Wonders of the Sea


It’s a squid bonanza!

(2017) Documentary (Screen Media) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Celine Cousteau, Fabien Cousteau, Gavin McKinney, Richard Murphy, Holly Lohuis. Directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jacques Mantello

 

The ocean is the mother to us all. From her depths all life rose including mankind. She absorbs more carbon than any other item on earth. She feeds us, gives us nourishing rain. Without the oceans, life on Earth would not be possible.

We have taken the oceans for granted. We dump our trash into it, leading to floating trash heaps of plastics. Through global warming, we have raised the temperature of the oceans to a degree where certain species have had to retreat further into the depths in order to survive. We have overfished, devastating the population of tuna, cod, octopuses and other sea creatures. In recent years we have begun to understand that the ocean as a resource is truly finite.

One of the earliest researchers into the ocean was the legendary French engineer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, who in addition to inventing scuba gear and the aqualung which allow us to explore the ocean more thoroughly, is an award-winning filmmaker whose documentaries inspired a generation of ichthyologists, oceanographers and conservationists.

His son Jean-Michel has carried on the Cousteau family tradition. On his ship the Pacific Monarch he has continued on the mission of exploration and education. This film is the culmination of his efforts and in many ways it is brilliant. Using cutting edge underwater camera technology, he is able to take breathtaking footage in the great depths of the ocean as well as in the shadows; many of the creatures he turns his lens on (as well as cinematographer Gavin McKinney) are tiny and rarely photographed.

And those images are amazing and breathtaking, from a night dive where bioluminescent creatures prowl the deep, to swarms of mating squid to the great biodiversity of the coral reefs, the images explode with color and wonder. In fact, they almost do their jobs too well as after awhile we begin to experience sensory overload.

If only the narration matched the images. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, not noted for his ecological leanings, does a passable job but the information he is relating is generally available in other films. The coral reef section which takes up almost half of the running time is at least comparable to what you’ll see in the Netflix doc Chasing Coral which has a similar message. There is also some banter from the Cousteau family – Jean-Michel and his two adult children, daughter Celine and son Fabien – that feels forced and a bit incongruous.

Another thing to consider is that this was filmed in and meant to be seen in 3D. I don’t have the capability to watch 3D movies at home and so it feels like I lost a good deal of the impact of the movie. Even to my not-always-discerning eye it appeared that 3D would give the viewer much more of a “you are there” experience.

Technically, this is a marvelous achievement. The images are enhanced by a beautiful score by Christophe Jacquelin. Those with kids in the family will likely enjoy the coral reef sequences, particularly if the kids are devoted to Finding Nemo as there is some really fascinating looks at clownfish.

Preserving our planet is a very important cause and one which should be stressed not only to our young people but to their parents and grandparents as well. As stewards of Earth, we are failing miserably at our jobs. At least Wonders of the Sea has the sense not to politicize the film and point fingers (although we all kind of know where blame lies) and if they get a little shrill from time to time, it’s understandable. This is very much a virtual aquarium with a window onto the deep and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with that at all. I only wish I could have seen it in 3D as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: The imagery is dazzling with a dizzying array of color. Cousteau lives up to his father’s legacy.
REASONS TO AVOID: After a while, it all begins to blur together.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over a five year period.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Lavender Scare

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Interstellar


To infinity and beyond.

To infinity and beyond.

(2014) Science Fiction (Paramount) Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin (voice), Ellen Burstyn, Timothee Chalamet, David Oyelowo, Collette Wolf, William Devane, David Gyasi, Topher Grace, Josh Stewart (voice), Matt Damon, Leah Cairns. Directed by Christopher Nolan

Physics is a fascinating and maddening field of study. The wonder of the universe is written in the language of physics but so too are its rules and regulations. There are those that see the handwriting of God in physics but there are also those who see it as a frustratingly difficult to coalesce glimpse of the infinite simply because we are still learning to understand the language. In that sense, we are as children trying to speak in a language we only know a few words of.

Reality is a bit less hard to fathom. The Earth is dying. Something called the blight has killed most of the crops and, it seems, the animal life on Earth other than the human species. Only corn remains and when that goes, humanity starves. America has become a gigantic dust bowl straight out of the Depression, covering everything in dust and despair.

Cooper (McConaughey) is a farmer who once had higher aspirations. A test pilot and engineer who’d worked for NASA until a crash had taken him out of the ballgame, he grouses to father-in-law Donald (Lithgow) that whereas once mankind looked up at the stars and wondered at our place in the universe, these days mankind looks down at the ground and wonders at our place in the dirt. As with most intelligent people, he can read the writing on the wall but still he labors to try and get his crop in as best he can while raising his 15-year-old son Tom (Chalamet) and his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Foy) in a world of frequent dust storms and a malaise where technology is no longer worshiped or seen as the answer to our problems (where in fact technology is largely seen as the source of our problems) and nations no longer bother to field armies because, well, why bother?

Murph and Cooper have a special relationship. Whereas Tom seeks only to follow in his father’s boots as a farmer, Murph is smart, inquisitive and a bit of a firecracker. When she says she’s haunted by a ghost, Cooper gently tells her that ghosts aren’t real from a scientific standpoint, and yet books get knocked off of her bookcase without explanation, and dust that blows into her room settles into a strange patter which turns out to be a binary code of co-ordinates.

Intrigued, Coop drives to the location of the co-ordinates and finds a secret base where NASA still functions. Led by his old mentor Professor Brand (Caine), the facility is constructing one final rocket. It turns out that a wormhole has opened up near the rings of Saturn and have made accessible a dozen planets that are potentially capable of supporting human life. Probes have been sent as well as brave human astronauts. One last mission is planned; to choose between three of the most promising locations and either set up a human colony there or if Professor Brand is able to solve an equation that will allow him to do it, to relocate the remainder of the human race from dying Earth to a new home. However, human astronauts would be needed to make decisions a computer or robot cannot and the journey would be a long one – two years just to make it to Saturn. Coop, being a test pilot and an engineer would be the perfect choice to lead the mission, particularly since he was apparently led to NASA by divine providence – or an alien fifth-dimensional beings who might have a benevolent interest in the human race.

This doesn’t sit too well with Murph who is furious that her father is abandoning her but Coop knows that if he doesn’t go his children will be the last generation of humanity left. Along with Professor Brand’s super-smart daughter (Hathaway), astronauts Doyle (Bentley) and Romilly (Gyasi) as well as a couple of military robots named TARS (Irwin) and CASE (Stewart). In a ring-shaped ship the astronauts enter the wormhole for a system dominated by a giant black hole to find a new home for humanity but the mission becomes even more critical as the relative aging of the crew is drastically affected by the proximity of the black hole. Hours spent exploring a planet will pass in decades on Earth. This means that even if the spaceship is able to return home, Coop will be the same age as Tom (Affleck) and Murph (Chastain) when he returns. While Murph has grown up to assist Professor Brand at NASA, Tom – who thinks all of this is foolishness – continues to farm despite the mounting odds against human survival.

This is as epic a movie as you could hope to make about human survival. It is not an action-packed apocalypse with roaming outlaws and thunderdomes, but one of resignation and despair. It depicts a human race going out essentially with a whimper largely, although there are those fighting to try and make it a bang. Seems reasonably accurate to me.

In fact, the accuracy of the science is one of the film’s selling points. Physicist Kip Thorne, one of the most honored in the field, is a producer and has vetted the science. While some of what is onscreen is conjecture, it is based on real scientific theorem about the nature of wormholes, black holes and relativity. This is science fact, not science fantasy.

McConaughey continues his career renaissance with not only a high profile role but a fine performance in it. His Cooper is extremely conflicted, motivated not so much to save the world but his two children which really is what heroism boils down to – saving those closest to us. It isn’t the kind of stunning Oscar-worthy work that was Dallas Buyers Club but it is memorable nonetheless. Also worthy of mention is Chastain’s performance as the adult Murph. She’s angry but also open-minded and eventually comes to believe in the mission and her dad. Lithgow also is impressive in a brief role as the curmudgeonly father-in-law who is absolutely devoted to his grandkids.

The visuals here are breathtaking, from the majestic black hole to the rings of Saturn to the psychedelic wormhole. As with Gravity before it, you get a real impression of space flight and while no human being has witnessed a lot of the wonders depicted here, again the science is carefully sound so that even physicists have written papers based on the science and images of the film. I don’t think you can get a better testimonial when it comes to authenticity than that.

The one sour note in the symphony are the last 20 minutes. I won’t discuss specifics other than to say that of all the potential doors that the writers could have chosen to go through to end the movie, it felt like they chose the closest one. I won’t say easiest because it requires a bit of explanation but it felt like they painted themselves into a corner and then bent space and time to extricate themselves. Most people who dislike the movie do so because of this sequence.

However, I won’t discount the two and a half hours of magnificent filmmaking that preceded it because of essentially a poor choice of finishes. Perhaps that makes the movie all the more worthwhile to remind us that even Christopher Nolan is human, and even smart humans can make questionable calls.

This is the kind of movie that can be discussed endlessly. Like Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opus which in many ways influences Nolan here, there is plenty of room to figure out What It All Means. This is a movie which rather than staring at the ground and wondering about our place in the dirt looks up at the sky and wonders at our place in the universe. While the filmmaking here does have a major flaw which keeps it from a higher score, it nonetheless is worthwhile filmmaking that deserves your attention and can be recommended wholeheartedly not only to film lovers but to science geeks as well.

REASONS TO GO: Epic sci-fi filmmaking on a grand scale. A rare scientifically accurate sci-fi movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Last 20 minutes are disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of rough language and some fairly intense sci-fi peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original screenplay for the movie, Murph is a male.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Event Horizon


You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

(1997) Sci-Fi Horror (Paramount) Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, Peter Marinker, Holley Chant, Barclay Wright, Noah Huntley, Robert Jezek, Emily Booth, Teresa May. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Sci-Fi Spectacle

The trouble with exploration is the unknown. We don’t always know what’s out there. We may have a good idea, sure but when you go out into the real unknown, it’s just that. Anything could be lurking out there. And it might just hitch a ride back.

In 2040, mankind makes the first great push beyond our solar system. The great ship Event Horizon, powered by the gravity drive, makes its way out to Neptune to truly begin its journey. The gravity drive manufactures a black hole and slips the ship through, allowing it to travel great distances – to any star in any galaxy. The Event Horizon powers up the gravity drive, hits the go switch – and disappears. Nobody hears a peep and the ship is presumed lost.

Seven years later it reappears as suddenly as it disappeared. Attempts to hail her yield nothing. A rescue ship, the Lewis and Clark is sent, commanded by the redoubtable Captain Miller (Fishburne). Along for the ride is Dr. Weir (Neill), the man who invented the gravity drive and has the best shot at figuring out what went wrong.

Once they arrive in the outer atmosphere of Neptune the mile-long vessel is as silent as the grave and unutterably cold inside. There is still power – it’s just not turned on. When Miller and his crew come aboard to see what’s happened, they find the video log mostly intact although it cuts off an instant after the drive engages. There are also disquieting signs of a violent end for the crew – bloodstains indicating that crew members sustained fatal and horrifying wounds – but no bodies.

As the rescue ship crew attempts to restore power so that the ship may be towed home for further examination, the crew begins to see strange things – hallucinations of people and places they know. It becomes clear to Captain Miller that wherever the Event Horizon went to, it has brought something back with it. And that something may be more deadly than outer space itself.

This is one of those movies that didn’t do well during its theatrical run and then acquired its audience through cable and home video. Savaged by critics when it was released, who compared it unfavorably with the classic Solaris – as unfair as it is inaccurate – the movie has become something of a cult favorite. One of the big issues that fans have with it is that it isn’t the movie that Anderson wanted to make. Rushed during the post-production process, the studio put immense pressure on Anderson –  who was making just his third feature film – to make its August 15, 1997 release date. Anderson did get the film ready for its release date but had to make a lot of studio-insisted cuts and felt that had he been given enough time to finish the movie properly would have come up with something superior. Fans have been clamoring for some time for a director’s cut version which Anderson doesn’t seem disposed to doing.

The truth is, this is actually a superior sci-fi horror flick that may be the best thing Anderson has directed to date (he’s also done four movies in the Resident Evil series as well as Death Race). Moody, atmospheric and grim, he has created a movie every bit as scary as the original Alien and even surpasses that film in some ways. Initially the audience is led towards thinking that the carnage aboard the Event Horizon is the work of some interstellar beastie but as the film wears on we discover that the destination can be a killer.

Fishburne, a couple of years before his signature role as Morpheus in The Matrix, is magnificent here as the taciturn and square-jawed Miller. As no-nonsense a commander as you’re likely to find on any space opera, he inspires confidence and despite some inner demons of his own is the kind of guy you’d follow to hell and back.

Neill recalls his villainy as Damien in The Omen: The Final Chapter which established the Australian actor in the United States to a great extent. Weir is tightly wound and maybe a few bricks shy of a load in the sanity department. The minute he gets aboard his baby, things begin to spiral out of control. Neill takes the character from cool, calm scientist to baleful madman in a believable way.

The ship is a character all its own with its silent corridors and empty rooms to the engine room with the gravity drive itself which looks a little bit of a cross between the Contact craft and a mechanical nightmare dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft – that’s it in the photo accompanying this review. It looks suitably futuristic and scary as hell at the same time.

While the dialogue is somewhat stilted and there is a derivative quality to the film that is what set critics and some fans off during its initial run (Alien anybody?) the movie is nonetheless one of the finest sci-fi horror films ever made and a truly underrated classic. If you saw it and didn’t like it, it is worth coming back to and if you haven’t seen it, it is worth a look. As we enter the Halloween season, this is one of those movies that can get you right in the mood to have the heebie jeebies scared out of you – or into you. Like the great ship itself, the scares you get out of this movie are very well the same ones that are already in you – just waiting for the right vessel to release them.

WHY RENT THIS: Great atmosphere! Fishburne at his best, Neill at his creepiest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dialogue is a bit weak and some of the movie feels like we’ve seen it before.
FAMILY MATTERS:  Lots of gore and violence, a fair amount of cursing and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script went through 65 drafts, which is a highly unusual number. Most feature films go from anywhere from two or three drafts to a dozen.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD has some amazing storyboards for scenes not shot, as well as plenty of making-of footage. The Blu-Ray edition has all this but adds a section on the post-production difficulties that resulted in the filmmakers having to release a movie that wasn’t quite up to their expectations.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $60M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy – free to stream for Prime members), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!