Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by David Gerrold (who wrote the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode of Star Trek, among other things), Martian Child follows David (John Cusack), a recently widowed science-fiction writer as he adopts and tries to raise Dennis (Bobby Coleman, who was in the fantastic though short-lived sci-fi action-drama Surface). The thing about Dennis is that he’s incredibly withdrawn and eccentric. He says he’s a Martian sent to Earth to study humans, and when David first meets him, Dennis is hiding under a cardboard box because he says the sunlight on Earth is too strong. But David, driven partly by the need to fulfill a dream he once shared with his wife, strives to bring Dennis out of his shell and to be a good parent, and maybe in the process to find direction in his life again. What follows has the feel and familiarity of a lot of other “studio” movies, with pop music on the soundtrack, colorful lighting and costume design, and clichéd parent-child scenes, like a food fight in the kitchen and random goofy dancing. My mom would like this movie.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What the movie also has is a story of familial trouble and personal growth told through good performances. Cusack is his usual self here, bordering on greatness but still with that kind of slacker/outsider edge that conveys aloofness. His performance raises Martian Child from treacle territory to honesty. Coleman ain’t a Dakota Fanning-level talent, but that’s actually a plus here — he comes off as less of a child actor and more of a child. He conveys Dennis’ distance from the world effortlessly without appearing too cute, although his whispery voice borders on precocious. And the meat of the movie, the scenes between him and Cusack as they struggle to adjust to each other and develop some sort of relationship, are more natural than most movie versions of parent-child relationships. The unique nature of the relationship adds a subtle, dynamic layer.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast is mostly wasted. Amanda Peet just gets to look cute, and Oliver Platt just gets to be weasly; even though each has a good scene or two, they’re both largely unnecessary. Joan Cusack, though, makes the most of her role as (surprise!) David’s sister, and her character’s two rambunctious sons serve as dramatic counterpoints to the quiet relationship between David and Dennis. The movie’s also helped by director Menno Meyjes, who last directed Cusack in the enthralling Max. He’s solid and seems to stick mostly to the Hollywood family-friendly drama style, but he has a nice flair. Check out his overhead-camera shots and unique lighting used during a conversation in a car. The story may seem to have lost its personal touch in translation to film, feeling more like another Hollywood see-this-and-learn-something movie, and it’s sad, considering the truly distinctive movie that might’ve been. But still, good acting, solid direction, and a winning DELETE give Martian Child a strong emotional pull.
Starring John Cusack, Bobby Coleman, Joan Cusack, and Amanda Peet. Directed by Menno Meyjes. Written by Seth Bass and Jonathon Tollins, based on the novel by David Gerrold. Rated PG.