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

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2001: A Space Odyssey


The corridors of genius.

The corridors of genius.

(1968) Science Fiction (MGM) Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Sean Sullivan, Douglas Rain (voice), Frank Miller (voice), Bill Weston, Edward Bishop, Glenn Beck, Alan Gifford, Ann Gillis, Edwina Carroll, Penny Brahms, Heather Downham, Mike Lovell. Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Sci-Fi Spectacle

There are those who insist that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science fiction film ever made. I suppose that will depend on how you define greatness; to my mind it is certainly one of the greatest and arguably the most artistic.

It is without a doubt one of the most influential movies of the last half of the 20th century, celebrated by film critics, filmmakers, scientists and movie buffs alike. Kubrick had wanted to make a science fiction film that was smart. Up until that time with the notable exceptions of Metropolis, Forbidden Planet and Things to Come most sci-fi films were absolutely horrible and rarely did much business at the box office.

Kubrick changed all that. He enlisted noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke to write the screenplay which he based partially on his short story “The Sentinel” (as well as five others to a lesser degree). Kubrick filmed the movie in three distinct parts: The Dawn of Man which depicted a group of proto-humans who encounter a mysterious black monolith which somehow inspires the apes to begin using tools. One of them, being an ancestor of humans, uses a tapir bone to smash in the skull of a rival. Our first tools are used to kill. Just perfect.

The second part, untitled, takes place on a wheel-like space station orbiting the Earth in the year 2000. Dr. Heywood Floyd (Sylvester) is on his way to Clavius base on the moon. At the station he encounters Russian scientists Dr. Smyslov (Rossiter) and his colleague Elena (Tyzack) who are concerned about rumors of a plague at Clavius. Dr. Floyd tells them he’s not at liberty to discuss it but we find out later that the plague is a cover story to keep the Soviets away from the base. In fact, something has been discovered buried in the Tycho crater near the base.

When Dr. Floyd arrives at the moon he goes out to the crater to see the artifact and we see that it is a monolith similar to the one we saw in the previous portion. When they pose for a photo in front of the artifact, the monolith emits a high-pitched noise which turns out to be a radio transmission aimed at Jupiter.

Eighteen months later begins the third portion, entitled Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. A giant space ship, the Discovery has been sent to Jupiter to find out what the signal was broadcast to and what, if anything, did the broadcast accomplish. On board are three scientists in cryogenic sleep and two astronaut/scientists, Dr. David Bowman (Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Lockwood). Overseeing the day to day running of the ship is HAL (Rain), a heuristically programmed algorithmic computer.

During the voyage, HAL grows paranoid and murders the sleeping scientists. He also manages to kill Poole but Bowman disconnects the supercomputer before it can kill him. Thus Bowman is alone when the Discovery reaches Jupiter. He finds there another monolith, floating in space near Jupiter. Bowman takes an EVA pod out to investigate and there he will find a great mystery, one that will transform him.

The movie has remained a favorite not just of the aforementioned film buffs, filmmakers and scientists but also of the 60s drug culture who saw the movie in record numbers, often on perception-altering drugs. The sequence in which Bowman examines the monolith, leading him into a vortex of light, color and strange images has been described as “an acid trip without using drugs” and one can only imagine what the sequence would be like on drugs.

The plot is a bit threadbare and much of it leaves a great deal to the viewer’s imagination, particularly the ending which was mind-blowing at the time but even Kubrick wasn’t quite sure what it meant. The film tackles a lot of interesting subjects, including the dehumanization of technology, the question of man’s continuing evolution and what our place is in the cosmos. Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer, was a big fan of the film and felt that it realistically depicted certain scientific realities although obviously the monoliths are fictitious – so far as we know.

Even today the effects remain impressive. It was one of the first films to allow product placement although it garnered no financial gain from it – the move was simply to depict the future as realistically as Kubrick thought was possible although in an unexpected way that ends up dating the movie somewhat. For example, the spacecraft Dr. Floyd uses to arrive at the space station is depicted to be a Pan-Am flight. Pan-Am ceased operations long before the film. The videophone conversation takes place on a Bell System phone but Ma Bell was broken up into AT&T and her many baby bells long before 2001. Of course, the Soviet Union was gone by 2001 as well.

Dullea and Lockwood mostly speak in calm, emotionless voices and seem to be so rational that any emotional response has been trained out of them. HAL speaks in a pleasant monotone that is meant to be reassuring but has come to represent the dangers of technology. One can see echoes of HAL in Siri.

I saw the movie during its initial release at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, one of the grand old cinemas constructed during the 1920s. At the time I found the movie to be somewhat boring and way over my eight-year-old head. My father, though, a science fiction fan, was upset by its trippy nature and disappointed overall, although he like millions of others was entranced by the vision of life in 2001. Although he didn’t live long enough to see what life in 2001 really turned out to be, I think he would have been impressed by some of the things that Kubrick got right.

2001: A Space Odyssey spawned three sequel novels by Clarke, the first of which was also made into a movie which was much more of a traditional type of movie. However, the original stands alone as a cinematic achievement. People love it or hate it; certainly it will evoke some sort of response. While I still find the stargate sequence to be self-indulgent and unnecessarily long, I can’t deny the movie’s continued power and impact. I suggest for those who haven’t done so yet to see this on a big movie screen the next time it appears at your local revival theater. This is one of those movies that benefit from the large screen, the theatrical sound and the overall overwhelming experience. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece, flawed in my opinion but a recognizable masterpiece nonetheless.

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 VALUES:  Some ape violence and human smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 88 minutes without dialogue on the film including the Dawn of Man sequence and the Star Gate sequence; it was also the last movie that depicted human presence on the moon released before Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The two-disc Special Edition DVD contains an audio interview with the late Stanley Kubrick, conceptual artwork of the special effects, Dullea reading varied interpretations of what the film means including one by Kubrick himself and a video interview with author Arthur C. Clarke from his home in Sri Lanka, who had a full-sized monolith in his garden – which monkeys play on!
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $57M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: November Man

Europa Report


One of the many stunning visuals from Europa Report.

One of the many stunning visuals from Europa Report.

(2013) Sci-Fi Thriller (Magnet) Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca, Dan Fogler, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Neil deGrasse Tyson. Directed by Sebastian Cordero

The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t come without cost and sacrifice. Marie Curie, dying of radiation poisoning but her pioneering research led to such breakthroughs as x-rays and the understanding of isotopes. The crews of the Challenger and Columbia, part of our efforts to colonize and explore space. Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe although he didn’t quite get there – dying short of his goal (which his ship and crew completed). But is the knowledge worth the cost?

The Europa Project and the spacecraft Europa One are a privately-funded exploration project to send a manned expedition to Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons, to discover if life exists there. Recent probes have discovered the possibility of liquid water below the ice-covered surface and of all the places in our solar system, may harbor the best potential for the existence of life.

The mission consists of six crew members – Pilot and Mission Commander William Xu (Wu), navigator Rosa Dasque (Marinca), Chief Science Officer Daniel Luxembourg (Camargo), Marine Biologist Katya Petrovna (Wydra), Junior Engineer James Corrigan (Copley) and Chief Engineer Andrei Blok (Nyqvist). A solar storm knocks out their communications equipment about a year into the mission.

While Dr. Unger (Davidtz), CEO of Europa Ventures – the parent company of the mission – frets back on Earth, the team determine to make an extravehicular walk to the exterior of the spacecraft to try and repair the communications array. The attempt is unsuccessful and leads to an unsettling catastrophe that puts the crew into a kind of funk.

They decide to carry on with the mission and eventually land on the surface of Europa, although an unexpected thermal vent knocks them slightly off-course so that they land several hundred yards away from their intended landing site. Their remote probes find nothing but strange occurrences lead them to doubt their sanity and hint at something miraculous on Europa.

This is ostensibly a found footage film, taken from the supposedly declassified documents and videos sent back by the mission, with Unger providing narration. There are a lot of reasons to be wary of found footage films but thankfully, not this one. It is one of the best to come out of the genre yet. The visuals can be absolutely stunning, and the set design is truly outstanding, and cinematographer Enrique Chediak makes it all look good.

Cordero, who previously helmed the fine mystery film Cronicas, outdoes himself here. He shot this entirely on a Brooklyn sound stage over a course of 18 days. The budget was pretty miniscule as sci-fi films go, but every nickel is onscreen.

The cast is fairly impressive and while none really distinguish themselves particularly, they are all capable actors acting capably here. Copley is probably the best-known of the group with appearances in District 9 and more recently, Elysium but Nyqvist, from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might be more familiar to European audiences.

While there have been a fair amount of movies with similar themes over the years, not many have been as taut and well-constructed as this one. One quibble – they begin the film shortly after the failed attempt to repair the communications array and refer to events that haven’t happened yet, then tell much of the rest in flashbacks. Coupled with Unger’s narration from well past the mission’s completion, it can get somewhat confusing to the average viewer not paying close attention.

However, overall this is a very solid and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that makes use of the virtues of the found footage genre as well as any movie has of late. That in itself is reason to laud the heck out of the film.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific visuals. Realistic depictions of character and situation.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat confusing at the beginning. Acting is serviceable but not really outstanding.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of action and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hydrazine, the substance that gets on James’ spacesuit during the repair mission, has been used in reality for decades as thruster propellant and auxiliary power unit fuel in spacecraft.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones