on cartel violence, two realist dramas portray local victims: “Miss Bala” (2011) by Gerardo Naranjo, and “Heli” (2013) by Amat Escalante. “Sicario” contains a side storyline about a cop in northern Mexico. The film’s ending at his son’s soccer game– with a timeout for the nearby sirens and automatic weapons fire– is a dispiriting masterstroke by Villeneuve. The players and bystanders soon turn their attention back to the game.
Villeneuve affords his viewers the perspective of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, “Edge of Tomorrow”). She is an FBI agent leading a kidnap-response-team. The opening scene takes her to a suburban Arizona house where tortured and executed corpses wrapped in plastic are hidden inside the walls. After a northern Mexican cartel is implicated, Kate’s supervisor introduces her to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, “No Country For Old Men”). He has indefinite ties to the Department of Defense and is accompanied by a Colombian “consultant” named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, “Traffic”). Bearded commandos just back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan join Matt’s operation, a less than transparent task force with sketchy oversight.
Kate is brought onboard for the sake of inter-agency protocol. Her presence somehow ensures a mission that will end at the mansion of Sonoran drug lord will go “by the book.” All she is supposed to do is sign a paper saying so when it’s over. Until then, it’s her duty to watch. And so that’s what we do too.
One night at a U.S. military base right by the border, a soldier asks Kate: “Want to see something?” He leads her to the roof and points south. Is it fireworks or a firefight?
“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do,” Alejandro advises Kate. During the questioning of detained Mexicans, she cannot figure out the objective: “What are we looking for?” Matt simply instructs: “Just keep watching.” Later she’s told: “Learn, that’s why you’re here.” Like a shrewd screenwriter, Matt maneuvers the diegesis. What Kate– and Villeneuve’s viewers– need to know comes by a slow reveal, knowledge allocated for a controlled panic.
Kate’s eyes and ears take in more than she can square with her training. Alejandro and Matt lead her deep into compromising muck of tactics. They prove to be highly effective in taking down a cartel CEO that’s notorious for such atrocities as dropping a prosecutor’s daughter in a vat of acid.
“Sicario” has no Socratic dialogue about the war on drugs. Villeneuve and Sheridan are hardly running a seminar here to sort out ideas of a just war, the just use of force, and using force short of war. Nonetheless, their mise-en-scene articulates the fog of this awful war. High stakes call for extra-legal measures, implies “Sicario.” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) posed a similar rationale for assassinating Osama bin Laden in the war on terror.
Alejandro’s parting tip to Kate, more vulnerable than ever to a sicario aiming at her: “You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists.”
“99 Homes” maps inter-locking interests in Orlando, Florida where bankers, judges, sheriffs, county commissioners, real estate agents and eviction crews oversee the misery of one-time homeowners downscaled into debt refugees. Director and editor Ramin Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi offer a drama of discovery founded on wide-ranging research.
As in “Sicario, “99 Homes” shows an exemplar of efficacy schooling another character and the audience in the workings of the world. Here a loaded vocabulary of “predatory lending” and “toxic credit” replaces terminology prefixed with “narco” in “Sicario.”
Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”) of Rick Carver Real Estate evicts Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, “The Amazing Spider Man”) then hires this young carpenter and single dad to evict others. Driving though a residential area, Rick asks, “What do you see out there?” Dennis replies, “I see homes.” Rick sees more: “I just saw nine opportunities to make money in the last five blocks. There were three properties without mailboxes. One with an overgrown lawn and no car in the drive. Two with white signs taped to the windows. And three with shiny new floor knobs and lock boxes. If you can get attuned to seeing those kinds of opportunities, then maybe you can up get off your hands and knees and really start working for me.”
Heading to the posh home of hedge fund manager with a foreclosed mortgage, Rick advises Dennis: “Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and maybe you’ll learn something this time.” Dennis indeed learns, and it makes him ill. Like Kate in “Sicario,” he cannot reconcile ethics and efficacy.
“99 Homes” and “Sicario” critique intricacies of political economy, whereas Newtonian logistics underwrite the plots of “The Martian” and “The Walk.” Consumers play a role: “99 Homes” faults self-deluded homeowners with unreasonable goals and “Sicario” blames cocaine users.
The screenplay by Bahrani and Naderi is less blunt than “Kill Bankers”– the message a foreclosed Floridian spray painted on his living room wall. Less loquacious than Philippe in “The Walk,” Rick spells out his life philosophy with allusions to the deluge, bilge pumps and drowning-in-debt. After asking Dennis if he goes to church, Rick declares: “Only 1 in a 100 is going to get on that ark, son. And every other poor soul is going to drown. I’m not going to drown.” He lectures to his conflicted employee: “America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”
Bahrani’s drama “At Any Price” (2012) observed an Iowa farm family in crisis. “During the six months I spent with farmers in the American Midwest,” he related in his press notes, he kept hearing a “mantra” among farmers pressured by agribusiness: “Expand or die.” That capitalist imperative fits a Sonoran drug cartel and Rick Carver Real Estate too.
Bahrani ends “99 Homes” with Dennis undermining a key deal for Rick by admitting to fraudulently filing a backdated document for him at the Orlando court house. He knows enough how things work to make the right thing happen. In her last scene in “Sicario” Kate likewise plans to make a break. “I want to tell everyone what you did,” she tells Alejandro. “That would be a major mistake,” counters this quite efficacious sicario. Villeneuve takes that chance and tells us.