Movie Review: Passengers

To start with “Passengers” is a certainly a visually attractive film, and I don’t just mean Jennifer Lawrence. It’s true, the best part of the film are the special effects and especially the set design. The starship Avalon is the starship you dream of being on.

Passengers. Maybe they could have shown the starship in one of their posters?

The biggest problem with this movie is the plot, it’s sooooo slow and so predictable, especially the love story. The movie begins as the starship Avalon is about a third of the way through it’s 120 year journey to the colony Homestead II when the ship has a collision with a rather large asteroid. The ship’s deflector screen prevents the ship from being destroyed but there is some damage, the first instance of which is when passenger Chris Pratt is awoken from hibernation much too early. For the next half an hour we are treated to watching Pratt learn he is the only person awake, watching him try wake up members of the crew and otherwise try to find a way out of his problem as he slowly goes a little crazy. This is the worst part of the film.

The story gets a little better when Jennifer Lawrence wakes up (I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot here). At least now we have two people trying to figure out what they can do. As Jennifer and Chris fall in love and then break up we occasionally are shown small parts of the ship beginning to malfunction as Cleaning robots, visual displays and other systems run into walls or flicker on and off.

Here we have the biggest plot hole in the story. As the failures begin to cascade we are shown the ship’s computer keeping tract of all the breakdowns but for some reason it hasn’t been programmed to wake up any of the crew to fix the bloody problem. At the same time boy engineer Chris is so engrossed in Jennifer he doesn’t notice the accumulating malfunctions. If fact we have to wait for crewman Lawrence Fishburne to be awakened before anybody says “Hey we gotta fix this”!

Now, since three’s a crowd, Fishburne has suffered internal damage during his revival and literally only lives long enough to get Chris and Jennifer off their well exercised butts while giving them his authority to access sections of the ship they hadn’t been able to get into and control the computer systems in ways they’d never been able to. Then he dies leaving Chris and Jennifer to risk their lives saving the ship while falling in love again.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie isn’t bad but it is slow and predictable. As I said earlier the set design does have a real feel of what we imagine a starship passenger liner to be and the story does take the effort to think about why people would ever consider leaping 120 years into the future to begin a completely new life on a new world but hey, isn’t that kinda just the story of our country.

I guess if you like Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence, or if you really like starships you’re like “Passengers” otherwise this movie will probably leave you feeling a little flat.

Review: The Finale of “MARS” on National Geographic Channel

Last night we were treated to the season finale of the National Geographic channel’s six part series “Mars”. Now I’m not sure but does season finale mean there’s more to come next season? Or is this the final finale? Either way it’s a good time for a review of the show.

Mars on the Nat Geo Channel

For those who haven’t seen Mars the series combines a fictional depiction of the first attempts to build a colony on the Red Planet with interviews from scientists and engineers who hope to turn the fiction into reality over the next few decades. Each episode in the series was intended to highlight one of the many dangers the first travelers to Mars will face while showing how they will overcome those dangers with courage, ingenuity and hard work.

While trying to avoid any spoilers the final episode posed perhaps the greatest challenge of all those facing Mars explorers. It’s not an engineering problem or the lack of resources on Mars, those problems we can easily overcome. The problem is the unwillingness of the people back on Earth to accept the inevitable casualties that will come as we explore new worlds in deep space.

The fifth episode had ended with just such a disaster as seven of the Mars colonists were killed. The finale then opens with the political and corporate leaders back on Earth trying to decide whether or not to order an evacuation of the remaining explorers. The interview segments then discussed how the near disaster of Apollo 13 brought about a cancelation of the final two Apollo missions and a complete ending of Human missions beyond Earth orbit for the last 45 years.

This is a big problem. When the colonists of Roanoke Island died they simply disappeared into history, we still aren’t really certain just what happened to them. When somebody dies on Mars however we’ll see it live (O’k there’ll be a time delay for the speed of light) and in full living colour. Now the adventurers who will go to Mars are ready to accept the risk but will we here back on Earth? As I said, this timidness on the part of the Earthbound public may well be in greatest difficulty to be faced in conquering Mars.

As to Mars the Series. Well, I can tell you it’s going in my video collection. It wasn’t perfect, the sound quality of the fictional sections was rather poor, some of the actors seemed like they were mumbling into their chests. But on the whole it was intelligent, thought provoking science fiction of the best kind. Hopefully Nat Geo, the Science Channel and other media outlets will find the way to provide us with more series like “Mars”.

Well, that’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. Till next time.

Movie Review: Arrival

I have a big problem with this Movie! The alien visitors are not only smart enough to span interstellar space and come to Earth they are smart enough to have a deeper understanding of time than we do. And when they arrive on Earth they know that we are a divided species, they seem to know something of our physiology and technology. Yet somehow they haven’t managed to learn English or any other Earth language, nor do they manage to do so by the end of the movie. Seriously, at the film’s climax Amy Adams is trying to get the big message across to them using their language!

I had the same problem with Close Encounters of the Third Kind back in 1977, I know that’s almost heresy but it’s true. In CE3K the aliens have been watching us since at least Dec1945 when they abducted Navy flight 19 but in the next 32 years they haven’t learned English! I’m sorry but that really ruined CE3K for me and it pretty much ruins Arrival.

I remember the old 1950 Film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” where at the beginning of the movie the Alien Klaatu walks out of his flying saucer speaking perfect English. He explains this by announcing that “they” have been listening in on our radio and TV broadcasts. Which is probably how any aliens would learn about our existence in the first place.

arrival-poster-russia

Arrival’s best part is in fact where Amy Adams learns the aliens written language where every word is based on a circle (see example below). They state in the film that this makes every word a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same backwards and forwards, but if you look at the example that’s not true, the alien symbol is different depending on whether you go around the circle clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Alien Language in Arrival
Example of Alien Language in Arrival

As to the Aliens of Arrival themselves, they aren’t very interesting. They look pretty much like octopuses that have lost one tentacle and we don’t get to see a great deal of their technology. The film is really more about how we humans react to the arrival of aliens than the aliens themselves. In that case however “Arrival” spends too much time with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and we only get snippets of news reports on how humanity as a whole is reacting.

Serious Science Fiction movies are rare and need to be supported but I just can’t give it my wholehearted approval. It’s not bad, it’s just not very alien. The scriptwriters needed to spend more time on the aliens and not just their language. Well, that’s my opinion, what’s yours?

 

National Geographic Channel Gives Us A Night Of MARS

Last Night the National Geographic Channel debuted the first episode of it’s new six part miniseries “Mars” from Producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Formatted as a dramatization of the first voyage to Mars the program adds in comments from some of the scientists and engineers who are working to make that first voyage actually happen.

In the first episode we were introduced to the international team of six men and women who will take the spaceship “Daedalus” to Mars. Last night’s episode concentrated in the difficulties and dangers of the actual landing on the red planet. Without giving away to much, a life threatening malfunction occurs, the mission commander is injured while fixing the problem enabling the Daedalus to land safely.

It appears to me that the plot for each episode will resemble last night’s in examining one aspect of the voyage to Mars, adding in an emergency and letting the crew survive by their technical skill and courage. My biggest criticism of last night’s episode would be the sound, with the crew’s helmets on and all of the background noise I never did get to hear what the malfunction actually was.

The interspersed comments from the scientists included Elon Musk the CEO of Space X corporation, Neil deGrasse Tyson the Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of Star Talk, Andy Weir the author of “The Martian” along with my favorite astronaut (I met him once) Jim Lovell and a host of other scientists. In general the commentators succeeded in informing rather than interfering but towards the end I almost got the feeling I was watching a commercial for Space X.

We’ll see how future episodes go, I’ll certainly be watching. National Geographic has announced that they plan on producing more series like Mars and less of the the Tuna Fishing, Surviving in the wild with nothing but a camera crew to help type of reality show and I for one appreciate the change.

After the premier of Mars came the weekly installment of Star Talk with the aforementioned Neil deGrasse Tyson. Doctor Tyson’s guests were the aforementioned Andy Weil along with NASA Engineer Adam Steltzner the team leader on the Mars Curiosity Rover’s sky crane landing system and Jim Green, NASA’s lead planetary scientist. As you might guess the discussions were all about Mars without making an explicit tie in to the miniseries.

Television was once described by Newton N. Minow as a “Vast Wasteland”. Well last night the wasteland of Mars gave us some of the best TV I’ve seen in quiet a long while.

Movie Review: Doctor Strange

The Marvel Universe has released its latest comic to movie superhero in Doctor Stephen Strange. Marvel has certainly developed a winning structure for action movies and while Doctor Strange may not be a high point in the Marvel Universe it was still an entertaining installment.

The biggest problem is the first third of the movie, where noted neurosurgeon Doctor Strange has a car accident, injuring his lifesaving hands. Abandoning western medicine he seeks a cure in eastern mysticism, becoming a super magician, and learning the truth about himself in the process

What we get is simply trite. We’ve seen all this before and the comparisons to other movies are so easy to make. I’ll use Star Wars as an example. Tilda Swinton is the Yoda character, Chiwetel Ejiotor and Benedict Wong share the Obi Wan duties while Benedict Cumberbatch is of course Luke Skywalker. There are scenes of Luke…er, Stephen in training along with the required ‘wise’ sayings stressing how no sense makes sense.

As you can tell from the cast the acting is excellent, only Mads Mikkelsen in the Darth Vader role is unconvincing, and to be honest he has very little to work with aside from just being the baddie. The special effects are also high quality. The bending of reality does manage to generate a genuine feeling of vertigo.

The film picks up a bit of steam when Strange’s artifact finds him. A mage doesn’t find his artifact, it finds him. Again, that’s a little trite. I won’t give away the ending except to say it was the best part of the film with Strange being clever in defeating his foe rather than just another fight scene.

I’m not saying Doctor Strange was a bad film, it just needed a good bit more care in the early part of the script. If you’re looking for something thought provoking, or even just clever plot twists you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re just looking for an enjoyable night’s entertainment Doctor Strange will do the trick.

Oh, and one last thing. Since Doctor Strange will be an integral part of the Marvel Universe, ya kinda have to see this this movie in order to keep up with what’s going on in the rest of MU. Clever boys there at Marvel aren’t they.

P.S. Monday night, 14Nov16, the National Geographic channel will debut the first installment of its six part miniseries ‘Mars’. You can bet I’ll be watching, and posting!

Book Review: “On to the Asteroid” by Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson

Just finished reading the new (Aug16) novel “On to the Asteroid” by Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson, a hard science look at space travel about twenty years from now. If you’re like me and are anxious for humanity to return to the Moon, get going on exploring Mars and begin living, working and profiting from space I can recommend “On to the Asteroid” without reservation.

The basic plot, a runaway asteroid is going to strike the Earth is actually the weakest element of the entire book. We’ve seen all this before whether in novels, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Hammer of God” or movies “Meteor”, “Armageddon” and Deep Impact” and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. That said “On to the Asteroid” is a thrill ride in a high-tech spaceship with plenty of plot twists, a homicidal maniac along with harrowing escapes from certain death.

The Authors, Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson certainly know their science and technology. Taylor is an aerospace engineer, author and appears in National Geographic Channels “Rocket City Rednecks” while Les Johnson is a physicist who works for NASA at their Advanced Concepts Office so you know the science is done with three digit accuracy. Like Andy Weir’s “The Martian” the science of “On to the Asteroid” is the solid foundation of an adventure unlike anything anyone has yet experienced.

“On to the Asteroid” is a quick read, it took me two days to finish. It reminds me somewhat of the Dan Brown novels that have something happen every page which keeps you turning to the next page. I’m not going to spoil the ending or anything but “On to the Asteroid” is a roller coaster ride that will keep you in suspense till the very end.

“On to the Asteroid” isn’t either philosophical nor psychological. It isn’t great literature, but it is what science fiction has always done best, it takes you to other worlds!

Happy 50th Birthday Star Trek

Today we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast premier of Star Trek, and I do mean celebrate. On the evening of September eighth 1966 NBC television showed the episode “The Man Trap” and the world was introduced to Captain James T. Kirk, the half Vulcan Mr. Spock, “Bones” McCoy, Scottie, Uhura and the entire crew of the starship Enterprise.

I still vividly remember watching that first episode and immediately became a lifelong Trekker. The Man Trap itself was a good episode, not great but it did have an alien planet with a lost civilization and a deadly monster with cool powers that you ended up feeling almost sorry for. “It’s the last of its kind, like the buffalo.”  

Yes, I know the costumes were high school, same for the sets. The special effects are now so outdated, and Shatner’s acting could sometimes make you cringe. Still, some of the episodes that followed were classics of science fiction in any media and even after all these years are some of the best television that has ever been produced.

That the world of Star Trek has lasted for fifty years, and continues to grow, is I think because it provides a framework into which many of us, the nerds of the world if you like, are able to fit our hopes and dreams. It provides an example of a world, a humanity where many people would like to live. 

I grew up with friends who wanted to be the Captain of the Enterprise. I have other friends who would prefer to travel to remote, alien worlds on the Enterprise. Personally, I was something like Scottie, I wanted to know how the Enterprise worked; how the Jeffery’s Tube connected the Engineering Section to the Warp Pods or how many decks did the Saucer Section have?

Gene Roddenbury’s of vision of a humanity that has solved the problems of today by the simple act of behaving like grown-ups, and because of which is now prepared to face the challenges of an entire universe still attracts new followers. We can take pleasure in knowing that there are more movies being developed, and a new series starting early next yea. So we will still have Star Trek with us for a long time to come, and I for one am glad for that.