Saturday, September 16, 2017

Stranded (Niggeman IndieFilms S.L., Dolores Pictures S.L., Guerrilla Films, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill ( consisted of a feature, a TV series episode and three shorts, all of them centered around the theme of astronauts stranded on Mars and fighting for their own survival — indeed, the feature was actually called Stranded and was made by a Spanish company in 2002 ( gives the date as 2001), though the studio scenes were shot in Hollywood and only the location work was done in Spain (in Valencia and on the Canary Islands). Set on a Mars expedition in 2020, Stranded deals with a crew of six astronauts who are stranded on the Red Planet’s surface when their spacecraft — a landing module that’s just detached itself from another craft which orbited Mars to let them out — crash-lands due to a software glitch that interfered with the computer’s instructions on how to land the thing and forced it to crash, meaning it can’t be flown off the planet for a return to the home ship. The mission commander, André Vishniak (José Sancho), dies in the crash, leaving Susana Sánchez (María Lidon), in charge even though she’s blonde, has the appearance of an animate kewpie doll and is clearly the youngest and least mature of the five remaining crew members. 

The others are medical doctor Jenny Johnson (Maria de Madeiros), engineer Luca Baglioni (Vincent Gallo, the only cast member I’d heard of before), geologist Fidel Rodrigo (Joaquim de Almeida — the “m” instead of an “n” at the end of his first name makes me wonder if the Spanish production company borrowed him from neighboring Portugal), and something-or-other Herbert Sagan (tall, blond Daniel Axer, whom I’d like to have seen more of but who disappears fairly early on — and it’s not hard to guess whom writer Juan Miguel Aguilera was paying tribute to with his last name!), and the first part of the movie is a lot of anxious palaver between them over how long they’re going to have to hold out before another ship from Earth comes out to rescue them, since the pilot of their master craft still in orbit around Mars can’t hang around and wait for them because he has no landing craft that can get to them and if he hangs around more than a day or two he’ll miss his launch window for the trip home. Luca, the biggest, most arrogant pig among the dramatis personae (though none of these people are especially likable, which in itself marks this as a modern movie even though it’s already 15 years old), announces that the soonest any ship from Earth can come along and rescue them is two or three years, and they don’t have enough oxygen, water or food to sustain all five crew members that long — so three of the crew will have to exit the spacecraft and sentence themselves to death on Mars in hopes the other two can hold out long enough for Earth to send a rescue ship. What’s more, Luca has made the decision as to who should go and who should stay — naturally he picks himself to survive since he’s the engineer (and he’s also the biggest, most arrogant pig — oh, I said that already) and he says Jenny should be the other survivor since she’s a doctor and therefore has professional skills that can keep them healthy during the wait. 

The other three crew members accordingly say they’re going to “go outside for a walk” (a stiff-upper-lip facing of death whose earliest film appearance I can recall is at the end of the marvelous 1934 James Cagney gangster vehicle He Was Her Man) and Sagan disappears (what happened to him, if writer Aguilera and director María Lidon[1] — so that’s how the blonde kewpie-doll got to be second-in-command! She was directing as well! — ever explained it at all, I can’t for the life of me remember) while Susana and Rodrigo stumble on the ruins of a Martian city, complete with various carvings on the stone wall, one of them being a chevron-like arrow motif that repeats every so often and leads them to a place on Mars where there is actually oxygen in the atmosphere, so they can take off their space helmets and breathe as they could on Earth. Meanwhile, back at the ship Jenny Johnson has discovered that there’s a leak in what’s left of the spaceship, and therefore the craft is losing air at such a rate that instead of two years’ supply left they only have about 12 hours. Luca’s response to this news is that if they’re going to die in 12 hours anyway they should have sex immediately so they can at least go out doing something fun — it’s almost certainly the worst pick-up line of all time — and it inspires this welcome response from Jenny: “You mean to say your enormous talent, your amazing intelligence, can’t find any other solution than for us to die fucking?... Here’s my plan... I’ll get into my pressurized suit and go outside to see if I can locate the leak... You can stay here inside and masturbate until you die of dehydration!” Then she says that they can build a memorial statue to Luca showing him with his pants down and his hands on his dick. At the end Jenny goes out to see if she can find the source of the leak; she can’t, but she receives word from the other two about the pocket of oxygen-bearing atmosphere on Mars and she and Luca (who gets up from under the metallic cloth he’s been using as a bed cover in a way that makes it look as if he indeed took her suggestion that if she weren’t willing to have sex with him, he have it with himself) go out and join the others there — and then the film ends. The general consensus of our audience was that Stranded was the bad version of The Martian, the 2014 film with Matt Damon as an astronaut similarly stranded on Mars (though with two crucial differences: he was alone, and he at least tried to extend his survival time by being resourceful), and while I was a bit disappointed with The Martian (mainly because I didn’t think Damon was an edgy enough actor for the role), it’s worlds better than Stranded.  

Stranded is one of those frustrating bad movies with a good movie seemingly trapped inside it, trying vainly to get out, and one of the things that gets really annoying about it pretty fast is the doom-laden pessimism and hopelessness of Vincent Gallo’s character. Another, related problem is that no one in the crew seems to have any constructive suggestions on how to deal with their predicament: when I heard that they had silicon aboard my first thought was, “They’re complaining about their limited energy — why don’t they make solar panels?” (Enough real spaceships have included solar panels in their designs this should have been a no-brainer, even for as resolute a glass-half-empty fellow as Luca.) That pocket-of-atmosphere stuff was silly even when Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou used it to keep their moon-landers alive in the 1928 film Woman on the Moon (though at least von Harbou was a smart enough writer she had the lunar atmosphere exist only at the bottom of valleys and caves, indicating that the moon’s gravity hadn’t been enough to sustain much of an atmosphere but what there was of one was at least in its geographically lowest portions) and it’s even sillier here — how does the oxygen-based atmosphere keep from blending with the carbon dioxide that’s most of the atmosphere around the bulk of Mars, both in this movie and in real life? Another problem Charles had with the film was the English-language dubbing; the voice actors recited their lines in an emotion-less monotone, and though the DVD being shown gave the options of seeing it in English or Spanish, they did not give the option of watching the Spanish version with English subtitles — and Charles suggested that would be more fair to this film than the dubbed English version (just as that very interesting 1959 German Gaysploitation film The Third Sex from 1959, which we watched ages ago on a VHS from Sinister Cinema, might have come off better in German with English subtitles than it did in the dubbed version our old friends at American International prepared for the U.S. release). There’s nothing wrong with Stranded that a better director, a stronger, better constructed script and a more charismatic, appealing cast couldn’t have cured — the basic premise is an excellent one and could have made a great movie, but it didn’t this time.

[1] — Who took her directing credit under the name “Luna,” so we have a film about Mars directed by the moon.