Ridley Scott isn't exactly a director I associate with humour. The most memorable moments of levity in his past work is probably courtesy of Oliver Reed in Gladiator, who played a character with a certain kind of charisma and got all the driest dialogue bites. Many of Scott's films have a cold and distant feeling where characters lack humanity, and it's not just those with androids in the cast. So it's an interesting change of pace when this story about a mission to Mars gone wrong as plenty of humour. It's full of sarcasm and is sprinkled with little moments that allow for a joke or a pithy remark. Its also got a licensed soundtrack coupled with the work of Harry-Gregson Williams that means ABBA and other 70s tunes are used, which adds to this atmosphere. But this is a story about facing possible death alone on a desolate planet, stranded with a small chance of survival. Like the makeshift equipment employed by Matt Damon's astronaut, there are a few structural weaknesses to be found.
After an accident during a dust storm, the crew of the Ares III have to evacuate their research station and return to the ship, leaving botanist Mark Watney behind when an equipment disruption shows his life signs as negative. Stranded with long periods of time before anyone realises he survived, and longer until supplies or a rescue can be sent, he must use his scientific knowledge to find ways to stay alive. The clock is ticking as the rations left by the team dwindle and ways of generating power and creating a supply of oxygen must be found. This stuff is the core of the plot, it's what gets your attention. Watney breaks up the tension by playing disco music and making video recordings of his efforts with a sense of humour, but this is a survival story. It would be foolish to think this was going to be an existential nightmare like Moon but there's enough drama here despite the optimistic tone draining some of the tension. You can early on that it's not that kind of movie.
The movie looks great, though at times the Martian landscape feels a little too much like an Earth desert with a few filters added to add yellows and reds. Perhaps it's just my recollection of photos taken by real life probes but the planet always looked a lot more barren and desolate. There are good visual effects and plenty of intricate costumes and zero gravity moments. I might have preferred a more grounded look to the space suits being used which look kind of expensive for something used by a public agency, but it's still visually interesting. A lot of time is given solving problems like setting up communications equipment, building vehicle batteries that last more than a few hours, and increasing food supplies. This lone struggle against a hostile atmosphere is what works best here.
The problem is the other side of the coin, and the storyline happening back at NASA. It's a big distraction from a narrative perspective, but on top of that it has a lot of extra characters played by noticeably large ensemble which includes Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels, among many others. Sure we need to see how they communicate with Mars and hatch plans to send food, but there are so many boardroom meetings about PR and budgets that should have been cut. This is all before the focus moves back the Ares crew and their journey. The film feels way too long, and I just wanted a 100 minute story about Watney's potato crops. You get plenty of that, but momentum is lost whenever they cut back to the people who have the luxury of using water to wash with. It's fun, it's often dramatic, but overall there's a lot of excess that needs trimming.
Sicario (Hitman) is a story of the US battle with drug cartels south of the border. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI field agent on the front line of this fight, kicking in doors and discovering the horrors of what goes on inside homes used by criminals who have no qualms cutting limbs and hanging bodies in public to show their dominance. Eager to get back at the people who set her team up on a bust gone wrong, she volunteers to join a shady Department of Defence operation looking to hit them on their own turf. Who these people are and what their true aims might be soon becomes very unclear, as the line between right and wrong is blurred and Kate soon begins to worry about her role in all of this when information is withheld and the results of the operation start to look less than lawful. The becoming what you fight sentiment at the centre here.
Like Zero Dark Thirty it's a story that sets up a very grey area in which government agencies operate, and it even includes similar night-vision point of view sequences as the agents enter dark and sinister places. However unlike that story with its notable lack of audience guidance, Kate and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) are always present as a moral compass, questioning the validity of the work. Visually, it's very impressive with stand out work by cinematographer Roger Deakins. In the finale the silhouettes of the operatives sinking beneath the horizon into the shadows is incredibly striking, as are many other moments which amplify Denis Villeneuve's direction. The last few sequences undermine this constant sense of dread a little when focus shifts to different characters, and it's distracting when things start to feel less realistic and the reason for the story's title is cemented. But it's still a very intense affair for the most part.