If there is one message the filmmakers behind Martian Child would like you to take home it is: You Are What You Is. The latest from John Cusack is a family film about spare pegs and round holes which extols the virtues of being yourself. It’s a great message in this age where conformity seems to be king, but I wish it had presented in a more interesting movie.
Cusack plays a widowed science fiction writer who—rather improbably—adopts a troubled young boy (Bobby Coleman). Abused and neglected, when we first meet the youngster he is spending his daylight hours in a large box with just an eye slot cut in the side. Inside his sanctuary he protects himself from dangerous UV rays and occasionally takes a Polaroid of the outside world. You see, young Dennis believes he is from Mars and that the sun’s deadly rays will eat away at his skin. The snap shots, he says, are part of his larger mission to observe and document the human race as part of a Martian scientific study. With his pale skin, reddish hair and ever present camera he like the strange love-child of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Andy Warhol.
Cusack, having been a bit of a social outcast himself, understands that the boy has obviously created the story to cover for a traumatic upbringing by his birth family, and allows him to keep one foot in outer space while trying to keep the other firmly planted on planet Earth. When the boy tries to conform to what others expect from him, and live by “Earth” rules, it leads to an epiphany between adopted father and son.
It’s hard to dislike a movie as earnest as Martian Child. It has interesting messages for kids on growing up and acceptance of others, and seems to understand that kid’s early days are not easy—Cusack’s character even says, “Childhood is barbaric”—but despite all the good stuff, it falls flat.
Like the weight belt that Dennis wears to stabilize his Martian gravity and prevent him from floating away into the ether, the movie too seems weighed down by a predictable plot and heavy handed lesson. We get it. There’s no harm in being a little eccentric. We got that in the first twenty minutes, and yet seventy minutes later we’re still being hit over the head with that sentiment. If the film had heeded its own advice and taken some chances, tried to be bit more eccentric it may have been a much better movie going experience