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

The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

The Core (2003)


Hillary Swank suddenly realizes  there will be no Oscar nominations for this one.

Hillary Swank suddenly realizes there will be no Oscar nominations for this one.

(2003) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Bruce Greenwood, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo, Alfre Woodard, Glenn Morshower, Christopher Shyer, Ray Galletti, Eileen Pedde, Rekha Sharma, Anthony Harrison, Nicole Leroux. Directed by Jon Amiel

As far as Hollywood is concerned, the world is in constant need of saving. If it’s not alien invasions, it’s natural disasters or incoming asteroids. Sometimes it’s even the wrath of God. But how do you save the planet from itself?

Weird things are happening all over the world. People drop dead suddenly with no explanation until it’s discovered that all of them wore pacemakers that caused arrhythmia due to electromagnetic interference. The space shuttle’s navigational equipment malfunctions, forcing a crash landing by heroic co-pilot Rebecca Childs (Swank); the culprit – an electromagnetic glitch. Birds start to slam into buildings and into the ground, their sense of direction confused by – you guessed it – electromagnetic interference.

One scientist has figured it out. Dr. Josh Keyes (Eckhart) has come to the horrifying conclusion that the molten core of the planet has stopped rotating, causing the planet’s electromagnetic shield to start to fail. He warns Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Tucci), the Presidential science advisor who at first pooh-poohs his conclusions but then comes to the horrifying realization that he’s right. As he warns the President’s cabinet, in three months human civilization will have returned to the stone age. In a year, all life on the planet will have fried.

There’s nothing to be done but to jump start the planet, but how do you get to the Earth’s core when the deepest hole ever dug is only seven miles? And once there, how can anything withstand the extreme temperatures? No fears there – an eccentric scientist, Dr. Ed “Braz” Brazzleton (Lindo) has developed a craft whose hull is made of the rare (so rare it’s non-existent) metal Unobtanium and uses sophisticated lasers to tunnel through rock like…well, a mole.

Also on the team is Serge (Karyo), a French weapons specialist whose nuclear device will be used to get the core moving, and commanding the mission is Robert Iverson (Greenwood) with Maj. Childs along as co-pilot. Of course, information control will be a key since if word got out there’d be panic the likes of which the world has never seen so expert hacker “Rat” Finch (Qualls) monitors the Internet. In mission control is General Thomas Purcell (Jenkins) on the military side and presidential advisor Stickley (Woodard) for the science.

But there will be many obstacles both known and unforeseen before they reach the Core and once they get there, a secret that explains why the rotation stopped will be revealed. With the life of every living thing on Earth hanging in the balance, this small team literally carries the weight of the world on their shoulders.

This is a surprisingly (although it shouldn’t be considering the cast) well-acted movie for the disaster genre. The premise is kind of intriguing. the science behind it not so much. In fact, most scientists point to this movie as having the most egregious scientific gaffes of any movie ever made. The laws of physics are constantly violated both in plot and execution.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no entertainment value here. As with any good disaster movie there’s plenty of spectacle as iconic monuments the world over go bye-bye, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the Roman Coliseum. And, as I said, the cast is more stellar than most with Eckhart and Swank turning in solid lead performances, with Tucci, Lindo, Qualls and Karyo getting in some quality support for them, Tucci in particular getting props for his cross between Carl Sagan and Tim Gunn.

So kids don’t see this and expect to be a physics whiz. Real physics whizzes are going to watch this (if they haven’t already) and either tear their hair out and curse Hollywood roundly, or laugh and laugh and laugh until their pocket protectors explode. Disaster film junkies though will probably find this a cut above more recent Roland Emmerich end-of-the-world fare however.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining and thrilling popcorn flick surprisingly well-acted. Decent effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the situations they encounter are a tad ludicrous and the science behind the film is really, really faulty.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of swearing and some scenes that are gruesome by implication although nothing horrible is shown.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Dr. Keyes uses a peach as an example to show the Earth, none of the fruit that the producers brought to the set were suitable so an apple was brought in, painted to resemble a peach and a peach stone inserted in the middle.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.5M on a $60M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run although turned a profit once home video and cable sales are factored in.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snitch