The Most Unknown


Jennifer Macalady explores a new world.

(2018) Documentary (Motherboard/Abramorama) Jennifer Macalady, Davide D’Angelo, Axel Cleermans, Luke McKay, Rachel L. Smith, Victoria Orphan, Jun Ye, Anil Smith, Laurie R. Santos, Emelie Caspar, Brian Hedlund, Joseph Garguglia, Erik Cordes Chris Gates, Warrick Roseboom. Directed by Ian Cheney

 

These days, science isn’t the sexiest career choice as it was in the glory days of NASA or at the beginning of the computer revolution. Scientists are looked upon with suspicion and even disdain by much of the general American public, which says less about science and scientists than it does about America and the political landscape of the country at present.

But even though there are fewer college students going into science majors and careers in the sciences, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of excitement in the varied fields. This is something of a scientific experiment courtesy of the science journalism arm of Vice News, taking nine scientists, all of them working on some of the most basic and important questions ranging from what would life on other planets look like, how does the brain create consciousness, how are stars and planets created and what is the nature of time. Each scientist journeys to a different place in the world to meet up with a scientist in a different field; the resulting conversations are lively, and more importantly, accessible to the layman.

We are introduced to microbiologist Jennifer Macalady who journeys to Italy to meet physicist Davide D’Angelo who in turn heads to Brussels to meet cognitive psychologist Axel Cleermans. He heads to Nevada to meet up with astrobiologist Luke McKay. McKay’s assignment is to go to Hawaii to meet astrophysicist Rachel L. Smith. She gets to go on a deep dive off of Costa Rica with Cal Tech geobiologist Victoria Orphan to explore the life forms in a methane seepage. She in turn meets physicist Jun Ye in California to see the world’s most accurate atomic clock. He heads to the UK to meet neuroscientist Anil Smith who then heads to the office of cognitive psychologist Laurie R. Santos who eventually goes full circle to the Italian caves where Macalady is working.

Their enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring; their passion is undeniable but these are not movie scientists rocketing in all directions willy nilly without restraint; these are dedicated professionals who are absolutely obsessive about doing this right. They are methodical and patient, knowing that these questions won’t have easy answers and therefore will require time and determination in order to find te right direction. Some of them, like D’Angelo who is exploring the mystery of dark matter, isn’t sure that he’ll find answers in his own lifetime but he’s confident that answers will one day be found and that he will help find either by steering future researchers onto the right path or at least away from the wrong one.

Some of the images here are mind-blowing, including marine life that consumes methane and helps keep our planet’s atmosphere from becoming toxic or the glowing isotope that powers the atomic clock. The filmmakers go to all sorts of locations from the black rock desert of Nevada, the jungles of Costa Rica, the Atomium in Brussels and gleaming laboratories all over the world.

If there is a fault here, it is that there might be too many conversations plugged into an hour and a half. In some ways this might have worked better as an episodic series with a half hour to an hour devoted to each of the nine segments. However, if the only fault you can find in a documentary is that there isn’t enough of it, the filmmakers are doing something right.

This is a documentary that just might inspire you to take science more seriously, or at least appreciate the process more. Certainly these scientists are anything but arrogant, idiosyncratic or hidebound, nor are they loose cannons. They are fresh-faced, enthusiastic, passionate about their work and brilliant. They never talk down to each other nor the audience; the result is that you get caught up in their enthusiasm. Maybe I as a layman will never understand the importance of dark matter or be as passionate about cave slime but I can be very happy that somebody is.

The film is currently playing the Quad Theater in New York and will be making a limited run in various theaters and festivals around the country. In August, it will be heading to Netflix. There will also be additional material made available at that time. Keep an eye out for it – this is worth seeing both as an educational aid for young people and for adults who want to feel inspired by science.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most effective advertising for a career in science since Cosmos. Some of the footage is truly remarkable. The film looks into some really basic but important questions. The science is explained in a relatable manner.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t get as in-depth into the conversations as you might like.
FAMILY VALUES: Although there is brief mild profanity, this is truly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Macalady was also featured in the 2012 science documentary The Search for the Origin of Life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Grace Jones: Bloodfight + Bami

Jurassic World


Here comes the cavalry.

Here comes the cavalry.

(2015) Science Fiction  (Universal) Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Irrfan Khan, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee, Katie McGrath, Andy Buckley, Eric Edelstein, Courtney James Clark, Colby Boothman-Shepard, Jimmy Fallon, James DuMont, Matthew Burke, Anna Talakkotur. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

It is not unusual to be fascinated by dinosaurs. We all look at the great lizards who ruled the world before men walked upright in awe and wonder. Now there is nothing left but the fossilized remains of their bones. We know precious little about them, mostly extrapolating from the few tantalizing clues we’ve discovered over the years. How would it capture the imagination if we could examine a real, living dinosaur – and how insanely dangerous would that be?

John Hammond had a dream. He’d discovered away to clone dinosaurs using blood found in mosquitoes trapped in amber over several million years. He wanted to display them in a biological preserve on Isla Nublar off the cost of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, his plans to open Jurassic Park (as he hoped to call the theme park) met with disaster and death.

However, that was 22 years ago. His dream became reality eventually – in Jurassic World, a high-tech theme park complete with Starbucks and a resort hotel. Hammond is no longer with us, but his successor – Simon Masrani (Khan) – has given the world a major tourist attraction that draws millions every year.

However, like every human endeavor, the shine wears off pretty quickly and people grow jaded, their attention captured by other things. In order to stay competitive, Masrani knows he has to present new attractions to keep the crowds coming. But dinosaurs don’t exactly grow on trees; there are only so many of them to go around. He knows what the public wants – bigger, louder, more teeth. So he sets his chief mad scientist Dr. Henry Wu (Wong) to genetically engineer one, one with the traits of a variety of different dinosaurs – only bigger, louder and with more teeth.

Park director Claire (Howard) has no problem with that. She’s already got Verizon interesting in sponsoring the new exhibit. However, one of her top trainers isn’t so excited. Owen (Pratt), who has a history with Claire (they dated for about five minutes years ago) and a military background, has managed to make some inroads with the Velociraptors who at least have a kind of mutual respect thing going with him and will occasional listen to his commands.  A genetically engineered dinosaur? Messing with nature can only end up in disaster.

And so it does. The new dinosaur – dubbed Indominus Rex or “fierce/untamed king” – using previously undiscovered abilities has escaped from her enclosure and she’s got a mean on. She doesn’t kill for food; she kills for sport. That’s bad news for the other dinosaurs, but worse news for the tourists who aren’t aware that they’re going to become snacks for the new predator. And to make matters worse, Claire’s two nephews – brilliant Gray (Simpkins) and hormonal Zach (Robinson) – have ditched the sitter she sent to keep an eye on them and are about to have an up close and personal encounter with Indominus. She gets Owen to go out and fetch her wayward nephews but once he does, where does he take them when there is literally no safe place on the entire island?

Jurassic World broke box office records opening weekend, proving that there is still life in a franchise that Universal had abandoned some fourteen years previously. Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) who also co-wrote this beast made a conscious effort to disconnect his movie from the other films in the franchise in subtle ways – only Wong, who appeared in the very first film, returns from the previous installments in the series. Fans may miss Ian Malcolm, Ellie Sattler and Allen Grant. However, there are plenty of connections still there, some subtle, some not so much.

First thing that fans are going to want to know is that there are dinosaurs and plenty of them. With CGI technology so much more advanced than they were in 1993 when the first film opened, the dinosaurs are much more detailed and realistically rendered here. There are almost no practical effects regarding the thunder lizards here, which is good and bad. You don’t get a sense of their physical presence as much, although Trevorrow utilized motion capture in order to make them move more realistically.

The park itself is modeled after modern theme parks, complete with Margaritaville restaurants, merchandising and a shopping/dining/entertainment zone in addition to the various attractions. Visitors kayak in a stream with Stegosauruses, roam a paddock in a gyrosphere with Apatosauruses, ride a monorail past the Tyrannosaurus Rex and watch a Mosasaurus leap out of a lagoon to pull a shark into the water before the stands are lowered to watch the leviathan devour its lunch through gigantic glass walls. There is an undercurrent of consumerism throughout that is meant to be a criticism of modern society, which while certainly inarguable is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m pretty sure most of us have noticed all the corporate sponsorship around us all these days.

Pratt, who shot to superstardom with Guardians in the Galaxy last summer looks to own this summer as well. I can’t recall an actor who has had two back-to-back movies do this kind of box office, and there are some pretty compelling reasons why audiences are connecting with Pratt. For one thing, he is an extremely likable sort with a quirky sense of humor that people first became familiar with in Parks and Recreation. He is also a genuinely nice guy who has connected with fans on a personal level, and that comes through onscreen.

Howard has one of her higher profile roles yet and Ron’s daughter acquits herself nicely. She is playing a kind of ice queen sort early on who has no idea how to interact with her nephews, so she fobs them off on an overworked and harried assistant (McGrath). Eventually she develops an ability to show the feelings she’s submerged over the years and as the movie progresses she becomes more identifiable – most of us know what it’s like to invest too much of ourselves into our jobs.

The supporting cast is pretty impressive, with D’Onofrio playing an InGen executive looking to militarize dinosaurs (which seems to be a potential theme for the inevitable sequel) and Johnson providing some comic relief as a nerdy technician with a crush on another nerdy technician (Lapkus). He also has one of the film’s nicer moments when it is revealed he’s wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt that he got on E-Bay. The movie also visits the original Park at one point in the movie which is both touching and a bit creepy as well. Greer has a brief but memorable turn as the mother of the nephews and Claire’s sister.

The movie never recaptures the wonder that the first Jurassic Park elicited from audiences, but quite frankly that genii has already left the bottle, so expecting to be wowed in the same way just isn’t realistic. This is an entirely different movie made in an entirely different era so those grousing that the movie isn’t as good or the same as the first one are banging their heads against the wrong wall.

That isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. Like the first movie in which genius kids rescue the entire park, the kids – who put adults in danger by failing to listen to adult instructions – become insufferable because they are apparently more competent than people who have trained all their lives to do what they do. Like Alex the hacker who puts the whole park back online after the computer reboot in the original, the boys manage to elude dinosaurs that have wiped out entire squadrons of security guards better armed than they.

Short of that subplot ringing untrue, the movie has all the enjoyable elements needed for a good summer movie. While it doesn’t measure up to the first (and never intended to), it certainly stands on its own as a fun ride constructed well, although without innovation. While I can agree with those who grouse that the plot is too similar to the first Jurassic Park and follows in the formula that all four of the movies have been constructed with, I have to admit that when something works there’s no point in abandoning it. While I would love to see a JP 5 that eliminates the kids from the equation, it is unlikely that will ever happen. Kids after all make up a goodly chunk of the core audience for this film, so it would be economic suicide to ignore that chunk. This is nonetheless good, solid summer fun and anyone who says otherwise has a dino-sized stick up their rump.

REASONS TO GO: More dinosaurs is always a good thing. The park looks like a place I’d want to visit. Pratt has become a pre-eminent action hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the wonder that the first film created. Suffers from genius kid syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of dino-violence, peril and people being eaten.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bryce Dallas Howard’s outfit is all white in tribute to the costume worn by the late Sir Richard Attenborough as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. Both of the characters were directors of the park in their respective films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Carnage