'Martian' could alienate you

John Cusack has nice moments, but film won't make you care

Posted: November 02, 2007

"Martian Child" is like the movie Nickelodeon would have made from "K-Pax."

Does anyone remember that movie? It starred Kevin Spacey as a mental patient who claimed he was actually a humanoid alien, due to be picked up at any time by emissaries of his home planet.

Moviegeors gave a chilly reception to "K-Pax," whose title sounded like an unsavory cross between a breakfast cereal and a sanitary napkin. It didn't help that it was insufferably indulgent about the poor man's E.T. delusion.

What forces, one wonders, led Hollywood to conclude that audiences would go for this if it were repackaged with a child as the self-styled alien?

Here, the kid in question is named Dennis (Ben Coleman), a hard-to-place foster kid with what we are told are severe behavioral problems.

This presents "Martian Child" with a problem. Movies about real children with real problems are not cute and marketable, and so "Martian Child" repackages the boy's difficulties as cinematic eccentricities.

Coleman is a brilliant oddball (adults describe him as half Mozart, half Andy Warhol) who's OD'd on science fiction - he's not an abandoned kid, he claims, but an alien kid due to be reclaimed by his Martian kin.

The movie pairs him with science fiction writer David Gordon (John Cusack), a widower who's seeking to give his empty life new direction and meaning.

After some pointless hemming and hawing (there's no movie if he doesn't adopt the kid), Gordon takes him home and uses his special understanding of the power of imagination to coax little Dennis towards the mainstream.

The kid is no Culkin/Osment child prodigy, but Cusack seems determined to make this work, and contributes some nice scenes. But he's better than the movie around him.

Dennis and David are a child/surrogate father match that's obviously made in heaven, but the script contrives reasons to place little Dennis in danger of being reabsorbed into the soulless system where individual genius and differences are trampled.

Inflexible schools and social workers loom, and David is constantly on the evaluation bubble, as if bureaucrats are prepared to make the argument that the child should be retunred to the group home, where he was living as a mute under a cardboard box.

These contrivances help explain why the movie's big scene of catharsis and magical healing occurs without a corresponding component of emotion. *

Produced by David Kirschner, Corey Sienega and Ed Elbert, directed by Menno Meyjes, written by Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins, music by Aaron Zigman, distributed by New Line Cinema.

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