Review: “Martian Child”

If the abandoned little boy in Martian Child really does come from Mars, then John Cusack might be from a solitary planet orbiting the North Star. They have a lot in common. That’s not to imply that all other stars in Hollywood revolve around Cusack. Certainly not. Do we think of him as a polarizing figure? Quite the opposite.

It falls in the other stellar qualities that apply to each. Steady. Dependable. Bright but not glaring. Present seemingly since you were born. Whether Cusack or Polaris will last longer in time might draw a line in Vegas. Above all, Cusack has been a Hollywood survivor, perhaps because he has never burned his gases too quickly.

While he’s made recognisable films (Say Anything, High Fidelity), he’s never been considered the Hollywood It Boy. Nonetheless, he’s watched one teen star after the next fall from the sky, while carving out a recognisable career as solid, funny when necessary, and able to carry a film when the material is right. As a result, he stands here at 41 glancing back at the Judd Nelsons and Emilio Estevezes, likely with a grin.

Martian Child is typical Cusack fare – offbeat, interesting, but somehow still a bit limited in ambition. It’s an attempted family movie, both for the audience and for the star. He even brings along sister Joan to play – what else? – his sister.

David is a successful sci-fi fantasy writer whose wife recently passed away. After much handwringing, he decides to follow through on the couple’s plans to adopt. The social worker hopes that an imaginative writer can connect with one particular boy. However, the adoption board chairman worries he’s too flaky to provide discipline and guidance.

That’s because, whether physically or just mentally, young Dennis (Bobby Coleman) comes from Mars (an explanation self-concocted to rationalize his absence of parents). Hence, he does all the little things that you would expect from a Martian boy living on Earth. Like wearing a belt crammed with batteries to adjust to Earth’s gravity. And how better to shield Martian skin from Earth’s scalding sunrays than only leaving the house in a cardboard box?

That cardboard box, by the way, could be the one that carried the movie’s warehoused sappy ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but it involves a convenient relapse of Martian-hood and makes you wonder why no one locks the doors of an observatory at night. Perhaps they figure the telescope is too heavy to stuff in the back of a van.

Until then, Martian Child is likely middling for most movies of its type, although slightly less than that for films overall. The actors take a bit more care than usual to build the characters and relationships. The creative premise manages some decent moments even if its strict obedience to formula wears them out. Overall, it’s hardly a movie that will change the world – either this one or Mars.