Interstellar review

On Saturday, 15 November 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for a matinee of Interstellar at the Jordan’s IMAX theater in Framingham, Mass. We liked the relationship-focused highbrow science fiction film.

Plot

Interstellar follows Cooper, an astronaut turned farmer in an unspecified near future in which human spaceflight has faltered because of the urgency of feeding billions amid severe ecological degradation.

Widower Cooper’s son Tom is content to become a farmer, but his restlessness is mirrored in his daughter Murph. Despite being science-minded in an era focused on mere survival, Murph claims that a poltergeist is trying to send her messages.

An errant surveillance drone leads Cooper and his children to a secret NASA base, where his former colleague Prof. Brand and his daughter are working on sending a second wave of explorers through a newly discovered wormhole near Saturn to find inhabitable planets.

Aware of the relativistic effects of faster-than-light interstellar travel, Cooper gets his father Donald’s blessing and reluctantly leaves with the younger Brand and a small crew to try to save humanity….

Interstellar poster
Christopher Nolan’s latest SF movie

Cast

The cast of Interstellar is uniformly solid, with several actors from past Christopher Nolan productions. Matthew McConaughey is grounded as Cooper, despite the talk of imminent Armageddon, wormholes, and love and gravity transcending the dimension of time.

John Lithgow and Michael Caine are Cooper’s father figures as Donald and Prof. Brand, respectively. Anne Hathaway is emotional but strong as the younger Brand, and Mackenzie Foy plays a young Murph (named after Murphy’s Law — “Whatever can happen, will”).

As more time passes on Earth while the subjective time of the astronauts is shorter, the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain, and Casey Affleck is the older Tom. Murph and Tom react in different ways to their father’s absence. Matt Damon plays Dr. Mann, “the best of us” and part of the first wave sent through the wormhole.

Bill Irwin is also noteworthy as the voice of TARS, a former military robot among those retasked with helping the laconic Cooper’s mission. He brings a sense of snarky humor and potential menace to the proceedings, referring directly to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Direction

Christopher Nolan’s meticulous style is similar to that of 2001‘s Stanley Kubrick or Prometheus‘ Ridley Scott. He’s more comfortable with high-concept speculative fiction in movies such as Inception, Duncan Jones’ Moon, or Rian Johnson’s Looper than with the emotional content of Steven Spielberg’s best.

Viewers waiting for action and suspense have to wait a while before the three-hour-long movie gets to it, and the parallels between Coop and Murph and Prof. Brand and his daughter are pretty obvious. When Donald or Prof. Brand fulminate on the human condition and our need to explore the universe, it’s clear that’s what Nolan thinks.

Still, even if I agree with the sentiment and understand some of the underlying science, I’d rather he spent less time explaining and more time engaging the audience. Overall, Nolan handles his cast and the narrative jumps in time well, but Interstellar feels more technical than passionate, and he’s unlikely to persuade any who might disagree.

Cinematography

Nolan’s true strength is with creating a believable universe. As with last year’s excellent Gravity, space travel is shown to be difficult, dangerous, and ultimately worthwhile. The psychedelic imagery during the wormhole travel is mercifully brief.

The visualization of “Gargantua,” a black hole around which some potential homeworlds orbit, is excellent. Any good science fiction movie should show us something we haven’t seen or maybe even haven’t imagined before. Much of the science is sound, and the distant planets reminded me of some documentaries about hazardous arctic exploration.

Sure, one could quibble with the environmental science, the description of gravitic propulsion, and the late appearance of O’Neill cylinders in the movie, but I was glad to see this movie on an IMAX screen with a full house. As other reviewers have noted, like Big Hero 6, some of the best parts of Interstellar are when it shows people using science to try to solve problems or mysteries.

Soundtrack

As with Inception and many recent action movie trailers, Interstellar had the booming “bwong, bwong” sound to underscore important moments. I could have done without that, but I have to admit that the IMAX theater’s “rumble seats” were nice for the scenes when Cooper and company were flying by the seats of their pants.

There is no music quite as memorable as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” from 2001 or Vangelis’ themes in Blade Runner. As in Gravity, I liked the absence of sound during some of the space scenes.

Rating

I liked Interstellar more than Elysium and about the same as Contact, to refer to two Jodi Foster SF movies. It’s definitely part of a wave of more serious speculative fiction, providing a nice balance to the explosions of Star Trek: Into Darkness or comedy of Space Station 76 while I wait for the next cyclical revival of classic space opera.

I’d give Interstellar, which is rated PG-13 for some violence, a 7.5 to 8 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. I think that some critics were overly harsh, but I’m also more of an SF buff than the general audience.

Speaking of which, I’m still enjoying Jonathan Nolan’s cyber-dystopian Person of Interest on television, and I’m cautiously optimistic about his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO. Also, it is with some sadness that I note the passing of Glen Larson, who created the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and many of the other genre TV shows I grew up on.

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Star Trek: Into Darkness review

On Saturday, 18 May 2013, Janice and I went with houseguest Byron V.O. to the Apple Cinema/Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Mass., There, we met Beruk A., Bruce K., Rich C.G., Rich’s friend Darryl, and Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for Star Trek: Into Darkness. We all enjoyed the sequel to the reboot of the long-running space opera franchise.

Into Darkness wallpaper
J.J. Abrams’ latest space opera prequel/sequel

Story: The movie opens with the starship Enterprise saving the inhabitants of the planet Nibiru from a volcano that’s about to erupt. This violates Starfleet’s Prime Directive, which requires noninterference with societies that have yet to develop Warp (faster-than-light) capability.

Adm. Christopher Pike tells Capt. James T. Kirk that he’s relieved of duty, but terrorist attacks on Earth call the intrepid crew of the Enterprise back into action (the trailers have mostly focused on these, in an echo of 9/11 and even the recent Boston Marathon bombings). Kirk, his first officer Mr. Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and friends must overcome physical and personal challenges to save the United Federation of Planets from an internal threat.

Director J.J. Abrams and company created a parallel universe in 2009’s Star Trek to be more accessible to a generation of moviegoers not familiar with the 1960s television show and its numerous spinoffs. However, viewers who are “Trekkies” or “Trekkers” and know the rich history of Gene Roddenberry’s fictional universe will recognize many elements of Into Darkness, including Klingons, Tribbles, and references to characters such as Harry Mudd and Christine Chapel.

I had worried, based on early reviews, that Abrams and Paramount had “gone back to the well” once too often by rehashing familiar plot points, but the acting, pacing, and twists mostly made up for this, and the ending of the movie — don’t worry, I’ll avoid “spoilers” here, but be aware that the links in this review lead to some — leaves the fictional future wide open for more adventures.

Acting: I have fond memories of watching reruns of the original Star Trek TV series back in college, and the actors who first took on those roles have become pop culture icons. Still, I think that the returning cast of the new version has been well-chosen, from Chris Pine as the cocky but good-natured Kirk, Zach Quinto as the (mostly) logical Vulcan Spock, and Karl Urban as the irascible Dr. McCoy. They continue to be worthy successors to William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and the late De Forrest Kelley, respectively.

Just as in the original series and the first half-dozen Trek films, the supporting cast is smart and fun. Zoe Saldana is back as strong-willed communications officer (and Spock’s girlfriend) Lt. Nyota Uhura, comedian Simon Pegg is a hoot as engineer Lt.Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, and Anton Yelchin is Russian wunderkind Ensign Pavel Chekov.

Helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu, as played by John Cho, doesn’t quite ooze charisma the way George Takei does, but he does get a key scene in the captain’s chair. Bruce Greenwood is back as Adm. Pike, lending gravitas and fatherly guidance to impetuous Kirk and repressed Spock.

The latest additions to this iteration of Star Trek are just as good. The comely Alice Eve plays science officer Carol Wallace, and RoboCop and Buckaroo Banzai‘s Peter Weller is Adm. Alexander Marcus, who tasks the Enterprise with taking on mysterious torpedoes. There’s also a cameo that actually helps the story along.

As expected, Benedict Cumberbatch (the lead of the BBC/PBS Sherlock and Smaug and the Necromancer in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptations) is formidable as John Harrison, the terrorist scientist of this movie. He’s both strong and clever as a foil to both Kirk and Spock and is a better villain than Romulan miner Nero in its predecessor flick.

Script: The dialogue is fast, witty, and filled with catchphrases from the ’60s series. I suspect that casual viewers or those who aren’t science fiction fans won’t find the banter as entertaining as we did, but this is a sequel that doesn’t talk down to its viewers. There is some dodgy physics, such as a “cold fusion” bomb, odd rates of acceleration and descent, and sound in space, but Trek is part of a long tradition of science in service to character-based stories rather than a lesson in realism.

While I’d prefer that a Star Trek film occasionally focus on exploration and diplomacy rather than military space opera, at least the script mentioned those concerns.

Direction: Abrams keeps up a brisk pace and gets emotive performances from the cast of Star Trek: Into Darkness. I might disagree with his addiction to lens flares and the choreography of a few fight scenes, but Abrams has injected vitality into the franchise, and I hope that Disney’s recently acquired Star Wars universe is in good hands.

Visual effects: Other than the science quibbles above, Into Darkness is spectacular, as its crew faces off against hovering aircraft, hostile Klingon vessels, and a monstrous Dreadnaught-class starship. I liked seeing more of Earth in the 23rd century, and the sleek interior of the Enterprise seems larger than any of the other renditions of the famous starship, including the NCC 1701-E of First Contact onward.

Soundtrack: The classical score, while still not as memorable as that of earlier movies, continues the themes from the ’09 Trek. My favorite part is closing credits of Into Darkness, with its peppy recap of the music from the 1960s show, despite the movie’s grim title and premise.

Ratings: At an early dinner at Bertucci’s, the consensus was about an 8 out of 10, with Rich being the most critical at a 7 and Bruce being most generous with a 10. I’d give Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, 8.5, a B+/A-, or four out of five stars.

As usual, there are mixed to negative reviews out there, but I’d recommend that potential fans keep their expectations in check and go in with an open mind. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Into Darkness, for all its modernizations and minor inconsistencies, still felt like classic Trek. I’d like to see Star Trek return to television, where it can focus more on idealistic social commentary rather than villain-driven fisticuffs.

Of the trailers we saw, I’m still most interested in Neil Blomkamp’s dystopian Elysium and least interested in Jerry Bruckheimer’s campy Lone Ranger. Man of Steel is the next big summer movie I’m looking forward to. In the meantime, live long and prosper!

Star Trek: the greatest generation

On Thursday, 29 November 2012, I met former co-worker and fellow blogger Ken G. and members of the Boston Sci-Fi Meetup for dinner, drinks, and conversation at Boston Beer Works near Fenway Park. We then went to the screening of Season 2 episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation that have been remastered in preparation for the Blu-Ray release. I enjoyed the camaraderie, the special features, and the look back at one of the best space opera TV shows as it reached its prime 25 years ago.

Cast photo for ST:TNG Season 2
Command crew of the starship Enterprise, NCC 1701-D, as of Season 2

Q Who?” introduced the Borg, who would become one of the franchise’s greatest villains. John de Lancie’s nearly omnipotent mischief maker played off nicely against Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Jean Luc Picard and the rest of the command crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC 1701-D. The remastered special effects were clean, although the colors and lighting seemed a bit too dark at times. The audio was excellent, with the starship sounds more pronounced during the opening credits and space battles.

A Measure of a Man” included 13 minutes of restored scenes from Melinda Snodgrass’ thoughtful script. Jonathan Frakes as Cmdr. William T. Riker, Stewart, and Brent Spiner as Lt.Cmdr. Data all got to shine in their roles exploring android Data’s legal rights as a sentient being in the United Federation of Planets. The episode included references to the original 1960s TV series (TOS) and held up remarkably well. I’m glad that Snodgrass’ character moments were added back in.

Both episodes showed the crew of the Enterprise growing more comfortable with one another as the storylines improved. While I disagree with the producers and many fans who wanted darker, more conflict-driven episodes in defiance of Gene Roddenberry’s wishes, I think Next Gen‘s (TNG) middle seasons did a great job of balancing character, episodic plots, and Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future.

The interviews with cast members, bloopers, and glimpses at the restoration process for Seasons 1 through 3 of TNG added much insight. It was nice to see the actors still joking around, learn about why Gates MacFadden was really fired (for protesting sexist scripts), and whet our appetite for remastered versions of “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Sins of the Father,” “Best of Both Worlds, Part 1.”

Reunion of ST:TNG cast
Reunion of the cast of Star Trek: the Next Generation

Star Trek, including The Next Generation, helped set the template for many other genre television in the decades that have followed. Like Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, and Babylon 5 had an initially successful military space opera — TOS, the 1970s show, the 1980s movie, and the 1990s TV series, respectively. The best of these showed teams of co-workers become friends as they saved humanity and the galaxy time after time.

Each was followed by a ship-based TV revival (TNG, Ron Moore’s BSG, and Stargate SG1), a darker and more intricate stationary show (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Caprica, and Stargate: Atlantis) and a weaker return to a ship-based action series (Voyager/Enterprise, Razor/Blood & Chrome, Stargate: Universe, and Crusade, respectively). All had episodes featuring time travel or flashbacks, shared hallucinations, foes turned friends, and many other speculative fiction tropes codified by Trek.

Even space operas that didn’t have spinoffs owe a heavy debt to Roddenberry and crew, such as Andromeda, Farscape, and Firefly/Serenity. I’ve been a fan of all of these shows, but the familial relationships of TNG and Roddenberry’s heroic idealism still resonate with me more than many of that show’s peers, spinoffs, and successors.

Now that more information is becoming available for the sequel to J.J. Abrams’ reboot, I’m still cautiously optimistic. I’d prefer a less villain-driven plot, which looks to use Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan Noonien Singh or Gary Mitchell as an analogue for Osama Bin Laden. Star Trek‘s final frontier still beckons. Live long and prosper!

The Force is strong with the Mouse House…

By now, genre entertainment fans may have seen the news that Disney is buying Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion. I’ve already seen lots of snarky comments online, but this purchase might be good for the franchise, and by extension, space opera.

Disney buys Lucasfilm
George Lucas and Walt Disney’s creations

I have no love for megacorporate deals, some of Lucas’ more stilted dialogue, or the “nerd rage” of many fans. Get over Jar Jar Binks already — yes, the character is unintentionally offensive, but most small children I observed loved him as previous ones loved R2-D2, Yoda, or Ewoks.

My sources have hinted that Disney has been interested in Lucasfilm for some time, for much the same reason it recently bought Marvel Comics — as intellectual property to mine for profitable ideas.

On the other hand, the fact remains that the Star Wars movies and multimedia helped rescue science fiction from obscurity in the late 1970s, and Lucas handing off his creation to the next generation of directors isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

Lucas has shown greater wisdom when collaborating with other writers than when tinkering with his earlier works, as the excellent Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Star Wars: Clone Wars demonstrate.

The “expanded universe” of Star Wars novels, comic books, games, toys, and TV shows has generally maintained consistent quality (notwithstanding the occasional cheesy Christmas special). As much as I love other franchises from my youth, such as Doctor Who, Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, I’ve become more of a Star Wars buff.

We’ll have to wait and see if Disney’sEpisode VII” and other sequels continue the dreams born from a kid in California watching old Flash Gordon serials or whether the worst fears of hypercritical fans are again realized. May the Force be with us — always!

Gene the Christmas Jedi
As a Jedi, Christmas 2009

Looper review

On Sunday, 30 September 2012, I met Beruk A., Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for Looper at the AMC Burlington 10 cineplex. We enjoyed the time-travel drama, which was one of the better genre movies I’ve seen in the theaters so far this year.

Rian Johnson's time-travel movie
Looper

We liked one of director Rian Johnson‘s previous films, Brick, which was a noirish thriller set in a high school. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, who was also in Brick, plays Joe, an assassin hired by criminals from the future who is confronted with closing his own loop.

Gordon-Leavitt endured makeup and altered his mannerisms to match Bruce Willis (12 Monkeys) as the older version of Joe, who goes on the lam to try to fix history. Of course, with gun-toting thugs, telekinesis, and a dystopian world, nothing goes as planned for any of Looper‘s characters.

The rest of the supporting cast is strong, including Piper Perabo as a dancer, Jeff Daniels as a crimelord, Paul Dano and Garrett Dillahunt (Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles) as fellow “loopers,” Emily Blunt as a secretive farmer, and young Kamden Beauchamp as a creepy child.

Looper alludes to previous time-travel films such as those mentioned above, and it does a decent job of bringing up the questions of paradoxes, free will vs. predestination, and “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a child, would you?” Looper doesn’t resolve all these, but the character development and action scenes keep the story moving.

Overall, I’d give Looper, which is rated R for strong violence, an 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+/A-. I’d put Looper close to the much-maligned John Carter, the blockbuster Avengers, and darkly whimsical ParaNorman and would recommend it to other science fiction fans.

I’ve missed other recent dystopian movies, including Total Recall and Dredd, and I don’t know if I’ll see animated Halloween flicks Hotel Transylvania or Frankenweenie. Before Looper, we sat through numerous previews, and only Argo and Lincoln looked promising. I’m looking forward more to James Bond in Skyfall, Rise of the Guardians, and of course, The Hobbit [1]: An Unexpected Journey!