Saturday, December 19, 2015

Martian Land (The Asylum, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When I heard Charles had both Friday and Saturday off this week I had suggested that we go to the Mars film showings, and so we did even though we and the other attendees were probably the only science-fiction fans in all San Diego who were seeing a movie other than the latest in the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens, a film that has been so relentlessly over-hyped I was already tired of it two weeks before it came out. (This morning’s Los Angeles Times has a story about how The Force Awakens has set box-office records everywhere it’s played — not too surprising given that the ad campaign virtually said, “You’re ordered to see this movie!”) The proprietor put together a typically varied program consisting of trailers for upcoming attractions, a cute little cartoon about a space-traveling raccoon who just wants to be left alone to eat an acorn, an episode of My Favorite Martian (the second in the series, “The Matchmakers,” in which Martin the Martian, played by Ray Walston, helps George, the dog owned by the boss of Tim O’Hara, Bill Bixby’s character, get together with his soulmate Chloe, whose owner, Marsha Carson [Laura Shelton], keeps her locked in all day because she’s pissed off at all males, human or canine, because her boyfriend Howard Loomis [Linden Chiles] apparently jilted her and ran off to Mexico; it turns out he wrote her a letter saying it was only a business trip and he intended to propose to her when he got back, but she misplaced the letter — or did Martin, with his virtually supernatural powers, create a letter and leave it for Marsha to “find”? Last night I was struck as I’d never been when both shows were knew how similar My Favorite Martian and Bewitched were) and a short called Red Pearl which was a charming but rather dull story about a young African woman who uses NASA’s infrastructure to get back in touch with the spirit of her dead mother (at least I think that’s what it was about). Interestingly, lists another Red Pearl movie made in 2015, though that one is feature-length, and it claims the Red Pearl short was shot in the 2.35-1 CinemaScope aspect ratio but we were watching it on a download in an old-fashioned TV ratio.

The features on the program were both made-for-TV movies set on the planet Mars and involving Earthlings who have traveled there and are being menaced by the locals — though in the first one, Martian Land, there aren’t any living Martians and the menace is a giant, but highly unusual, sandstorm that is sweeping the planet. The conceit behind Martian Land is intriguing and would have made an interesting movie: decades of humanity’s failure to stop the relentless pollution of Earth’s environment and the resulting climate change (obviously this is not a film for Republicans!) have rendered our home planet uninhabitable. A few hangers-on like scientist Dr. Foster (Lane Townsend) have decided to remain on Earth and work on restoring scattered patches of the planet to sustainability in hopes that they can make all of Earth fit for human habitation again, but most of the human race (the chunk of it that survived the eco-catastrophe) has decamped to Mars, setting up artificial cities under huge force-field domes to keep out the hostile Martian atmosphere and climate conditions. They’ve also named these communities after the former cities on Earth — at least that’s what it says in the official synopsis put out by the producing company, a studio called The Asylum (an appropriate name given how, as the film unreels, we begin to wonder about the state of sanity of its makers), which refers to the principal locations as “Mars Los Angeles” and “Mars New York,” though in the film itself they’re only called by their initials, “MLA” and “MNY.” It seems that what makes this sandstorm different from all the others is it has the power to break through the force fields and thereby expose the artificial Mars communities to the full blast of Mars’ toxic (to humans and all other Earth life forms, anyway) atmosphere. It also just grabs anyone in its path and whisks them away to certain death. Among the Mars colonists are Dr. Miranda Foster (Jennifer Dorogi), who broke up with the male Dr. Foster a decade earlier when she wanted their family — which also contained a daughter, Ellie (Arianna Afsar, who actually looks enough like Jennifer Dorogi we can accept them as mother and daughter — casting two people with strikingly dissimilar appearances in a script that tells us they’re biologically related is a pet peeve of mine, and casting director Scotty Mullen deserves kudos for avoiding it here) — to move to Mars, while he chose to stay behind on Earth to try to restore its environment to something that could sustain human life again.

So she divorced Foster and took herself and her daughter to Mars, where she remarried to a cute, hunky and decidedly sexier husband, Mars rover pilot Neil (Alan Pietruszewski), who helped raise Ellie (so much so that he’s the man she calls “dad”) — only when that dastardly sandstorm hits Miranda summons her ex from Earth, and he agrees to come but only because the force field of MNY has already been breached and their daughter Ellie is in imminent danger of being killed if the sandstorm passes into the tunnels below the city. Ellie is there with her girlfriend Ida (Chloe Farnworth) — at first the relationship between the two girls is unstressed but we get hints of a Lesbian attraction, and eventually director Scott Wheeler and writer Jeremy Inman give us an on-the-lips kiss between the two that nails it even before Ellie introduces Ida to her biological dad as “my girlfriend.” Eventually Dr. Foster hits on a plan to disperse the sandstorm by firing three EVF beams at it simultaneously, controlled by a master switch that has to be detonated from inside the eye of the storm, only Miranda’s agreement to this plan is almost thwarted by her second-in-command, a tough Black woman named Rieger (Dionne Neish, who delivers by far the most authoritative performance in this film), and the guy they both rely on for the grunt work of actually maintaining their station, Andrews (another Black person, though saddled with the intriguing name Chaim Dunbar, and hardly the best — or worst — actor in the film but by a long shot its sexiest male cast member), whom Rieger seems to think will take her orders when she mutinies and tries to arrest Miranda just because they’re both Black, but who ultimately sides with Miranda and allows the power to the city to be kept on long enough for the EVF devices (which come in metal satchels helpfully labeled “EVF” and look like Coleman lanterns attached to little tripods that look like leftover light standards provided by the camera crew) to be aimed at the sandstorm — only both Dr. Foster and Nick sacrifice their lives to defeat the sandstorm, which they nickname “Zeus,” and at the end it looks like Ida dies as well (though that was more ambiguous) — writer Inman seemed determined to let both the Foster women live at the end but deny them all their significant others.

From reading my synopsis you might actually get the mistaken impression that Martian Land is a pretty good movie, but you’d be wrong; director Wheeler, writer Inman and their cast took a potentially interesting plot premise and screwed it up at every turn. The acting, if (to quote Dwight Macdonald about Haya Harareet) I can use that term for courtesy, is almost totally wretched (we’re supposed to regard Rieger as the human villainess of the piece, but Dionne Neish so totally out-acts the rest of the cast we actually sympathize with her), with top-billed Lane Townsend giving the film’s worst performance. I’ve actually heard porn stars deliver dialogue with more conviction! The writing is full of idiotic and downright risible lines, and the direction is as lame as the acting and the script — though the action scenes of the Mars rover flipping around in the wind as its two crewmembers go out on what turns out to be a suicide mission is cool and shows that even at the low level of budget and production values of The Asylum, anyone with access to enough computer time to do halfway decent CGI can make an acceptable-looking science-fiction film. In other words, the computers assigned to Martian Land did their job properly; it’s the humans who screwed it up, and while I don’t agree with the reviewer who said, “If you were to give a child a box of crayons and a handful of paint, I promise they could create a better screenplay than this” — actually, the children’s version would probably make at least marginally more sense, and even if it didn’t their parents would do a quick bit of story editing (“Danny, my son, just how did the wind get in the tunnels?”) — Martian Land is an infuriating example of how a bunch of untalented filmmakers can screw up a good idea for a movie. It would be a good candidate for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment if and when the much-ballyhooed reunion of the original MST3K cast happens!