Martian Child (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Martian Child wants to make us cry. It nearly made me gag. This is an exercise in shameless and inept emotional manipulation. The film doesn't try to hide what it's doing. If you don't cry, it hasn't worked. There's not a single genuine human emotion to be found between the beginning and end credits. Worse still, anyone with familiarity with this genre will know how things are going to turn out fifteen minutes into the production. And it's not just the ending that's obvious - it's the entire transparent journey that takes us there. Martian Child offers no surprises, not even little ones. One could argue that its heart is in the right place, but that's about the only thing it gets right.

David (John Cusack) has been a widower for two years. A successful science fiction novelist, David has never been fully able to adapt to his wife's death. Now, despite advice to the contrary from his sister, Liz (Joan Cusack), he's considering adopting a child. Sophie (Sophie Okonedo), a friend who works at an orphanage, has "the perfect child" for David: Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a cute young boy who believes he's a visitor from the planet Mars. During the day, he hides in a box because the sun bothers him. He never goes anywhere without his "gravity belt" and a video game that he claims to be more than entertainment. After bringing Dennis home, David discovers that connecting with a child is more difficult than he expected, and love may not be enough to get them through the tough times, especially when the doctors wonder about Dennis' competence to care for someone as "special" as Dennis.

The key to a story of this sort working is two pronged. It has to show both heart and brains. Missing the former makes it a cold, emotionless experience. Missing the latter makes it a mawkish mess. Sadly, Martian Child often shows an absence of both characteristics and rarely shows the presence of the two. There are isolated scenes that are effective if taken out of context (particularly the sequence where the dog dies), but too much of this motion picture feels forced and artificial. You can almost hear director Menno Meyjes yelling at his actors to make the audience weep.

Meyjes is directing from a screenplay credited to Seth E. Bass & Jonathan Tolins, which is based on a novel by David Gerrold. Gerrold, an award winning science fiction author (who also wrote one of the most popular Star Trek episodes, "The Trouble with Tribbles"). The book is a slightly fictionalized account of Gerrold's own adoption of an eight-year old hyperactive boy. In order to make the movie more palatable to mainstream tastes, Gerrold's sexuality has been expunged (he is a single gay man) and some of the more cerebral elements have been dumbed down. What we're left with is a standard-order film about the love between a maladjusted child and a lonely adult promoting mutual healing. It's a laudable subject but it has been done so many times before to a greater impact that one wonders why this movie was made at all.

There was a time when seeing John Cusack's name on a credits list was an almost sure sign that something worthwhile lurked beyond the theater door. Of late, however, Cusack has lost his magic touch, appearing in a few too many movies like Martian Child. Cusack is credible in the role, but all that's really required of him is to look, by turns, sad, confused, and filled with wonder. He also sheds a few tears along the way. His young co-star, Bobby Coleman, has a single function - to be cute - and he succeeds in that department. Anjelica Huston is on hand long enough to provide what is certainly the most embarrassing performance of her career - thankfully she's only on screen for about five minutes. Finally, Amanda Peet has the thankless role of being the sort-of romantic interest. The film makes a really strange decision by starting a relationship between David and her Harlee before abruptly dropping it. They share a lip-lock, then… nothing. One wonders if the rest of the romance was left on the cutting room floor or if it has something to do with the reported last-minute re-shoots provided by director Jerry Zucker.

Martian Child had a troubled production history and the release date was delayed several times. The resulting motion picture isn't a first rate disaster but it's unpleasant enough to leave a bad aftertaste. Formulaic tear-jerkers are delicate things and when a director crafts one with the sledgehammer-like subtlety displayed here, it's likely to offend those who value a degree of authenticity in their dramas.

Martian Child (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-02
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1