Two hit movies

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s blockbuster season. To make sure we are well entertained and our wallets are emptied Hollywood brings us its best films of the year, which are often subsequently nominated for awards. Here are two films early out of the gate that you will likely enjoy.

Doctor Strange

As a rule I’m not into superhero movies, mainly because I find the egregious use of testosterone (and now with Wonder Woman, estrogen) silly and uninteresting. I made an exception for Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch because this doctor is not your ordinary superhero.

When the movie starts Doctor Stephen Strange is a super-successful brain surgeon and that gives him all the latest toys and a fantastic lifestyle, not to mention the company of his favorite nurse and girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams). It also has him hunting for more complex and interesting cases. He is soon brought low by an accident that leaves his memory intact but largely destroys his magical hands that provide the source of his fame and wealth. Stephen is obsessed with getting back his surgical prowess. It looks hopeless until a fellow doctor tells him about the unusual case of a man in a similar condition who succeeded against the odds. Trying to imitate this man’s success, Strange ends up in Katmandu, Nepal and knocking on the door of a nondescript row house. There he hopes to learn these same mystical secrets.

It takes him a while to be taken for a serious pupil. Needless to say Strange is highly motivated and a gifted student. But he finds it hard for his rational mind to accept the mystical powers The Ancient One (a bald and definitely non-Asian Tilda Swinson) says can be projected from the mind. It won’t surprise you (or spoil any plot points) to learn that with her help and the help of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the keeper of the sacred library Wong (Benedict Wong) he succeeds.

Unfortunately, the knowledge in this special library has been pilfered, or at least a key page of it, by the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who is a big believer in chaos theory. He has been battling The Ancient One for control of the earth’s destiny, and his latest stolen acquisition from their library is a serious breach. Fortunately Dr. Strange gains proficiency just in time to be paired with a magical cloak (something of a character in itself) to help The Ancient One fight both a real and ethereal battle with Kaecilius’ forces, with humanity’s future being the prize.

In an age of super special effects, these here are both neat and memorable and complement the plot rather than detract from it. Cumberbatch is now a serious A-List actor and manages to infuse Strange with a captivating personality that is both human and fantastic. Director Scott Derrickson seamlessly pulls all of this together, allowing Strange to be a sort of anti-superhero, a superhero with a human face wrestling with unseen forces to help mankind. I hope there are more Strange movies in the future, because I will be happy to invest more time with this sort of superhero.

3.4 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Arrival

One of the first science fiction films of note, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1952) tackled what it would be like if aliens landed on our planet. Sixty-four years later we get Arrival with essentially the same plot. When done right, as in Arrival this plot will both entertain and keep you guessing. What makes Arrival somewhat unique is that it plausibly tackles the topic.

Eight huge egg-like alien spacecraft land (well, more accurately hover) at various spots over the earth and sort of sit there, waiting for humanity to investigate. The United States gets one that lands in Montana. The U.S. military of course is all over it, as are militaries elsewhere in the world, but even so it’s tough going. They have to learn how to communicate with these aliens. You can see them if you get under their ships because every 18 hours whoever is there will get swept into an inside chamber where you can view these octopus-like aliens behind a barrier.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who already happens to have a Top Secret clearance gets the call, in this case from Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Unsurprisingly, Banks is a renowned language expert and has studied how language is learned. It’s a pretty tedious process but with the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) the two plod away at the job, overseen by the hovering and mothering military nearby, which sets up a quarantined base camp. Louise does her best, but is not quite at her best. Even before the plot gets going we learn she is a woman haunted by dreams as real as life, but that have never happened to her.

Viewers can take this as a key to a plot that will slowly unfold. Colonel Weber is anxious to make progress because there is something of a race among the countries with these spacecraft. These aliens that they call heptapods are patient but these militaries are not. It all amounts to whether the aliens are friend or foe. If foe they must be destroyed somehow. If friend, they must glean information for their nation’s advantage before another country does.

With science fiction in the theater these days more often to be space operas like Star Wars sequels, this movie turns out to be genuine science fiction. But it’s also a deeply human story, along with a grand mystery and puzzle. These aliens feel like aliens and their writing is sophisticated and seems impenetrable. It’s exhausting work for both Louise and Ian all while Louise wrestles with inner psychological demons and the military works overtime not to use their itchy trigger finger. Meanwhile the Russians and the Chinese cut off communications and soon no one is sharing information anymore.

This one will surprise you in a good and satisfying way and suck you right into its plot. These heptapods are suitably alien, as are their ovoid spacecraft. The mosaic of clues will come together and should leave you more than a little awed, thanks to terrific acting by Adams, Whitaker and Renner and Denis Villeneuve’s deft but understated directing.

3.4 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Double feature

The Thinker by Rodin

Seeing double? I am, after seeing two movies in two days. Here are capsule reviews:

Selma

Having seen two of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture this year (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), it’s not hard to understand how the director and producers of Selma would feel overlooked for not having their film at least nominated. Some say that it is due to racism: when whites are largely responsible for nominating films, they tend to nominate films starring whites. But then again, it was only last year that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. Whether or not it deserved a nomination, Selma is definitely worth seeing and certainly feels on par with the nominated films. Then again, any film about Martin Luther King during the height of the civil rights movement, if made really well, would make a compelling movie. Director Ava DuVernay certainly delivers the goods with the help of a cast of thousands (at least in some of the protest scenes), but principally with David Oyelowo as King and Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta Scott King.

The movie had to be made with a lot of funding from African Americans instead of traditional sources, which some attribute to discrimination. Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper but also owns Harpo Productions. Her company doubtlessly paid for a large part of the film’s costs, since it shows up in the opening credits. The producers’ struggle to make the movie was doubtlessly easier than King’s struggles in and around Selma, Alabama in February and March 1965, which is the focus of the movie.

In a way this movie is a brave portrait of King, since it does not shy away from King’s alleged infidelities. It is not like his mistresses are in your face, but it is alluded to in a very grownup discussion between King and Coretta. It’s hard to see how King could find time to fool around, but it is clear that he was both great and flawed, which seems to be true of all our great heroes. Also flawed is the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Very early in the movie, he is portrayed as wanting to punt on the Civil Rights Act in favor of more achievable goals. This is factually incorrect. Someday Hollywood will give Johnson his own movie because he is an interesting character, just not a particularly telegenic one. Selma does make clear that Johnson was a pivotal character in the civil rights struggle. Arguably, only Johnson had the power to get the Civil Rights bill passed, as his southern credentials (as well as his overwhelmingly Democratic congress) gave him the mojo to do this. Few blacks could actually vote in the south due to poll taxes and unreasonable voter registration requirements. This is the focus of the movie and the stage is Selma.

What Selma does brilliantly is connect us with the extreme discrimination and oppression in the south at this time. Your heart will race during many of these pivotal scenes. The focus of the movie is the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by principally black protestors. These events are now fifty years in our past and thus beyond the memory of most Americans. The movie makes it easy to run back the clock and to understand the extraordinary bravery exercised by blacks (and some whites) back then.

King’s portrayal is thus nuanced, which make him plausible instead of glorified. Along the way we get a host of characters, some best forgotten like Alabama Governor George Wallace, and some we should remember more than we do, like Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. Like it or not you will get a close encounter with our nation’s ugliest side but you will also get a sense for the power of faith in action. King will bring down the walls of Jericho with the help of a lot of dedicated and very brave people. You should get an appreciation for King’s strategic and tactical strengths, and his ability to outthink his opponents. Short of being a reptile, you should be very moved by this movie.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Lucy

Lucy is another movie that really deserved an academy award nomination. It will unfortunately receive nothing from the Oscars this year because it was not nominated for anything. Interstellar will probably win any awards issued this year for a science fiction movie, but really Lucy is the better science fiction movie. In my humble opinion, it’s the most mind-blowing movie in this genre since The Matrix.

And yet of course there are parts of this movie that strain credulity, with its premise being the biggest one. Morgan Freeman plays a professor that ponders what humans would be like if we could use more than ten percent of our brain. This is a lot of silliness, as we do use all of our brain, but perhaps not with 100% efficiency. Lucy (Scarlet Johannson) gets to find out when she unwittingly becomes a drug courier for a very special drug, reputedly a chemical created during pregnancy that stimulates creativity in the fetus. In higher doses Lucy will discover it will let her use 100% of her brain, and this leads to all sorts of magical powers and incredible abilities to use her brain and process information and discern truth. The bad men in Taiwan who put the drug into her body (and a number of other couriers) must take commercial flights with the 500 grams placed in a pouch sewed up inside their bodies. Some very well moneyed clients are waiting, which means that Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi) and his well dressed and well armed henchmen won’t let anything go wrong, and are willing to kill lots of people to make it happen. Lucy, once she is transformed by the massive drug overdose, wreaks her own revenge while trying to make use of her abilities to save her knowledge for mankind, while also certain that she will die soon from the cell replication the process spawns.

Johannson is a great actor and gives us a riveting performance as Lucy, while the director Luc Besson makes sure lots of people get killed in and around her for those of us who demand action, blood and gore. Lucy is not afraid to kill either, and with her new precognition she really can’t be beat. But things really get freaky as she uses more and more of her brain and starts to have supernatural and then god-like abilities. But can the knowledge she acquired be passed on before she dies, particularly when so many people want her dead?

This is a terrific movie for any science fiction fan plus you get tons of cool special effects to enjoy too. I’m frankly baffled why it wasn’t nominated for anything and why it wasn’t rated higher by reviewers. It’s a great film, the sort of movie where when you leave the theater you definitely feel you have been taken someplace new. And a bonus: Johansson can act. I can’t say the same about Keanu Reeves (Neo) in The Matrix.

3.4 out of four stars too! What a great double feature!

Rating: ★★★½ 

Review: Interstellar

The Thinker by Rodin

Interstellar is another one of these movies that is quite good, providing that you don’t think about it too much. Don’t let this stop you from seeing the movie if so inclined. It’s not at all a bad movie and it is quite engaging. Ignorance about science actually helps, although director Christopher Nolan got plenty of scientific help to try to make the premise semi-plausible.

The premise of the movie is that the earth is dying, at least as a habitat for sustaining human life. Not much else other than corn is growing and you will see plenty of corn, at least until Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) decides to abandon his farm and family to take a trip through a wormhole around Saturn that appears to have been placed there by an alien intelligence. The wormhole has already taken some brave cosmonauts across vast distances of space and time (actually to another galaxy) to some area of space where there are some candidate planets that might support human life. Mankind needs to vacate the earth soon, which is Cooper’s reason for volunteering to command this mission. He wants to save his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) from the grisly fate of slow death that all humans will face if they don’t get off the planet soon. Apparently, colonizing Mars is out of the question.

Cooper used to be a test pilot but became just another farmer after his test flying days ended. His skills were no longer required. He’s a competent but unenthusiastic farmer who frequently wakes from nightmares from his accident as a test pilot. Fortunately, there’s a gravitational anomaly on his farm. It’s not good to have one of these, but between this and the massive dust storms that regularly arrive he and Murph are reading signs in the patterns of dust in the library of their farmhouse. And decoded it sends them to a place on their handy USGS topographic map where nothing should be. When they drive out there though they find a fenced in area. Once inside, what they really find is NASA, now a hush-hush agency, and Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the genius working on the really hard problem of moving the human race off the earth, out of the Milky Way and to some far flung place to ensure the survival of the species.

This sounds like a worthwhile endeavor but goodness, what a strange set of coincidences already because Cooper already knows Professor Brand from his flying days. Brand immediately petitions him to take a spacecraft to Saturn, because he is the best test pilot he ever saw. He wants Cooper to take it through the wormhole and then to various systems and planets abnormally affected by gravitational waves to find a planet that humans can colonize. Just in case no one on earth can actually follow them en masse, each spacecraft comes complete with human incubators to restart the species on a suitable planet. It is, to say the least, a series of remarkable coincidences. But it’s just the beginning of these as well of many questions.

For me, among the questions is why some sort of intelligent species would place this prominent and useful wormhole near Saturn but not bother to give them a way to communicate. Then there is the physics on whether you could actually traverse through a wormhole and survive on the other side. Obviously, it makes for a great movie if you can. After a long trip from Earth to Saturn with his two travelling companions Brand (the professor’s daughter, played by Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi), they do slip through the wormhole. Cooper and Brand quickly engage in a series of literally hair-raising visits to a couple of local planetary systems. They go there to find some pioneers who went there and to see if the planets are habitable. Gravitational waves and relativity play major tricks on them, allowing them to age hardly at all while Romilly waits 23 years for their return. Meanwhile, Cooper knows that back home his daughter Murph is aging relatively much more quickly than he is and is seriously wacked out by her father’s disappearance. He promised to come home and get her, but as decades pass it’s hard to see how this can happen, particularly when none of the previous explorers have come back. Fortunately, at least one-way communications from Earth is possible. This gives Cooper many opportunities to tear up when he gets sporadic reports from Murph, who quickly catches up with him in age.

So yes, the plot is a bit convoluted and incredulous at times, but it is all portrayed quite realistically otherwise. Most science fiction and space operas don’t talk about the problem of relativity. At least this one tackles it. And the acting is quite good all around. The acting includes a supporting role for Matt Damon, who plays one of the pioneer astronauts, Dr. Mann.

The plot frequently moves across space and time, to this far-flung galaxy then back to earth, NASA and Dr. Brand’s lab where little Murph becomes one of his scientists and helps him with his complex space/time formula he can’t quite seem to finish. There are plenty of suspenseful parts of the movie. If you are having trouble feeling affected by the acting, then you can revel in the voluminous orchestration that, if you are of a certain age will sound familiar. It’s not just the organ music that feels like it’s come out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but many of the characters as well as much of its plot. Yes, the movie feels like it is something of a homage to the classic 1968 science fiction movie, imitating it in many ways but fortunately not in 2001’s cerebral nature, divorced as it was from emotion.

Matthew McConaughey has grown up as an actor. In the past I have panned his movies. Here he gets to play a serious role rather than a pretty boy with flaxen, blow dried hair, and he does a good job with it, as does Anne Hathaway, of course as his female partner Brand. There is plenty of emotion to revel in too, which considering the weighty topic of the survival of our species seems quite appropriate.

Just don’t think about it too much. Don’t think about how they manage to survive such a long time (hibernation certainly helps) in their spacecraft, don’t think about the improbability of emerging alive on the other side of a wormhole, and don’t think about the likely lethal amounts of cosmic rays just a trip to Saturn would have given them. Presumably NASA figured out a workaround. As regular readers may remember, I don’t believe we are destined to live on other planets, let alone other solar systems or galaxies, given the daunting nature of known physics and the distances between solar systems. Earth is it for our species, I’m afraid. But if you have to dream about such a possibility, Interstellar gives you as plausible a scenario as you are likely to get. It’s just, if you have studied the science and do think about it, you realize it is still implausible.

But you probably won’t care too much. Overall the movie is too good not to ignore a lot of dubious science and major issues with the plot in general. Indulge and enjoy. Here’s one movie that is quite literally stellar.

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

Second Viewing: Forbidden Planet (1956)

The Thinker by Rodin

I know I saw Forbidden Planet many years ago and I vaguely recall it was sort of interesting. There must have been more compelling science fiction film options at the time, because it did not make much of an impression. My wife always admired the film, so when it showed up at my warehouse superstore in Blu-ray format for $12.99 I decided to buy it on impulse. Shown in theaters at a time when I was gestating in my mother’s womb, I knew it could not be that good. And yet seeing it again after so many years, particularly in HD, brought renewed appreciation for a film that is justifiably a classic.

Forbidden Planet was at least a decade ahead of its time. It was a groundbreaking film that changed the genre. Watching the movie as a middle-aged man, I could see that so many of the science fiction movies and TV shows that followed it were in some ways imperfect clones of Forbidden Planet. Lots of science fiction authors had tackled travel to distant suns, but Forbidden Planet was the first to do it in a way that looked plausible instead of cheap. Fifty-five years later when you see Forbidden Planet with modern eyes you have to marvel at how good it is.

In fact, about the only thing that disappoints in the movie is the acting, which is Grade B. While disappointing, it is not unexpected. Old movies are, well, old. Expectations for actors, most of who were on contract with a studio, were minimal. Hollywood was populated by B actors. It was a time when actors mostly didn’t bother to act, perhaps because in the 1950s we wanted our characters to be stereotypes instead of real people. In Forbidden Planet we get Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Edward Mobius, the slinky Anne Francis as his daughter Alta and the impossibly young Leslie Nielsen as Commander J.J. Adams (“Skipper”, as they usually call him) of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D, basically a large flying saucer. None of these leads, or the actors portraying its crew, does much in the way of good acting.

Once you get over this deficiency, you quickly realize that Forbidden Planet is an interesting movie in spite of this. Right off the bat you know Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) must have seen the movie, because the United Planets sounds suspiciously similar to the United Federation of Planets, because they have Hyper Drive which must have been Warp Drive, version 1.0, and because they have these hyper drive decelerator platforms, which at least look a lot like a transporter platform when in use. The producers of Lost in Space obviously modeled their robot on Robby, the robot in this movie, except frankly Robby is a lot more interesting and at least has a name.

The plot, to check up on the crew of Altair IV, a spacecraft that landed there twenty years earlier and had not been heard from, hardly matters. What we get instead is the first plausible portrayal on screen of life on another planet. We also get special effects that are actually special and absolutely amazing for its time. Today they would not be worth mentioning, but in 1956 showing “blasters” delivering force rays, or depicting a planet with multiple moons in the sky, or creating an invisible monster literally from the id outlined by a force field was amazing stuff. In fact, all these years later, it’s still admirable and a bit frightening. This was made in an era where the height of technology was the vacuum tube. Yet they created a plausible robot, a world of a vanished but highly advanced alien species (“The Krell”) as well as broke a few social taboos. No, there were no women on this spaceship, just horny guys too long alone with each other. You have to assume the Catholic Church thought the movie was sinful, for Morbius’ nineteen year old daughter Alta played by Anne Francis spends much of the movie dressed in a very high miniskirt that looks more like a negligee than a dress. Perhaps Forbidden Planet invented the miniskirt. Unquestionably, Anne Francis looks great in one.

The plot matters little except that it is a thinking person’s movie, genuine science fiction instead of cowboy-western science fiction that predominates the genre. In the Blu-Ray format, it is stunning. It is hard to believe the movie is older than I am. Pull back its science fiction veneer, however, and readers of classic literature will discover they have seen this plot before, at least if they read William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In short, even given its faults, Forbidden Planet was a landmark film of its day, a film that largely defined science fiction on film, both classy and expensive. It is one of two movies that became pillars of early science fiction, with the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still being the other (and earlier) film.

However, The Day the Earth Stood Still was an earth-bound movie. Forbidden Planet reached for the stars, found them and delivered them to us on the screen, arguably the first movie to do it right. I am glad I gave the movie a second chance, because it was much more than I remembered.

Second Viewing: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The Thinker by Rodin

If you want to feel old, see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 movie that framed science fiction for decades, and remember that once you actually saw it in a theater when it was a first run movie. When you are eleven years old, men are orbiting the moon and are ready to land on it less than a year later and you are entranced with everything related to the space program, seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey is something of a mind-blowing experience.

Seeing this movie again forty-three years later was a much more curious experience. It left me feeling sad, wistful as well as seeing a number of flaws in a movie that at age eleven seemed flawless. In spite of the HAL 9000 computer’s paranoid and homicidal tendencies aboard the Discovery One, the year 2001 we actually got was quite horrid overall, whereas the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke imagined was far more hopeful and looked far more interesting.

2001: A Space Odyssey and the year 2001 both dealt with aliens. In the movie there were surreal but never fully seen uber-gods who millions of years earlier saw some potential in a bunch of hairy primates camped next to watering holes on the African steppes. The real aliens in 2001 turned out to be crazed Muslims who used airplanes as giant matchsticks to torch New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Serve me an uber-god and one starchild instead, please.

It is fun forty-three years later to see how close Clarke and Kubrick came to getting it right. Their vision of 2001 was not unlike Gene Roddenberry’s, though not as breathlessly hopeful. It was a world where our toys were all shiny and new, space travel seemed routine, the International Space Station consisted of large and spinning flying wheels high above the earth rather than portions of fuselages bolted together. Despite the Russians hanging around in lounge chairs outside an orbital Howard Johnsons, Kubrick’s 2001 felt fundamentally American. You could tell from the Pan Am clipper shuttles and the uniformly white cast. It was a Clean for Gene future where poverty was out and well clipped hair was in. It was a world where the Bell Company was still around and doing business in videocalls and where you didn’t mind that much watching Stanley Kubrick’s annoying four year old daughter squirm in front of a camera while the earth cart wheeled in the background.

Things just worked in this future, with the exception of HAL 9000 computers. People were civilized, speaking always in measured tones. It was a world where constructing multiple colonies on the moon was no big thing. It was a world where people seemed surreally cerebral and never raised their voices. Applause was polite but muted. For me this kind of world still has a lot to offer me, in spite of its plasticity.

Kubrick brought us a vision of the future too good to be real, just like Julie Andrews singing up Alpine meadows was too good to be real three years earlier. And yet, like Star Trek, it felt somehow possible. The world we actually got was far uglier and messier, but interesting in its own ways. Kubrick envisioned a world where technology was integrated into everything, but what we got was actually more than what Kubrick could envision. Still, that Kubrick got as much of it right as he did speaks well to his legacy.

Most people would agree that 2001: A Space Odyssey was a landmark film. Certainly we had never seen anything like it before. It was grown up, coherent, gloriously rendered and seemed plausible. Moreover, it told a profound story. The irony is though that it told a story largely devoid of emotion. The apes touch the edge of the monolith and jump up and down in excitement. Dr. Floyd goes to the moon to touch it with his gloved hands and it is done with a professional curiosity.

Forty-three years later I see flaws in the movie. It is too unemotional, which is why its successor 2010 (1984) was in many ways the better movie. Dr. Floyd’s speech at Clavius is called a great speech when he says almost nothing. The guy at the registration desk of the Howard Johnson’s at the space station is busy shuffling papers, not looking at a flat panel monitor. Overall, Kubrick seems swept away with special effects, which at that time involved slow motion time lapse photography with models. He also seemed insistent to introduce us to weightlessness by having shapely flight attendants with Velcro slippers hug the carpet. The movie is not completely devoid of humor. We get to watch Dr. Floyd ponder the baffling instructions for using a zero gravity toilet. And for really the first time we get to marvel at how a director could do things like place real tiny people in an observation bay window while a lunar shuttle lands in an enormous landing pad. Kubrick largely lets special effects overwhelm the story.

Still, even in the year 2011 the movie remains reasonably mesmerizing. It is not entirely obvious what the movie means, and much of the dialog is pure noise that adds nothing to the plot, but all these years later it still grabs you. It feels in a genre by itself and you cannot help but flow with the glorious music mostly conducted by Herbert von Karajan. All these years later the amazing cut from a bone rising in the air to a satellite in earth orbit still take your breath away. The space ballet of a Pan Am Clipper shuttle making a rolling motion to berth in the space station’s dock, or a lunar shuttle making a gentle one sixth earth gravity landing on the moon still kindles an appreciation for a delicious symbiosis between art and physics. The film often feels ponderously slow, but that is part of its charm. It remains a classic, somewhat flawed, but a classic nonetheless.

Review: Avatar

The Thinker by Rodin

Usually big budget special effects intensive movies leave me unimpressed. I am happy to say that was not the case with James Cameron’s hugely expensive movie Avatar, now playing everywhere. Moreover, for a change I can say that the public agrees with me, to the tune of more than a billion dollars in revenue so far worldwide and doubtless much more to come.

While certainly not a perfect movie, Avatar is an amazing wonder of state of the art special effects married with a world (Pandora) so biodiverse and culturally rich that it has the depth of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. To achieve it, James Cameron spent much of the last decade imagining Pandora and spending gobs of money to hire all sorts of artists, linguists, anthropologists and other scientists to render a wholly plausible alternative world. He then had to merge this all together with a good script and great talent to make it actually work on the screen. The result is a tour de force, an accomplishment that if it does not get Cameron Best Director at the Academy Awards will be a travesty.

Weta, the company that did the special effects for The Lord of the Rings movies, has had ten years to perfect computer-generated imagery. The ten years were well spent. Avatar is the first movie where I can honestly say the result is so richly realized that I can no longer tell CGI from live action. You will see none of the digital jerkiness you saw ten years ago when Gollum was rendered for The Lord of the Rings. If you can afford to spend a few hundreds of millions of dollars on CGI for a movie, you can render a world that exists only in a computer and still make it wholly plausible. What is amazing is that Cameron manages to pull off not just a technical triumph, but he also manages to integrate all the live action elements into a compelling and well-acted story.

You have to get to the end of the movie (or to have read the reviews) to name the flaws in this movie. To some the long battle sequences at the end of the movie will seem tedious. The real flaw (and certainly not a fatal one) is that the characters have little depth. This is because this is essentially the noble savage story, which has been retold many times. This is the white man landing in the New World and finding the natives offensive because they are not like them and don’t particularly want to play nice. Not to give too much away but at least in Avatar it quickly becomes clear that the humans (for the most part) are the savages, bent on destroying a rich, highly integrated world in the pursuit of some highly prized mineral. Pandora is really Gaia, the mythical world that is one giant living organism. (In reality, the Earth is also Gaia, it is just that most of us refuse to see it or believe it.)

So you get super muscled characters like Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to whom the native extra-tall, blue-tinted and human-like creatures of the woods (the Na’vi) will always be brutes. Even if they are not, he does not care and has no problem destroying anyone who gets in his way. You also get Sigourney Weaver as Doctor Grace Augustine, a legendary expert on the Na’vi and Na’vi sympathizer. Naturally, she quickly butts heads with Colonel Quaritch. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent to Pandora to attempt to become trusted by the Na’vi and to be Quaritch’s mole. He does this by living in a simulator where he directs his avatar remotely. In this case, an avatar is a cloned Na’vi that Jake directs from his simulator. The simulator is really more of an interface and it is so good that he effectively becomes his clone. Jake learns all about the subtle ways of the Na’vi and their complex culture. He is soon befriended and coached by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, a.k.a. Lieutenant Uhura from the recently released Star Trek movie). And you guessed it: Jake soon begins to bond with the Na’vi, falls in love with Neytiri and in time turns against his own race. He begins what looks like an impossible quest to save both the Na’vi and Pandora from his own species, which will stop at nothing to get at Pandora’s minerals.

It turns out that though the plot is shallow, it really doesn’t matter because the acting is good enough, the story engaging enough, the world is so richly detailed and the CGI is so amazing. It could have been a better movie with a wee bit more time and attention to the plot and characterization but in a project this massive, I guess something had to give.

I recently reviewed Up in the Air and said I expected Avatar to be not quite as good. Trying to compare the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Both are well acted and well directed. However, the movies each serve different kinds of audiences. Up in the Air is the more human of movies and is certainly better acted and has a more thoughtful and engaging story. Nevertheless, by leaps and bounds Avatar is the better-imagined movie and is so visually rich and dense that even with its minor flaws it turns out to be marginally better.

If you haven’t seen Avatar, you should. This is one of those movies where you really should pay extra to see it in 3D, as it actually adds something to the film. The characters may be largely stereotypes, but it fully engages you and should leave you feeling breathless.

Great job. Mr. Cameron. You may not win the gold for Avatar, but you definitely deserve the silver. Thanks for making one of the few extremely expensive movies where not only did I feel that I got my money’s worth, but where I should have left a hefty tip.

3.4 on my four-point scale.

Review: Battlestar Galactica (Season One)

The Thinker by Rodin

The original TV series Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980) was so bad that even someone desperately looking for science fiction on TV like myself could not watch it. It was dreadful! I may have made it through one episode, but one was enough. It was a little more than a painfully cheap Star Wars rip off. I found R2-D2 in Star Wars annoying, but it was positively adorable next to Muffet II, the annoying robotic dog in the original BSG. Lorne Greene played Commander Adama and he made William Shatner look good. The show was also too 70s. From Richard Hatch’s blow dried hair to its token African American Herb Jefferson, Jr., the show leeched the worst of what had come before it. Still, Americans were so desperate for science fiction on television that it somehow managed to hang on for three years before it was mercifully put out of its misery.

In 2003, the SciFi Channel agreed to air an expensive “reimagining” of the show by producer and writer Richard D. Moore. To the extent that I was aware of it, I tuned it out. The bad vibes emitted from the original Battlestar Galactica convinced me the show had to have a jinx on it. I would likely still be unaware that I was wrong had various family members and friends not prodded me to watch this incarnation. A few months back I gave in and bought the first season on DVD. My wife and I have slowly been making our way through it, sometimes resting a few weeks before trying another episode.

Our rests between episodes is to some extent understandable because the BSG universe is an ultra dreary place. In case you are not familiar with the show, Galactica is the warship for a rag tag fleet of interstellar spaceships containing the last remnants of the human race. Unlike the Jews, who had Yahweh in the desert to send them manna from heaven, these humans get nothing but silence from the Gods of Kobol that many of them worship. (Why am I thinking it’s the Gods of COBOL? Do they really worship Grace Hopper?) Rest assured they get nothing but grief from the Cylons, a model of robots that humans created to serve them that got all uppity. The Cylons have evolved to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. One thing is abundantly clear: they want to exterminate the human race right down to our last strand of human DNA. Whenever they find any humans, they send out a vast horde of Cylon raiders to destroy them. Cylons are like roaches in that they seem to be everywhere but often hidden yet never invited in. That they are so hard to tell apart from human beings makes the humans very paranoid, unable to tell friend from foe.

The series starts with a terrific pilot, which is a full-blown movie in its own right. No question about it, it is slick! It is hard to think of it as a pilot because from the first frame it feels like the actors have been playing their parts for years. You can feel the close quarters and almost the smell their perspiration. Lorne Greene died in 1987, so he was unable to reprise his role as Commander Adama, which is just as well. In this incarnation, you get the craggy faced and raspy voice actor Edward James Olmos instead. Thankfully, Olmos is a 1000% better actor than Greene. I won’t mention all the ancillary characters as it is better to explore them for yourself. Most of the names have been retained from the original series but in some cases, some surprising changes were made.

Starbuck for example had a sex change operation and is played with impertinent eloquence by Katee Sackhoff. Boomer, instead of being African American is female and Oriental as well as potentially a Cylon, although she is not certain of it. Captain Apollo (Lee) got a much-needed haircut but still seems a bit too handsome, yet is convincingly played by Jamie Bamber. The best part: the only annoying robots are the Cylons, and most of the Cylons, while being villainous, are at least interestingly evil characters.

The principle Cylon in residence is the foxy and evil Six (Tricia Helfer), who appears only to ship physician research scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis). She exists to taunt him, to tease his high-strung libido and to make him loathe himself by doing things to his species he should not do. They are quite a toxic pair; clearly, she is the dominant, and he is pussy whipped. If you have to loathe a character, Dr. Baltar is easy to loathe, since he is so easily manipulated by Six and not nearly as much fun as Dr. Smith was in Lost in Space. In fact, I was hoping the writers would do us a favor and kill him off. No such luck.

Richard Moore likes to tease his audience as mercilessly as Cylons do humans. If you like intrigue, you will love this incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, because it piles on the layers of mystery so deep it frequently feels suffocating. How is a lowly TV viewer supposed to parse through all the subterfuge? Clearly, those Cylons are way smarter than us humans, so maybe we deserve extinction. Somehow, a diminished set of humans seems to hang on from episode to episode against overwhelming odds thanks to an overextended set of pilots and the smart, fearless leadership of Commander Adama.

While the acting, special effects and writing are typically first rate, there are some oddities about this reimagining. Perhaps because the SciFi Channel wanted to pinch a few extra pennies, it has a very early 21st century feel to it. Obviously, it is cheaper to shoot exterior shots if you can go with today’s architecture, so we get cities on planets like Caprica that look suspiciously like Vancouver. Clothing too looks present day. Civilians like President Laura Roslin prefer to dress like Hillary Clinton. Some aspects are even more antiquated. Galactica is showing its age. Much information spits out of printers. No communicators for this crew. POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) will do just fine. Anyhow, it’s apparently much more secure to be low tech when dealing with those ultra shrewd Cylons.

Nor is it clear how the citizens of this ragtag fleet get their supplies. There seem to be no lack of consumables like printer paper, booze and cigarettes. They sure aren’t making pit stops on Earth, which is lost and half mythical anyhow, and their home world of Caprica is full of Cylon-induced radiation that destroyed all human life (well, almost all).

Battlestar Galactica is space opera, of course, so it is best not to trouble yourself with these details. Have a beer yourself and enjoy the show (if you can use that word with a show that is such an unrelenting downer) for what it is. After a terrific start, the show does sag a bit in the middle of the season. A couple episodes in the first season, like “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” are frankly below subprime. Naturally, like all shows hoping to be renewed, it ends on one of these impossible cliffhangers. This being BSG though it will have more dimensions, layers, shock and perturbations than a Matrix movie.

Anyhow, I’m hooked, so I better go buy Season Two. If you haven’t seen the series, based on its first season it may be depressing stuff, but it is really well done depressing stuff, so go buy it and enjoy.

Review: Transformers (2007)

The Thinker by Rodin

I was too young for transformers (the toys, that is), but my nephew wasn’t. He was one of many prepubescent boys enamored with these toys that with some twists, pulls and yanks could turn from an ordinary item into a fearsome and funky looking alien robot.

My assumption was that a movie about these transformers might be entertaining to this narrowly targeted set of boys, but would put the rest of us to sleep. It turns out that the movie Transformers that was released last year has transformed my vision of how entertaining such an absurd premise for a movie could be. The result is not exactly high art but a movie that is surprisingly entertaining and well done. In short, any age group except possibly those under age eight can guiltlessly enjoy a fun movie like this.

Granted, I was expecting to snooze through this movie and was even carefully rearranging the pillows on our couch so I could pretend to be watching it through half open eyes. Instead, I found this movie felt like a mixture of many fun movies, including Independence Day, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Back to the Future. Usually when a movie feels like elements of other movies, the result is an unfulfilling mishmash. That is not the case here. While not quite as much fun as any of these films, it is nearly as much fun as any of them. This is one movie that had you paid $10 a ticket to see it in the theater, you might have actually felt you got your money’s worth.

For those of you who missed the Transformers experience, there are good Transformers (the Autobots) and bad Transformers (the Decepticons) and in this movie at least they have chosen Earth as a nice place to wreak havoc. They decide, what the heck, why not screw with the American military in the deserts around Kuwait, quickly kill virtually all the humans there and destroy their base too? The Decepticons are good at hiding themselves as ordinary things like radios but can quickly morph themselves into fearsome war machines. One can understand why our military would be baffled and quickly rule out an alien robot attack, so why are they going after North Korea instead? Do the robots have slanted eyes?

Most of the movie though actually revolves around a teen named Sam Witwicky, who is of course quite a bit geeky and not exactly a hit with the girls. Between wacking off in secret and lusting after the really hot Mikaela (played by Megan Fox), Sam (played by Shia LaBeouf, who recently showed up as Indiana Jones’ illegitimate son) soon has his hands full. It all starts when Sam’s father buys him a beat up Camaro as his first car. The car though just happens to be a transformer, and he is one of the good but spunky kind. It turns out that Sam’s grandfather was part of some convoluted arctic expedition that first discovered the evil Megatron, who fortunately was conveniently immobilized deep in the Arctic ice cap. His grandfather’s spectacles are of great interest to the Autobots and the Decepticons because they point to the “All Spark”, a funky looking cube that can either bring an end to the robot war (if the Autobots get it) or give the Decepticons the power they need to win the war.

Yeah, well, I don’t make this stuff up, I just report it. It sounded hopelessly hokey to me too. Poor horny Sam is in for many adventures, but fortunately, throughout the movie he gets to hang out with the very curvy Mikaela, who turns out to be something of a bad girl. He is kept too busy chasing his car, engaging in theatrics with Transformers and helping our military to use his right hand that much or even put the moves on Mikaela.

Strangely, most of the characters in this movie rise above mere stereotypes. Sam has fun self-deprecating sense of humor. His parents are largely clueless, even when giant Transformers are trying to hide in their back yard. The movie falls apart though in trying to give the Transformers personality. Try as they might, they still come across as inflamed bit buckets with attitudes encased in metal, but without a cheat sheet, it is hard to tell the good Transformers from the bad ones. One thing is for sure: if you have Transformers in your neighborhood, they are likely to make a mess of things. Do not invite them in as they excel in lowering property values.

For boys of a certain age, and I am guessing that age is around fourteen, this is probably a perfect movie. For the rest of us the movie is fun entertainment but nothing too special, although it is hard not to be amazed by the CGI or the number of expensive props that were destroyed in making this movie. For a movie that is nearly two and a half hours long, it moves at such a brisk pace, you probably will not feel the need to nod off. No question about it, Shia LaBeouf is a talented young actor and he is in his element in this movie.

If you have to see a movie about robots, this is the one to see and is much more fun and engaging than, say, I Robot, which I recently reviewed. Still, while it manages to appeal to most of us outside its targeted age group, only teenage boys or young men who never quite grew up will care much about the Autobots and the Decepticons or who will eventually triumph in world domination. (Hint: it is not the bad guys.)

Transformers goes to prove that with a good enough script, directing and special effects you can take a silly plot and make it a lot of fun. Most movies like this would quickly flop on their bellies. This one does not exactly soar into the stratosphere but does quickly take flight and provides an entertaining view.

3.1 on my 4.0 scale.

Review: I Robot (2004)

The Thinker by Rodin

Isaac Asimov may have died in 1992, but his writing has immortalized him. A prolific writer, he wrote or edited over five hundred books. I was fortunate enough to meet Isaac Asimov, who showed up as a surprise guest at a science fiction convention in the mid 1980s in Arlington, Virginia. (He was notoriously fearful of flying, and only attended conventions he could get to by car or rail.) He remains the author of some of my favorite and most influential books, including the delightful Foundation Trilogy, a series that more than fifty years later still feels fresh and timeless.

Unquestionably, Asimov provided the frame for which most modern science fiction evolved. It should be heartening then to know that one of his most famous books, I, Robot, actually a collection of nine stories loosely organized around Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., made it to the big screen in 2004.

Sadly, this big screen adaptation is barely recognizable. We have Dr. Susan Calvin, still a robopsychologist, and we have the three laws of robotics clearly spelled out by Asimov in his stories and not too much else. For this reason the credits say it was adapted from Asimov’s stories. Moreover, of course it was modernized for the 21st century. The year is 2035 and the place is Chicago, which is home to the U.S. Robots, Inc. U.S. Robots is the premier robot manufacturer for the planet. There is nearly one robot for every five humans. Thus far, robots have proven to be wholly benign. They do much of society’s scut work.

Will Smith plays Homicide Detective Del Spooner, who is called to U.S. Robots to investigate what appears to be the homicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning, its creator and the inventor of the three rules of robots, the most important of which is that a robot is never allowed to harm a human being. It is soon clear that Detective Spooner has this thing against robots as well as most things new, even to the point of driving a motorcycle without automation controls and wearing a pair of 2004 canvas sneakers (product placement!) Nonetheless, he has more than a casual connection with the late Dr. Lanning because as we learn his left arm is a robotic arm, surgically applied some years back by none other than Dr. Lanning himself.

Dr. Lanning seems to have jumped to his death from his office at U.S. Robots, but Detective Spooner soon ascertains he could not have done so unaided, and begins to suspect that a rouge robot killed him. That is supposed to be impossible but it is the only plausible explanation he can come up with. The suggestion does not sit well with Lawrence Robertson, the CEO of U.S. Robots, who is in the midst of rolling out a new higher class of robot to the world.

That is as much of the plot as I need give away. Ably assisted by the CGI wizards at Weta Studios in New Zealand, Director Alex Proyas creates a convincing vision of Chicago in 2035, a city transformed by automation and the omnipresent robot. The city still has a gritty feel to it but thanks to many robots as well as V.I.K.I., the master computer of U.S. Robots, humans are freed from tedious jobs like collecting trash and tending bars. These robots look much modernized from the metallic things that were illustrated in the pulp magazines back in the 1940s.

Will Smith is both one of the executive producers and stars in this movie. Women may appreciate the many scenes of him with his shirt off. With all his rippling muscles, I figure he must spend his hours off the set doing nothing but lifting weights and taking steroids. While Smith is an excellent actor, as I noted in movies like this one, I do not feel he was the best choice for this particular role. Nor is Bridget Moynahan as Dr. Susan Calvin. Still, both are good actors and willing to give their best to their parts, which results in dutiful performances but little in the way of stellar acting.

You would expect a robot movie to be cerebral, but Director Proyas instead gives audience more of what they are likely craving: action sequences with lots of special effects. This helps to make up for the minimal suspense in the movie. It is soon clear that there are at least some rogue robots out there and it is only a question of figuring out why they are acting in this manner and who is responsible.

There a few plot holes and gaffes. It is unclear why the older class robots are stored in old shipping containers along Lake Michigan instead of being disassembled and recycled. Perhaps it made for some neat climactic ending scenes. I also noted one scene in which Spooner twists an officer’s arm with his non-robotic right arm. Overall, though if you like lots of special effects and action, there is little to disappoint in this movie other than its rather shallow plot.

The movie gets an A for the special effects and stunts, but a mere B for the acting, and a C for the plot that leaves little in the way of hard cognitive thinking. So overall the movie disappoints, which is why I give it just 2.8 on my 4.0 scale. It is worth watching if you have nothing more compelling to watch, but not worth going out of your way to see.

Second Viewing: Galaxy Quest

The Thinker by Rodin

Over the Thanksgiving 4-day weekend, because I was bored, I started sifting through our various DVDs and videotapes. I was looking for something new or, failing that, something I had not seen in a while. The few things I had not seen did not look worth my time (such as all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my wife’s passions). There was however, our aging video tape collection. Among its contents was the very last videotape we purchased: Galaxy Quest (1999).

I had seen the movie in the theater of course, and found it funny and often hilarious. At the time it did not make too much of a lasting impression on me. So I was very surprised, upon second viewing, that I found it far funnier than I remembered. Maybe it was because of the mood I was in that night. I finished the film convinced that in many ways it was the funniest movie of the 1990s.

Granted there were many comedies during the 1990s and I had seen only a small fraction of them. Granted also that I grew up something of a Trekker. (I have written about Star Trek before in my blog.) During the early years of our marriage, while my wife and I attended mostly run of the mill science fiction conventions, we also made it to a few genuine Star Trek conventions. (We wisely avoided the Star Trek media conventions. They are designed to pull in Trekkies and separate them from their great gobs of cash, all in order to increase Paramount’s bottom line. We stayed with the Star Trek conventions organized solely by fans.)

Having been steeped in the fandom community for a few years, I knew what being a fan was all about. Devoted fans of any movie or television series have certain characteristics. They are, how shall we say, nice, but a bit peculiar. After a while, you can spot them a mile away. They have a certain odd mannerisms, a certain deep-rooted introversion and a certain obsessive/compulsive streak about their hobby, to the point where they can wrap their entire life around their hobby. Fen is a private term used inside the fan community to identify one of us from the unenlightened. Raising our daughter pulled us away from the fen universe, but some part of me remains there in spirit.

Galaxy Quest is a movie that was made as homage to the fen community. If you are not a fan of some of the many science fiction and fantasy series out there, it is still wholly enjoyable and often hilarious. However, if you are or have been immersed in the fen community, it should occupy a special place on your movie shelf.

The movie is, of course, a not too subtle parody of the whole Star Trek universe. It covers the lives of washed up actors of a mediocre and fictional TV space opera series more than a decade after the show was canceled. The NSEA Protector is this show’s version of the USS Enterprise. Just as the real life actors of the original Star Trek series were typecast when the show ended, so too is the cast of Galaxy Quest. In fact, they are relegated to attending Galaxy Quest conventions and opening discount stores in order to pay their bills. Only Jason Nesmith, who plays the ship’s captain, Commander/Captain Taggert (Tim Allen), seems to relish his aftermarket career. For the rest of these washed up actors, each performance before fans are like chewing marbles. In particular, Sir Alex Dane, who plays the part of the alien Dr. Lazarus (Alan Rickman), is practically homicidal. He is reduced to signing autographs and spouting inane things like “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!” to earn some bucks. He is an angry and bitter man. Spiritually he is near death.

Tim Allen channels William Shatner perfectly. He adroitly emulates Shatner’s pomposity, hammy behavior and recklessness. Signourney Weaver plays Lieutenant Tawny Madison, the ship’s communications officer. She is a white version of Lieutenant Uhura (with a mixture of Yeoman Rand from the first show and arguably, Deanna Troi from the second series), but with bigger breasts exposed for their maximum cleavage. Like Lieutenant Uhura, she does little more than repeat whatever the computer tells her. Tech Sergeant Chen (Tony Shalhoub) is a variant of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, but without the thick Scottish accent. Lieutenant Laredo (Tommy Webber) is a mixture of Wesley Crusher and Gary Coleman. Perhaps Sam Rockwell plays the funniest part. He plays “Crewman Number Six”, parodying one of the anonymous “red shirts” who were invariably the first to die in the original Star Trek series.

You probably know the plot. The actors find themselves aboard a real life version of the NSEA Protector created by an oppressed alien race that somehow caught their broadcasts. While they are smart enough to create a working version of their ship, they are also incredibly naïve. They cannot distinguish fact from fiction. So they think the actors are not acting at all. In fact, they cannot conceive of the idea of the whole series being fictional. They recruit the actors to help them save their dying species from the dreaded predator, Sarris and his loathsome alien race. It is a silly premise, of course, but one that provides an ideal tableau for high humor parodying the entire Star Trek and its fan universe.

The show’s writer (David Howard) clearly is a Star Trek fan. He writes with eerie authenticity on the whole fan culture and documents its obsessive nebbish denizens. For while fen wish they could be these valiant explorers, they must inhabit a comfortable 21st century instead. So they spend their free hours on bizarre quests like creating detailed schematics of their mythical spacecraft. What we witness is true to the post Star Trek experience. There is a mutual dependency: the fans need the actors to be their caricature, while the actors need the fans to give meaning to professional lives that otherwise ended when the series was canceled. The movie is homage to the whole fen culture, as well as an imaginative idea perfectly played out.

Consequently, the film can delight on many different levels. That is what makes it for me something of a landmark comedy. If you have not inhabited the fen universe, it is just another funny and often hilarious movie. However, if you have attended a Star Trek convention or two, if you have found yourself obsessively combing the Barnes and Noble for the latest Star Trek novel, or if you have found yourself obsessively posting on Star Trek message boards arguing about continuity errors or the recipe for Plomeek Soup, then this movie is for you.

Galaxy Quest is in many ways a classic comedy like the movie Airplane! (1980). Unfortunately, fewer of us can relate to Galaxy Quest than we can to broad parodies like Airplane! That it transcends into a higher level of comedy is only apparent to us fen. Fortunately, there are millions of Trekkers out there, so the movie paid for itself and then some. It is also a precious gift to the fen community.

I will not rate the movie. I will say it would be difficult not to enjoy it. However, if you have ever been a serious fan of any science fiction series or fantasy show, it will be hilarious, feel intimate, and leave you deeply satisfied.