By E. P. Whinters
Movies come from two sources – they either start as a visual story, created for the screen through what you see and what the characters say, or they start as a print-source first, a book or a comic. The two movies that I will reflect on today started as novels, Room by London, Ontario, writer, Emma Donoghue, and The Martian by Andy Weir. Viewing both back-to-back was an interesting experience, as both had to do with isolation, resiliency and survival; different in ways and similar in some. I will add the caveat that, in both cases, I did not read the precursor novel that came before each movie, so both, for me, were visual stories with no background information or prior expectations.
Too often, I hear people compare the book to the film, and almost every time, the book is better. Personally, they are two different genres where both tell a story; one tells a story through words, and thus can tell the reader what they want and what characters are thinking; the other tells a story through visuals, and thus has to communicate the story through what you see, and sometimes with words in first-person of what s/he is thinking and saying. Personally, to say one is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other ignores that they are different genres. That is like saying an orange makes a really bad steak, when the orange was never created to be a steak and neither a steak to be an orange. However, it is possible to comment on how well the original story is brought to the visual/auditory medium, that plot-points are maintained, that the climax is a visual/auditory depiction of the literary novel, that themes are maintained, perhaps communicated in different ways, and the same message is communicated, with equal impact, and those can be commented on. As mentioned, I have not read the novels to either, so will only reflect on what I thought of them as the visual/auditory story that I witnessed.
Room has excellent reviews, but my confession is that I found other nominated films better in both quality and personal appreciation. Brie Larson, nominated for best actress, comes across as very natural, normal and believable, in an abnormal situation; and in a lot of ways, female viewers with children will easily be able to identify with her and her emotional journey. Huge kudos to Vancouverite, Jacob Tremblay, the boy who plays her son, Jack. For as much as I found Larson’s performance low-key, I found Tremblay’s performance exceptional and powerful for one so young. Maybe, that is where value in this film can be found – there is power in survival, in the step-by-step struggle from one moment to the next, and the balance between mother and son, the grounding of the mother to enable the growth of the son, that clearly comes through to the viewer.
This film is split into two parts, divided by the climax of the plot; of which each ½ reflects on similar themes from different angles. Even the filming reflects this. The first part could become claustrophobic, but doesn’t – I can’t help but wonder how they got so many camera angles in such a small space! The second part enlarges the living space to a house, but because of the consistent and repeated filming angles, the viewer almost feels that this space is smaller than the room from which they came. The emotional struggles in each are different but no less difficult for each person. I would say that this story is given through the perspective of the son, Jack, so a lot of things we, as adults, know to be so (the rape of Ma, for example), are barely touched on because they are not in the realm of understanding for Jack. We are, however, given clues; yet, the emphasis is not on this, but rather how the mother’s strength of character give foundation to the resiliency for her son, thus enabling him to have an exceptionally strong grounding on which to become a ‘normal’, well-adjusted boy after the ugly of his beginning years are behind him.
This film is about forced isolation and the supportive relationship between mother and son that secures their ‘normal’ development and survival in an abnormal situation. It is tender and detailed and powerful; you get the feeling that the internal resiliency both characters have in their own ways will help them survive outside Room that began their relationship, and that because they have each other, that will be the foundation on which each will find their own success.
The Martian is also about survival and isolation, about creativity in a difficult situation, but in very different ways. In ways, not unlike Chuck Noland in Cast Away, marooned for months on a deserted island, this time we have Mark Watney, astronaut, left for dead on Mars with only a base station and an uninhabitable planet for his ‘island’. Whereas imminent Death was not very much a threat within the story of Room, it very much was the hovering vulture during much of The Martian and succeeded in creating some very tense moments for the viewer. Where Room is meticulous in its detail in small ways, The Martian is meticulous in its sweeping ‘man-vs-nature’ conflict that uses a scientifically plausible situation based on what we already have and what we already know about the Red Planet and interplanetary travel to create a tense, engaging story.
I liked this film, probably more than Room. The protagonist had a very optimistic and engaging character, which made a movie that could be very heavy with science and ominous in death, an enjoyable and occasionally edge-of-the-seat ride. It was surprisingly comedic in ways and comments, and Matt Damon, up for best actor, certainly commanded the screen and held his own whenever he needed to bear the burden of the film. There was ample range in emotion for the viewer to, not only remain engaged with the character and his struggles, but to ‘buy in’ to empathically journeying with Watley and his struggles, both internal and external. I felt occasionally that the author created ‘what-if’ scenarios and then played them out, as realistically as possible, to see how he could make his hero survive. The characters are quirky and comical, perhaps a bit exaggerated, but necessary for the story and a great balance for the science elements of the whole.
There is always a challenge in creating a realistic setting and scientific foundation based on nothing we actually know for fact in a situation like this, and the creation of ‘Mars’, filmed in Jordan, did an excellent job of bringing this to life for the viewer. I found there was a nice balance between the locations with which we could identify (NASA interiors) and what we couldn’t (landscape of Mars), and as a non-scientist, I was quite satisfied with at least ‘feeling’ that there was a sense of ‘reality’ about all the science in the film. From what I read, the novelist is a bit of a science-geek and was quite accurate in his creation of this novel when it came to the ‘science’-fiction end of the story. More than once, I felt myself holding my breath in nervous anticipation of what was to come for Watley; if he was going to lose his ability to breathe, I felt compelled to gasp on his behalf!
(As an aside, for all the budding novelists out there, Weir’s story on how he brought this story from concept to novel to screen is quite the ‘Cinderella’ story on its own! And to get Ridley Scott, of Alien fame, to direct it and Matt Damon to star in it? Oh, a dream come true for those of us who dream of writing our own novel one day!)
At this point, I have reflected on the viewing of six of the eight Best Picture nominees for 2016, and have two (perhaps the biggest contenders yet) left to view. At this point, I don’t think either of the films I reflected on here will walk away with either Best Director or Best Film. I’m not as sure on Best Actress (for Brie Larson) or Best Adapted Screenplay (for Donoghue), but I do think Room beats The Martian in this category; and I am pretty sure Matt Damon will not get it for Best Actor. Though both of these films are appreciated, each in their own way, and definitely quality films, I do think most of what they are up for will go to other contenders. The Martian is similar to Mad Max, and I do think Max is superior in their same-nominated areas; Room bears similarities (in regards to realism) to both Spotlight and The Revenant, both of which I have yet to see, and both that research says are very strong contenders, even against each other.
Time will tell.
Room Academy Award Nominations for:
- Best Motion Picture of the Year
- Best Achievement in Directing: Lenny Abrahamson
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Brie Larson
- Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay: Emma Donoghue (author of the novel, from London, Ontario!)
The Martian Academy Award Nominations for:
- Best Motion Picture of the Year
- Best Performance by and Actor In a Leading Role: Matt Damon
- Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay
- Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
- Best Achievement in Sound Editing
- Best Achievement in Visual Effects
- Best Achievement in Production Design