Interstellar Review

interstellarI recently saw Interstellar, the highly-anticipated film from director Christopher Nolan. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a very ambitious film that deserves a place in the canon of ‘hard sci-fi’ cinema. Its indebtedness to predecessors such as 2001 and Contact is evident throughout, but it manages to make a unique contribution to the genre through its ideas and impressive visual imagery. If I have one criticism of the film, I would say that the third act is too metaphysical (an odd criticism for a student of philosophy to make!). To say more about that, however, would be to spoil the ending of the film and this is a movie that should really be entered spoiler-free. Read on at your own risk if you haven’t yet seen it, although I will try to avoid major spoilers in this review.

The film begins by establishing that earth is running out of food. Humanity has reverted to an agrarian society; everybody has become a farmer, including former test pilot and engineer, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey. He and his family, including his precocious 10 year old daughter Murph, live on a farm that’s reminiscent of something from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl. Murph begins to experience strange phenomena in her bedroom, such as books flying off the shelves. She concludes that a ghost is responsible. This sets up the first of the film’s ‘big ideas’: the tension between science and skepticism on the one hand and spirituality and sentimentality on the other. Without delving too deeply into spoilers, part of what the film attempts to do is overcome this dichotomy.

Murph’s attempt to interpret these messages from beyond leads her and her father to discover a secret NASA installation overseen by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). They are planning a risky voyage to find a new home for humanity among the stars. The NASA team has discovered a wormhole that leads to another galaxy. Three astronauts have already gone through the wormhole in search of habitable worlds and have sent back some promising data. Professor Brand recruits Cooper to lead the mission to reach these potentially habitable planets. Cooper makes the decision to leave his family and embark on what’s likely to be a one-way mission into deep space. Because of the time dilation effects of deep space travel, he will experience time at a slower rate than those on earth. He faces the possibility that his family, including his children, will age and die before he ever gets back — if he ever gets back. However, as Professor Brand reminds him, in order to survive, humanity must think as a species, not as individuals.

I won’t say anymore about the plot, because to do so would get into spoiler territory. Instead, I’m going to talk more generally about the themes involved in the film. There are almost too many ideas going on in this film (although that’s preferable to there being too few) and there’s definitely a balancing act going on between the rigor of the science — which by sci-fi standards is quite high — and metaphysical speculation. Throughout the film, the characters speculate that gravity holds the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. From my layman’s understanding, this speculation is rooted in recent theoretical physics. Stephen Hawking has attributed the creation of the universe itself to gravity and other theoretical physicists have speculated that gravity might be evidence of the existence of extra dimensions and even other universes. In the film, however, this scientific account is juxtaposed with the notion that love — something not easily quantifiable — is in some sense the most fundamental force in the universe. Again, I can’t say too much about the way this theme plays out without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that in a movie ostensibly about the technical aspects of deep space travel, wormholes, black holes, and relativity, the film devotes about a third of its running time to a very metaphysical exploration of the power of love to literally transcend space and time.

Interstellar’s turn into metaphysical, quasi-spiritual territory towards the end of the film has divided audiences. I think you’ll either like it or you won’t. I’m actually quite conflicted about what side of that divide I fall on. I rather liked the dilemma with which the crew is faced at a certain point in the movie — whether to return home or press on and find a home for the human embryos they carry with them. The film’s resolution to this dilemma is to try and have it both ways. It’s a creative solution, I suppose, but it feels a little too much like an M. Night Shyamalan film (albeit one of his better ones). The twist ending, which Nolan has employed in The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises, doesn’t really work for me here. To be fair, the film sets up the dichotomy between science and spirituality from the beginning and its eventual resolution — a New Age-y interpretation that sees the counter-intuitive world of arcane physics as making room for spirituality — is not completely out of left field.

That said, the film should be seen for its visuals alone. I found it to be the most visually compelling film I’ve seen this year and the best example to date of Nolan’s ability as a visual director. Unlike Inception, which I felt was marred by clunky exposition, Interstellar places much more confidence in the power of the image to convey the story. There is, of course, some expository dialogue, but nothing like the excesses of some of his earlier work. In Interstellar, Nolan trusts the visuals to carry the narrative to a much greater extent than he has in the past and, in my judgment, this is a promising development.

If you’re a fan of 2001 and Contact, I think you will enjoy Interstellar.

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Around the Web

spiderman-in-web-0013For your weekend reading, here are few items of geeky interest from around the web:

Lorenzo Semple Jr, the writer who brought Batman to television in the 60’s, has died. Semple also wrote the cult favorite Flash Gordon (1980).

An alternate cut of Gravity kind of shortens the movie.

On a related note, here’s some cool Soviet propaganda art from the space race era. In Soviet moon base, air breathe you!

Just in time for the sequel, both CinemaSins and Honest Trailers have a go at Captain America.

Speaking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there may may be some loopholes that would let Spider-Man join the fun.

Ye Olde Medieval X-Men designs. Reminiscent of Marvel 1602.

Sticking with the medieval theme, what if Game of Thrones were a classic sitcom? And from the same creative team, Firefly as an 80’s action sci-fi show. Actually, Firefly was an 80’s show in spirit, so it’s only appropriate to give it an intro to match.

A fun entry from Longbox Graveyard on how Conan comics overcame the strange taboo about drawing nipples on shirtless male characters. It’s okay to have scantily clad women, but don’t show male nipples! But wait, does this mean we have Roy Thomas to blame for the Joel Schumacher bat suits?

Speaking of bat suits, here’s a visual history of DC live action costumes. Wonder Woman has only one entry, but Cathy Lee Crosby and Adrianne Palicki have both played WW in failed TV pilots and their costumes differed from Lynda Carter’s. For me, the actors who embody these roles are Lynda Carter, Christopher Reeve, and Adam West.

Well, that pretty much brings us full circle. If you have any geeky links you’d like to share, feel free to post them in the comments.

RoboCop, 2014

robocop_2014_movie-wideIt’s no secret that Hollywood has a love affair with remakes and reboots. By now, the law of diminishing returns has kicked in, but don’t expect the trend to die any time soon. There are many examples to choose from, but I’ll focus on the recent RoboCop remake. There are a few minor spoilers, so read at your discretion.

Like many children of the 80’s, I’m a big fan of the original RoboCop. Unlike many of my contemporaries, however, I don’t view the film as so sacred that the mere mention of a remake is blasphemous. Although I shared many of my fellow fans’ skepticism about the remake, I was willing to give it a fair shot. I actually thought that Jose Padilha was a good choice of director and that in an era of automation, surveillance, and drone warfare, the filmmakers had ample opportunity to introduce the cutting social satire that characterized Verhoeven’s original.  To be fair, there’s an attempt to engage with the drone debate. In the film, robots are illegal in the United States for the purposes of civilian law enforcement, although they are employed by the military overseas. RoboCop is introduced as a legal loophole and an attempt to shape public opinion and change legislation. This provides the main motivation for Michael Keaton’s character, Raymond Sellars, the CEO of Omnicorp.

However, the remake never achieves the visceral violence (it’s rated PG-13), satirical edge, or thematic sophistication of its 1987 predecessor. The original works in large part due to its world-building. The news segments and commercials really give viewers a sense of life in this dystopian world. By contrast, Detroit doesn’t look like such a bad place to live in the remake. This is just one example of a more general problem: the remake doesn’t succeed in building a compelling world. Instead of the Media Breaks, Samuel Jackson hosts a Bill O’Reilly style cable news show called the Novak Element. (The filmmakers work in Basil Poledouris’ score as the show’s theme song.) Although I see what they were trying to accomplish, these segments just seemed clunky and out of place compared to the seamless integration of the TV segments in the original. Instead of delivering clever social commentary on the fictional world, Novak simply delivers unimaginative, albeit entertainingly bombastic, exposition. The remake does such a poor job at world-building that it often relies on the original to do the job for it. For example, Jack Earl Haley’s character Mattox, disappointed with RoboCop’s performance in a simulation, says “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar.” The problem is that the movie doesn’t establish ‘I’d buy that for a dollar’ as a common phrase in that world, so there’s no context for it within the film itself. It’s simply an attempt to trade on the world-building and the goodwill fans feel toward the first RoboCop. But a remake can only live on borrowed capital for so long; it eventually has to earn our interest on its own merits.

Another problem with the remake is that it lacks a charismatic and compelling villain. Clarence Boddicker and Dick Jones were diabolically evil. There’s nothing equivalent to Kurtwood Smith’s and Ronny Cox’s performances in the new film. There’s a Boddicker analogue of sorts in the movie, but the story doesn’t do much with him. Then we’ve got Raymond Sellars, Rick Mattox, corrupt cops, and a corrupt police chief. There are too many villains with too many conflicting motivations and none of them really stand out. The lack of a coherent villain is a weakness of this film. One could argue that the filmmakers were going for more subtle, morally ambiguous villains than the corporate sharks and cocaine dealers of the 80’s. But the audience needs a character to hate for the revenge arc to be satisfying. I was left feeling unsatisfied by the end of the movie.

As in the original, RoboCop is trying to solve his own, i.e. Alex Murphy’s, attempted murder. Unlike the original, however, Murphy is Murphy pretty much throughout the movie; he’s only the robot we remember for about ten minutes. He never really has to reclaim his humanity, an important theme in the original. To its credit, the remake tries to do more with his wife and son, but can’t escape the typical Hollywood portrayal of women in crisis. She spends much of the film crying and being manipulated by male characters. I doubt that many women, much less those of a feminist persuasion, are lining up to see this movie, but if they did, I imagine they’d be disappointed. Despite that knock, there are some good scenes between Joel Kinnaman as Alex and Abbie Cornish as Clara Murphy. Thanks to advances in digital effects, the remake is able to show in greater detail than the original how much of Murphy’s physical form has been lost and how dependent he is on his robotic interface with reality.  The film also spends quite a lot of time on the emotional and psychological transition Murphy has to make, which, for an action sci-fi movie of this kind, is surprising and commendable. However, the story is more about how a human would cope with a full body prosthesis, than someone having his humanity erased. I think this is the most important distinction between the remake and original from a character perspective.

Another issue I had with the movie is that it felt small screen despite its big budget, IMAX format, and A-list talent. I experienced this phenomenon before with the Green Lantern adaptation. I’m in a minority of fans who didn’t passionately hate that movie, but I confess that it had problems, the chief one being that it felt more like a TV pilot than a blockbuster. Of course, if it had been a TV pilot on the CW, fans would have embraced it. Despite some very cinematic television in recent years, I think audiences still have lower standards for TV than big screen ‘event’ movies. The RoboCop remake also feels like a TV pilot. Again, if it had been a TV pilot in the Almost Human vein, it would have been a great one. I’d watch that show. Instead, it’s a mediocre movie. That basically sums up my opinion of it.

So, at the end of the screening, I really didn’t have strong feelings about the film one way or another. And that’s the problem. I prefer movies that illicit a reaction, even if it’s hatred (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel). RoboCop 2014 could’ve been better. It definitely could have been worse. It’s a mostly well-acted, competently made movie. But it commits the cardinal sin of any movie, particularly one in this genre: it fails to entertain. Unfortunately, it’s just another unnecessary Hollywood remake that is likely to be forgotten. By contrast, the original remains a classic and deserves to be revisited. I recommend skipping the 2014 edition and picking up the original RoboCop on Blu-ray. It costs more than a dollar, but buy it anyways.

Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop.

I hope to get back to my Star Trek series soon, but in the meantime, check out the new Robocop trailer.

The original 1987 Robocop is one of my favorite 80’s movies and I’ve also written on some of its more philosophical themes. It endures as a satire of corporatism and also explores themes that are relevant to libertarian political philosophy, such as the limits of commodification and the privatization of law enforcement. Judging from the trailer, the new iteration will take up themes of free will and mechanized warfare. At Comic Con, the director, José Padilha, said that Robocop is even more relevant in light of the debate over drones. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the movie. By the way, another 80’s movie that features a cop named Murphy is also relevant to the issue: Blue Thunder.

Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture

Okay, so I couldn’t resist a bad pun in the title. Seriously though, it summarizes my problem with the first feature length Star Trek film: not much happens in this movie. When something finally does happen, it isn’t very interesting. There’s not even enough content here for a filler episode of the original series. Now, I can imagine some readers saying ‘You just don’t get deliberately paced, conceptual sci-fi. Go back to watching the Abrams-verse if you can’t handle the real deal.’ That might be a valid criticism if it weren’t for the fact that I have serious problems with the action-oriented reboot as well. No, the problem isn’t that I don’t appreciate philosophical, cerebral sci-fi. I do. I like 2001, Solaris, Moon, even Prometheus (which a lot of people hated). The problem with The Motion Picture isn’t that it aspires to be philosophical; the problem is that it aspires and fails. It also fails to be entertaining which is a cardinal sin for any fictional medium, clever or otherwise.

Here’s how I imagine the thought process behind this movie went. I deliberately haven’t done much research beyond watching the film itself, so I’m essentially guessing, but willing to bet that this is close to what happened. Roddenberry and his collaborators saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and thought “That’s a great movie!” I would agree. However, they then thought to themselves “Let’s make a Star Trek movie like that! Since 2001 raises questions about human purpose and destiny, our movie will raise questions about human purpose and destiny! Since 2001 is methodically paced with a loose, meandering narrative, our movie will be methodically paced with a loose, meandering narrative! Since 2001 features an artificial intelligence, our movie will feature an artificial intelligence!” Unfortunately, all of the elements that work in 2001 don’t work in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I’m sure it looked good on paper, but it falls flat in execution.

disco mccoy

The future is disco.

I’m not entirely sure why none of it works. The main problem is the pacing. It’s one thing for a film to take its time to develop, but there should be a point to it. For example, do we really need an almost 7 minute sequence of the Enterprise sitting in space dock? A much shorter establishing shot would have done the job. Also, the ship takes a long time to get to its rendezvous with V’Ger. This might be fine if anything happened along the way. Often in sci-fi, a long space voyage can be exploited to explore characters, resolve some kind of conflict, or introduce some psychological tension. The Motion Picture doesn’t bother with any of this. The conflict between Kirk and Decker gets old fast and the conversations among the other characters are tedious and inconsequential to the plot. We’re just along for the dull, protracted ride from earth to the ominous cloud. (By the way, when the principal antagonist in a movie is a cloud, the movie has problems.) The audience is never rewarded for their patience. There’s isn’t any payoff at the end of it. I’m not going to spend time on plot synopsis here (there’s always Wikipedia for that), but suffice it to say that the plot is too thin to carry the film’s weighty pretensions. Again, this concept might have provided enough material for a less memorable episode of the TV show, but it cannot sustain a feature length movie.

But I’m a philosopher, not a film critic (Jim) and usually I can forgive some technical flaws and appreciate a movie’s underlying philosophical ambitions (as with Prometheus). Unfortunately, The Motion Picture, despite it’s 2001-esque aspirations, doesn’t offer much by way of fodder for philosophical reflection. Worse, what it does offer is embarrassingly sophomoric in both philosophical and science fiction terms. The familiar tropes are all here: V’Ger is an entity in search of meaning, having transcended its original programming or teleological function. It seeks to return to the ‘the Creator’ for further instructions. However, as Spock informs it, it must find its own meaning. There is an obvious parallel here between V’Ger and humanity. The humanism that permeates many of Roddenberry’s original Star Trek episodes is back. As human beings, we’ve transcended our biological programming and must find our own meaning independent of the intentions of an alleged creator blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard it all before, and more deftly handled, in any number of sci-fi stories. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this entry. It doesn’t really add to the canon in any discernible way. It’s just another Roddenberry story. Of course, his antipathy toward theism is well known. It can be readily found in several Star Trek episodes, notably “Who Mourns for Adonais?” I don’t have a problem with this aspect of Roddenberry’s work; in fact, I share his humanism — though not his globalist utopianism — to some extent. But this schtick was getting tired even in 1979. Learn a new tune already. However, my criticism is not simply that this premise isn’t particularly original. Stories are told and retold and much of our contemporary fiction is a retelling of ancient mythical tropes that are probably destined to be recycled indefinitely. Roddenberry could have told his humanist parable again in a fresh way; unfortunately, he didn’t.

In conclusion, there’s not much to see here. The best thing about this movie is Jerry Goldsmith’s score that would later become the theme song for TNG. There are a few decent visual effects for the time, I suppose, but nothing that really stands out. The actors slip back into their roles, but they aren’t given much to do. So, I can’t recommend The Motion Picture except to the die-hard Star Trek completionist, who’s no doubt already seen it. In my opinion, this is one of the worst entries in the Star Trek franchise. Fortunately, this early misstep is followed by what is widely considered to be the best of the franchise: The Wrath of Khan. Next time, I’ll talk about that flick in more detail.