The week in film: ‘The Martian,’ ‘The Walk’

October 1, 2015

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The New York Film Festival is underway and two of the biggest commercial titles of the fall are in its lineup. (They also happen to be opening this week.) Neither of these lives up to the hype, though I recognize that will be a distinctly minority opinion.

“The Martian”: The films of Sir Ridley Scott are an extremely mixed bag but they are consistent in one regard– they value visuals over all else.

So it is with “The Martian,” a film that should be more exciting than it is. The novel by Andy Weir was hardly great literature but it created greater tension than Scott’s film manages.

Matt Damon is Mark Watney, an astronaut left behind on Mars by crewmates, who were evacuating the planet because of a deadly sandstorm. Watney, struck by flying debris blown loose from their habitat, is assumed to be dead. Except he’s not.

So the film focuses on the frantic efforts on Earth to get Mark back alive, even as he does his own Robinson Crusoe thing on Mars. The obvious reference points are “Apollo 13” and “Gravity,” though this film cannot compare.

Certainly it’s nice to have a hero who must live by his smarts — and who had to value education and science to get to this point in the first place. Damon brings delightful timing to a set of funny lines and undergoes some harrowing experiences. The contrast between the intentionally blithe affect that Watney puts on and the grim future he faces are meant to add depth and poignance to the story-telling.

But Scott sucks the suspense out of every scene by focusing on long, lingering shots of the red landscape. Despite all that computer wizardry at work, the green-screen seams show and the herky-jerky pace mitigates against the kind of creeping tension that should inform this film. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ridley Scott, most overrated filmmaker of the past 30 years.

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“The Walk”: Like Scott, Robert Zemeckis has been making films for 30-plus years and, like Scott, many of them are vastly overrated. (Yes, I’m looking at you, “Back to the Future” trilogy. And “Forrest Gump”? Don’t get me started.)

“The Walk” chronicles the amazing adventure of Philippe Petit, who snuck into the still-under-construction World Trade Center in 1974 and strung a wire between the Twin Towers. He then walked back and forth between the buildings, 110 stories above the ground, with a balance pole as his only safety equipment.

The story was told in the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” in 2008. Now Zemeckis has retold it and made it kitschier, cuter and more cloying — for the first 90 minutes. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a Pepe Le Pew accent as Petit, it’s almost as if Zemeckis is trying to parody his own story.

Once Petit steps out on to that thin steel cable in the sky, however, it’s a different movie (though Zemeckis can’t resist one final, obvious heart-tug at the conclusion). It’s hard to overstate just how engrossingly nerve-wracking Zemeckis’ depiction of this amazing feat is.

I saw a trailer for the film in a theater (which offered neither IMAX nor 3D) and the moment Zemeckis’ camera hovered over Gordon-Levitt’s head, staring down at him on a high-wire — and at the ground, 110 stories below — the hair stood up on my arm. The effect of the film (which I saw in IMAX 3D) is even more stunning.

(Still, those of us who watch these things for a living — or who care enough to look closely — will spot the moment when the flesh-and-blood Petit gives way to his digital avatar.)

I’ve often debated whether a great ending excuses a mediocre movie and tend to come down on the ‘no’ side of that argument. Still, I’m wavering with “The Walk,” a film whose final half-hour has you soaring so high that you forget how lame the rest of the film is.

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