Michael Stuhbarg, Michael Fassbender and cleverly disguised Kate Winslet in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs (2015).”

Scientific breakthroughs

‘Steve Jobs,’ ‘Martian’ show the human side of extreme geekdom

by Willie Krischke


My biggest beef with Danny Boyle as a director is that he tends to take what ought to be harrowing, miserable experiences and make them look like a lot of fun. Whether it’s heroin addiction in Scotland (“Trainspotting,”) poverty in India (Slumdog Millionaire”) or hacking your own arm off in Utah (“127 Hours,”) Boyle makes them seem like theme park rides. Welcome to Boyleland.

However, this trait is entirely absent from Boyle’s newest project, “Steve Jobs,” which manages to do nearly the opposite, making a product launch actually seem pretty stressful.  “It’s like five minutes before each launch, everyone goes to the bar, gets drunk, and tells me what they really think,” Jobs (Michael Fassbender) complains near the end of the film. This is a bit of lampshading on the part of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, whose script dominates the movie to the point that Boyle’s stylistic flourishes are almost absent. The film is structured around three product launches – the original Macintosh, the neXT cube, and the iMac – and the only scenes that don’t take place within a few hundred feet of the product stage are some brief flashbacks. It’s the kind of structural setup that might make “Steve Jobs” a better theater production than a film.

It also might work better as a radio drama. Everything that is good about this film originates in Sorkin’s script. It’s maybe the Sorkin-iest script ever, by which I mean, if you’re a fan of “West Wing” and “Sports Night” and can even find yourself defending “The Newsroom” when you’ve had too much to drink, you’re going to really love this film. If you’re indifferent to those, you’ll probably like this film.  (If you hate them, stay away.)

Fassbender and Kate Winslet really excel at mastering Sorkin’s notoriously difficult dialogue.  Winslet, especially melts into her role as Jobs’ assistant Joanna Hoffman, to the point that for the first half of the film – when she’s styled to look like Melissa Steadman from “Thirtysomething” – I didn’t even recognize her. Some of the other actors struggle a bit more, most noticeably Seth Rogen, who is clearly trying hard but out of his depth (it’s a weird casting choice; I get that he looks like Steve Wozniak, but Rogen’s characteristic stoner blabber is about as far away from Sorkin’s hyper-intellectual patter one can get.)

At its heart, the film isn’t about shiny electronics, but about Jobs’ struggle to overcome his confidence in his own genius in order to be a human being. “They’re not binary,” Wozniak tells him with a sigh.  “You can be a genius and decent at the same time.” Almost all of the people in his life love him but can hardly stand to be around him. He treats them like poorly designed computer components, until finally admitting, to the most important person in his life, that he sees himself as “poorly designed.” That may be a copout – blaming his problems on some far-off, unknowable designer, but it’s also a huge step for Jobs, to admit that he isn’t right about everything all the time. This is an entertaining, emotionally resonant film that will most likely be in the Oscar hunt this year.

Another one of the most talked about films this fall, “The Martian,” is set in an (apparently) not-that-distant future, where everything is exactly the same as right now, except people have set foot on Mars. When a team of astronauts are surprised by a storm there, they have to pack up and leave in a hurry, leaving Matt Damon behind, thinking he’s dead. He’s not dead, obviously, but he is a botanist, and the rest of the film is about his resourceful attempts to stay alive long enough for someone to rescue him, which will take about four years. Fortunately, he’s second cousin to MacGyver and part of the fun of “The Martian” is watching him come up with ingenious solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

This is an extremely nuts-and-bolts movie and would be in danger of falling off the edge into nerd-singularity if not for Damon’s winning performance and Drew Goddard’s excellent script. It is peppered with humor and human touches, like Damon’s hatred of disco and the extremely serious problem of lots of potatoes, not enough ketchup. This is Damon’s movie, all the way. There are plenty of other actors involved who command a pretty penny, but their characters are extremely limited. We have a no nonsense NASA director who’s burdened with making tough decisions; a PR gal who thinks he’s nuts; a salty flight commander who doesn’t play by the rules; and a kooky scientist who lives on coffee and can’t keep his desk clean or speak in normal English. Even Michael Pena, one of the biggest personalities in Hollywood, is pretty muted here. All the focus is on Damon, and thank God he is able to be funny, sober, discouraged, goofy and angry when needed. I’ve been thinking lately that Damon’s a better bad guy than hero – he’s just too good-looking to be trustworthy. But he turns in a fantastic performance here, and I’m back on his side again.

“The Martian” wears its themes right on its sleeve and – just in case you missed it – ends by putting that theme into the mouth of a main character while he is teaching young wannabe astronauts. (The only way to be more obvious would be to print it on the movie poster.) He says, and I’m paraphrasing: You’re going to find yourself in a life-and-death situation, where the odds are stacked against you and your chance of surviving is one in a million. And you can mope and cry and give up, or you can get to work. You solve one problem, and then you solve the next problem, and so on, until you get home.

This is an extremely humanistic film, one that believes that all the problems in the universe can be conquered by human ingenuity, stubbornness and, you know, science.