Tag Archives: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

Film review: ‘Interstellar’ is stellar

Interstellar, Big Hero 6 score more than $50M in opening weekend

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway star in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” which has hints of many other sci-fi films but has a rather unique message of its own. (No, it is not a rehash of “2001”… And it is better than “Gravity.”)

First, the criticisms that widely are being thrown at Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”: Real people don’t talk that way. The science often isn’t solid, to put it mildly. The plot twists are predictable.

I, for one, frequently pleasantly was surprised by the twists and turns and surprises that “Interstellar” presents us with, including even my not having known that a major star plays an important role in the film, which is filled with stars, both of the astronomical and the Hollywood type, and while I suppose that if you are an astronomer (and not many of us are), you will only be able to dissect the film against your knowledge base, in my eyes “Interstellar” delivers on the sense of awe of the vastness of the cosmos that we commoners see films like “Interstellar” for in the first place.

Sure, Matthew McConaughey has been overused a bit in the movies as of late, but he is a solid lead for “Interstellar,” and one could argue — and I do — that Anne Hathaway’s character actually is, in the end, the most important character in the film.

Tellingly, I think, the scene that I found the most poignant in “Interstellar” apparently is the scene, or at least one of the scenes, that Slate.com’s resident astronomy writer, who reviewed the film, hated the most. He writes:

In a conversation between [Matthew McConaughey’s character] and Anne Hathaway’s character about love, she says that love is an artifact of a higher dimension (what does that even mean?) and “transcends the limits of time and space,” as if it’s a physical force — an allusion to gravity, which, critically to the plot, does transcend dimensions, time, and space. The dialogue here was stilted to say the least, and it gets worse when [another] character talks about a parent’s love for his children, saying, “Our evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier.” Who talks like that? The movie is riddled with attempts to be profound, but due in part to the clunky dialogue it just sounds silly.

Sure, there is some “clunky dialogue” in “Interstellar,” but it’s meant to be a grand, sweeping sci-fi epic, not a modern comedy whose dialogue never would stray from the vernacular. And the character who makes such a comment as “Our evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier” obviously has some screws loose, so it’s not surprising, really, to hear him repeatedly speak that way.

Probably the biggest takeaway for me from “Interstellar” is the Mars vs. Venus worldview — and which of the two worldviews, at least in “Interstellar,” turns out to be the most critical to the continued survival of the human species. (I won’t elaborate on any of “Interstellar’s” plot points here, as no reviewer really could do such a summary justice, and as, in the end, “Interstellar” very much is about the effect of the whole, not the details of its parts.)

It’s interesting, I think, that just as McConaughey’s character rebuffs Hathaway’s soliloquy about love transcending the limits of space and time (a rebuff that, in the film’s plot, has some serious consequences and repercussions), so does Slate.com’s astronomy writer. Theirs is a worldview, the Martian worldview, that apparently is dyed in the wool.

It’s an important worldview (and don’t get me wrong; I read the aforementioned astronomy writer’s stuff all the time, and I like it, so I will continue to read it), but it’s only half of the story (at most).

Mars is nothing without Venus, and that, I think, is the central message of “Interstellar” that apparently only we Venusians, like only Anne Hathaway’s character (and the character of the daughter of Matthew McConaughey’s character) in “Insterstellar,” can see.

Even if my Mars-vs.-Venus analysis doesn’t do it for you, “Interstellar” is worth seeing for (again) the sense of awe that a good sci-fi film can instill in us earthbound folk, and I, for one, found its intricate, puzzle-like plot to be fascinating. I like the way that Nolan and his screenwriting brother fairly neatly tie up the loose ends, and I’m fine with “Interstellar” not having explained every little detail and phenomenon, because that not knowing — which is anathema to the Martian worldview — is the stuff on which we Venusians thrive.

My grade: A

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‘Alien’ meets ‘Tree of Life’ in Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’

Film review

Earthlings from the ship Prometheus visit the ship of humanoid aliens in Ridley Scott’s epic “Prometheus,” in which Scott unfortunately bit off far more than he actually could chew. 

Warning: Contains spoilers (if you really could call them that…).

I’m pretty sure that my companion and I weren’t supposed to laugh at the final visual of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” but we did, and that very apparently unintended laughter from the audience member, I think, underscores what’s wrong with the film.

Before I saw “Prometheus” yesterday — in 3-D at an IMAX, the biggest and loudest way to see it, at least here in Sacramento — I had read another reviewer compare “Prometheus” to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” and while at that time I couldn’t see how that comparison could be apt, I see it now.

I wrote of “The Tree of Life” at the time of its release:

I get the impression with “The Tree of Life” that the 67-year-old Malick [he now is 68] had two films inside of him trying to claw their way out of his chest cavity like identical twin aliens a la “Alien,” but that he was concerned that if he didn’t put them into one film, he might not live long enough to get both films made, so he put both of the films into a blender.

Again, either of these two films probably would have been or at least could have been great, Malick’s ode to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (and to “Jurassic Park”) or Malick’s very personal (perhaps too personal) recap of his own childhood as an American baby boomer having grown up in Texas.

I also noted of “The Tree of Life” that “the story of the humans in ‘The Tree of Life’ probably would have made a much better stand-alone film, stripped of the ‘2001’-like surrealism of cosmic vomiting and universal diarrhea, in which creation often rather violently explodes all over the place.”

It’s kind of weird, in retrospect, that I mentioned “Alien” in my review of “The Tree of Life,” because now we have Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” which is like “‘Alien’ Meets ‘The Tree of Life,'” and the same criticism that I leveled of “The Tree of Life” is true of “Prometheus”: that “the story of the humans in [‘Prometheus’] probably would have made a much better stand-alone film, stripped of the ‘2001’-like surrealism of cosmic vomiting and universal diarrhea, in which creation often rather violently explodes all over the place.”

In the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” — and it’s a grand, origin-of-man opening scene that makes us think way too much of the grand, origin-of-man opening scenes of Kubrick’s “2001” and Malick’s “Tree of Life” – we have what appears to be literal cosmic vomiting, as a proto-human, humanoid alien apparently vomits his (its?) DNA onto planet Earth as its body disintegrates into a waterfall, further seeding planet Earth with its DNA, eventually leading to us human beings, which doesn’t make much more sense, scientifically, than the myth that Eve sprang fully formed from Adam’s rib. But if I understand “Prometheus” correctly (and can anyone?), Scott presents this as more or less scientifically plausible.

It’s fine to create your own cosmology, but your cosmology needs to make sense, needs to follow logic and reason, if you are presenting it as logical and reasonable. “Prometheus” is chock full of logical and chronological inconsistencies and contradictions. Were I to watch “Prometheus” on DVD and be able to stop and start it again, I probably could fill pages of notes of all of the shit that just doesn’t make sense.*

And that doesn’t make “Prometheus” deep and unfathomable. That makes “Prometheus” not very well planned out.

The acting in “Prometheus” is good, even though our heroine more or less is an Ellen Ripley reboot, and expect Ridley Scott and his army of technicians to sweep the Oscars with technical awards, and indeed “Prometheus'” ultra-special effects and BIGNESS do indeed draw you in, at least at times throughout the film’s two hours, and so as summer-movie entertainment, “Prometheus” more or less succeeds, but by trying to do way too much, and by not making much sense in the process, “Prometheus” lets you down.

The main problem with “Prometheus” indeed seems to be Ridley Scott’s outsized ego. “Prometheus” isn’t just the dude in Greek mythology who first brought the use of fire to mankind, and “Prometheus” isn’t just the name of the ship in Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since 1982’s “Blade Runner,” and “Prometheus” isn’t just the humanoid alien at the beginning of Scott’s latest sci-fi film who apparently is the father (father/mother?) of all mankind on Earth, and “Prometheus” isn’t just the title of Ridley Scott’s latest film. “Prometheus” also very apparently is Ridley Scott — who wishes to remind you that he first brought the “Alien” franchise to mankind!

At age 74, perhaps Scott thought that “Prometheus” might be his last film, and so he had to make a splash. Ironically, it seems to me that had he tried to make much less of a big splash, “Prometheus” would have been a much better film, because it isn’t a big splash — it’s a big mess. A very pretty mess, but a mess nonetheless. With “Prometheus” Ridley Scott bit off way more than he could chew.

There are elements of “Prometheus” that I like. I like the proto-human, humanoid aliens, and I would have liked to have known an awful lot more about them, but I suppose that that would have been too much like “Star Trek” for Scott, and again, I have the feeling that we aren’t told more about these aliens not because Scott was trying to be coy (although I don’t rule out that he decided to save some details for sequels, of course), but because he actually never bothered to flesh out his cosmology for “Prometheus.”

Reviewers have been raving about Michael Fassbender’s performance as David, the android. I like Fassbender — he’s good in pretty much every role that he plays — but David is only a mish-mash of androids that we’ve seen before in the previous “Alien” movies and in many other sci-fi films. The protagonist juvenile android of Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” also is named David, whose “daddy” is the CEO of a corporation, just like “Prometheus'” David is the ’droid “son” of a CEO. (The symbolism, I suppose, is that sculptor Michelangelo created his own David. Deep!)

Yawn.

And the theme of the robot who knows that he doesn’t have a human soul has been visited many times before, not only in “A.I.” but with “Star Trek’s” Data, of course. (To “Prometheus'” credit, I suppose, the android David apparently does not, in Pinocchio-cum-Data style, long to be a real boy, as does “A.I.’s” android David. “Prometheus'” David seems to prefer his status as an android.)

But why do almost all of the androids in the “Alien” movies have to be decapitated or cut in two? As I watched the talking head of David in “Prometheus,” I really could think only of the android characters of Ash and Bishop in “Alien” and “Aliens,” respectively, who were decapitated and cut in two, respectively, but who kept talking. Why couldn’t Ridley Scott have kept David in one piece?

And why did Scott have David deliver lines that are so similar in their content and even in their cadence to the lines that HAL delivered in “2001,” such as something along the lines of: “I know that we have had our differences,  [insert hero or heroine’s name here], but I can assure you that I am fully functional now”?

David’s being the only one “awake” for more than two years while the human crew were in cryosleep as their ship traveled to its destination (the Earth-like moon of a planet far, far away) on a mission that most of the crew members were not briefed upon until after their arrival at their destination also makes David too much like HAL and “Prometheus” too much like “2001” (as well as their grand opening scenes that retell how humankind came into being).

And for fuck’s sake, I love Guy Pearce, but if you have a character who is supposed to be an old, old man, why not just have an old, old actor play that role? (AARP, are you listening?) It’s taboo these days to put makeup on a white person and have him or her play, say, an Asian or a black person, so why is it OK to just put makeup on a younger man to have him play a Yoda-old man? (Age progression is different. Pearce’s character, the CEO of “Weyland Corp.” and the “father” of android David, is ancient throughout the entire film.)

Many reviewers have noted that “Prometheus” appears to be Ridley Scott’s attempt to take back the franchise that his 1979 “Alien” started, and indeed, the final, very apparently unintentionally risible scene of “Prometheus” — in a which a proto-“Alien” alien bursts from the torso of one of the proto-human, humanoid aliens — seems to be Ridley Scott fairly screaming: “See? I gave birth to the alien!”

Admittedly, the “Alien” franchise went off the tracks with its third installment, but “Prometheus” hasn’t put it back on track.

Gee. Maybe James Cameron can rescue the “Alien” reboot…**

My grade: B-

*You are demanding at least one thing about “Prometheus” that doesn’t make sense, so fine: Why does the humanoid alien at the end of the film, who, we are told, has been in cryosleep for at least 2,000 years, decide, upon finally wakening, that he still must fulfill his destructive mission on Earth? How does he know that the mission is still a good idea? Is it not possible that things have changed in two millennia? And even with the humanoid aliens’ advanced technology, how was he (it?) kept alive in cryosleep for two millennia?

Here’s another logical problem: The automated surgery pod that operates on our heroine — if it was programmed for male patients only, as we are informed, how did it cut open and then close her uterus? (Was the alien being in her uterus? She was told that she was pregnant, so I assume so.)

Here’s another problem: How can you actually reanimate the head of a humanoid being that has been dead for centuries? (And isn’t it repetitive? Ash the android’s head was reanimated in “Alien,” for fuck’s sake. WTF is Scott’s obsession with reanimated heads?)

And yet another problem: If the humanoid aliens’ DNA were exactly like Earthlings’ DNA, then why are the humanoid aliens hairless, pale (translucent, really) and huge? If the DNA were an exact match, wouldn’t Earthlings be giants, too?

There are many more inconsistencies and contradictions, but those are good for starters.

**Lest you laugh, Wikipedia notes that “Prometheus”

…began development in the early 2000s as a fifth entry in the “Alien” franchise, with both [Ridley] Scott and director James Cameron developing ideas for a film that would serve as a prequel to Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror film “Alien.” By 2003, the project was sidelined by the development of “Alien vs. Predator,” and remained dormant until 2009 when Scott again showed interest.

I am not certain whether Scott and Cameron were working together or were working independently on an “Alien” prequel, but I rather would have had Cameron make the prequel than Scott…

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‘Tree of Life’: For critics or for viewers?

Film review

“The Tree of Life” (which contains all of the images above, among many, many, many others): Great art or the self-indulgent, inaccessible pretensions of a baby boomer growing ever closer to death?

It is telling that (as I type this sentence, anyway) Yahoo! Movies shows American director Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as having garnered an “A-” from film critics — and only a “C+” from the common folk.

The question then becomes, I think, whether the film is flawed or whether the film is just above the audience’s head.

“The Tree of Life” spectacularly peculiarly alternates between the very apple-pie story of a white middle-class family in the suburbs of Texas in the 1950s, patronized by Brad Pitt — and “2001: A Space Odyssey”-like grand views of the cosmos, views of dramatic geological events here at home (lots o’ lava, that is), and micro-views, such as that of a developing embryo (which we also saw in “2001,” and the same guy who did the special effects for “2001” [which was released the year that I was born] was involved with the special effects for “The Tree of Life,” and thus the deja vu). And throw in a lot of surrealism involving our real-life characters, such as an apparent family reunion in the afterlife on an ephemeral beach. Oh, and dinosaurs, too.

In “Tree of Life” Sean Penn plays the grown-up eldest son of Pitt’s character — and Penn apparently is the stand-in for Malick, kind of like one of Woody Allen’s stand-ins for himself — but Penn actually isn’t in the film all that much. It’s mostly Pitt, but Pitt does a great job, as he usually does, and the child actors also impress with their very natural acting.

The main problem with “The Tree of Life,” I think, is that the previews make it look like a Pitt-and-Penn vehicle with a little bit of artsy-fartsy stuff thrown in there, but the actual film is two hours and 15 minutes of an awful lot of artsy-fartsy stuff thrown in there. American audiences, at least, aren’t, I surmise, ready to go back and forth among watching Brad Pitt playing a family man in 1950s suburbia and Sean Penn playing his reminiscing grown-up son and watching Carl-Saganesque grand cosmic events and more down-to-Earth lava flows and even dinosaur politics.

(The French, however, have loved “The Tree of Life,” which they awarded the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival…)

Don’t get me wrong. The dinosaurs in “The Tree of Life” are quite well done, perhaps the best technically done dinosaurs to hit the silver screen thus far in cinematic history. I’d love to see a feature-length film about dinosaurs made by Malick — even if the dinosaurs aren’t anthropomorphized, even if there is no plot, so to speak, even if it’s just the dinosaurs hanging out and being dinosaurs. (Actually, I don’t like it when critters are inappropriately anthropomorphized, such as in Disney’s “documentary” “African Cats,” even though its target audience is children.)

And the story of the humans in “The Tree of Life” probably would have made a much better stand-alone film, stripped of the “2001”-like surrealism of cosmic vomiting and universal diarrhea, in which creation often rather violently explodes all over the place.

Indeed, not long into “Tree of Life” it occurred to me that just as they hand you your 3-D glasses before you view a 3-D movie, they should give you a joint to inhale (or maybe a bong would be less cleanup afterward) before you view the surreal “Tree of Life.” Then you’ll love it.

I suppose that there are two general camps when it comes to art. One camp maintains that art is whatever the artist wants it to be. Therefore, highly personal art is perfectly acceptable, probably even more preferable to art meant for the masses, to this camp. The more inaccessible, the better — the more artistic/“artistic” — some if not most of those in this camp seem to believe.

The other camp, which I favor, believes that art should be accessible, that art should communicate, or at least touch those who experience it, and that if the artist does not touch his audience, then the artist has failed.

It probably isn’t an over-generalization to state that we might call the camp of artistic/“artistic” inaccessibility the French Camp and the camp of accessibility the American Camp. Those in the American Camp often view those in the French Camp as pretentious. Those in the French Camp don’t really understand the incomprehensible art that they claim to understand, those in the American Camp believe (and thus the charge of pretension), and I tend to agree.

But art doesn’t have to be comprehensible, doesn’t have to be logical and rational and linear. As I stated, as long as the art touches you, in my book, then the artist has succeeded.

It is true that with American audiences, Malick had an uphill battle making such an impressionist film that would be well received (if he really even cared at all how it would be received by American audiences, indeed). Americans aren’t used to impressionism in their movies. American audiences are used to realism, to literalism, to fairly clear, point-A-to-point-Z plots.

“The Tree of Life” has elements that succeed, but in my eyes with the film Malick fails as an artist because his film goes on for so long, and becomes so ponderous and so difficult to experience, that he loses his (at-least-American) audience. In the audience that I was in, I think that most if not all of us were ready for the film to be over at least a half-hour before it actually ended, and at the end of the film we felt only the type of satisfaction that a long-suffering cancer patient might feel during the last few moments of euthanasia.

I’m down with the dinosaurs, and I am open-minded enough to be able to give a chance to a film that tries to capture Life, the Universe and Everything, but in my book when the viewer just wants it all to be over already, please please please God just make it end!, the artist probably has done something wrong.

I get the impression with “The Tree of Life” that the 67-year-old Malick had two films inside of him trying to claw their way out of his chest cavity like identical twin aliens a la “Alien,” but that he was concerned that if he didn’t put them into one film, he might not live long enough to get both films made, so he put both of the films into a blender.

Again, either of these two films probably would have been or at least could have been great, Malick’s ode to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (and to “Jurassic Park”) or Malick’s very personal (perhaps too personal) recap of his own childhood as an American baby boomer having grown up in Texas.

Malick’s fellow baby boomer Roger Ebert ate up* “The Tree of Life,” which, while apparently is accessible to white American baby boomers who grew up in families that were at least middle class, isn’t as accessible to the rest of us. (I, as a member of Generation X “raised” by and surrounded by baby boomers, had quite a different experience growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Yeah, my memories of childhood are not so fucking idyllic.)

So we come back to the question as to whether a film succeeds even if it loses most of its viewers (here in the United States, anyway, since I am an American writing this review primarily for my fellow Americans). I say that it does not. (Again, the French, apparently, say that it does [indeed, a good number of them apparently believe that if a film is comprehensible, then it is shit].)

So, while I appreciate Malick’s technical achievements — again, love those dinosaurs, and he directed his child actors masterfully — I cannot ignore the fact that as patient as I am, “The Tree of Life” wore out its welcome, wore out my patience, and apparently wore out my fellow audience members’ patience even more so and even more quickly than it wore out mine. A good film, it seems to me, makes you regretful, not relieved, at having to leave the movie theater at film’s end.

And again, unlike Roger Ebert, I cannot ignore what doesn’t work in “The Tree of Life” — such as the apparently uber-pretentious scene, among many apparently pretentious scenes, that has Sean Penn walking through a door frame that is erected in the middle of nowhere — and focus on how great it is to take a stroll down Baby-Boomer Memory Lane, because I think that I can relate to the lives of the dinosaurs a lot more than I can relate to the reportedly idyllic childhoods of the baby boomers, who made my childhood much less idyllic than theirs.

“The Tree of Life,” as a whole, fails (at least here in the United States of America) because it loses its (American) audience.

And the grade for failure is an “F.”

My grade: F

(I surmise that Yahoo!’s commoners give the film an average grade of “C+” only because some people will give a movie a decent grade if there are at least some scenes that they liked and because there are plenty of pretentious, “artistic” people who will claim to have appreciated and understood an incomprehensible film.)

*Ebert swoons:

I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this.

Yeah, like I said, I had a different life experience…

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