HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 7 min. Our content ratings:

Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.

Psalm 9:9-19

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Dorothy leads her co-workers in what amounts to a march of triumph after she has enabled them to staff the new IBM room. (c) Fox 2000

A long time ago (1983) we were treated to the story of a group of white men who, according to author Tom Wolfe, had The Right Stuff, the seven hot shot Air Force jet pilots chosen for the Mercury 7 Program. What we did not know then was that behind those astronauts was a group of mathematics geniuses making sure that they returned to earth safely at the place where they could be picked up by our forces—and that many of these were female African Americans, who also had the right stuff. Their story, which includes their struggle for liberation in a racist, patriarchal world, is wonderfully told in this film based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book and directed by Theodore Melfi.

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Katherine Johnson had to be strong to not only survive, but thrive, amidst a sea of white hostility. (c) Fox 2000

The film, centering on Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), begins years before the 1960s when Katherine was recognized as a child prodigy in math and rewarded with a full college scholarship, enrolling at an age when other children her age were just beginning high school. Jump ahead in time, when we see three friends in a car stalled along a Virginia highway leading to Hampton Virginia’s Langley Research Center. One of them, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), is underneath the front of the car tinkering with something in order to get the car started again. The other two, Katherine and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) see a state police car, with its red-light flashing, approaching from behind.

After a tense interchange featuring the usual white arrogance toward “coloreds” on display, the cop’s demeanor abruptly changes when their credentials prove that their claim to be NASA employees is true. Given that the USA is engaged in a frantic race to catch up to the Soviet Union in space, his patriotism wins out over his racism, and, because they are late for work, he offers a police escort right up to NASA’s gate. “The feistier of the three, Mary, declares, ““Three negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961!  Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”

I don’t know if this incident in this “based on a true story” actually happened, but it is an excellent way to illustrate that what the nation, and NASA in particular, needed then was a vision wider than the narrow inherited racist one. If only more of the whites with whom the three worked at the sprawling Langley facility had been more like that cop. When the three women were hired for their proficiency in mathematics, they were placed in a separate room marked “Colored Computers” because Virginia’s Jim Crow laws mandated separate work rooms, bathrooms, and dining areas wherever people worked. Today, long after IBM’s revolutionary computer breakthrough, we think of a computer as a thing. In the early 1960’s so were the three female mathematicians. They had two strikes against themselves—they were women, and worse, they were black. It becomes obvious that their white superior Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) regards Dorothy as a thing, rather than a person of worth.

When Katherine is promoted and moved to the Space Task Group, every eye of the white-shirted, dark tie-wearing men in the room are fixed on her as she warily finds her desk. The harassed chief Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the only one who ignores both her sex and race. When she has the audacity to pour a cup of coffee from the common urn, she finds the next day that someone has placed beside it a smaller pot (and presumably “equal” grade coffee) marked “Colored.” Worse, whenever she relieves herself, she must run to the only “Colored Restroom” available, located in a different building a half mile away. Her long bathroom breaks are noticed by everyone, as well as criticized, even though she takes her work with her. Her dashes to the restroom are shown so often, that it looks like the sequences could have been borrowed from Ground Hog Day.

The scene in which Harrison calls her on the carpet for her behavior is one of the film’s high points. The dam of pent up anger and frustration with the stupidity of the Jim Crow custom breaks, Katherine passionately lashing out with sharp words, leaving Harrison and her co-workers stunned. No doubt her colleagues surmise that this is the end of her career. Instead, there is the triumphant scene in which most of the black women stand by in a hallway and watch Harrison, a sledge hammer in hand, knocking down the large “Colored Bathroom” sign. Also, close by him is a security guard, who normally would gladly have enforced the Jim Crow rule, but now is helpless before the chief.

Katherine must also deal with her immediate boss Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), also a racist male chauvinist, who resents Harrison’s dictum that Katherine check his figures before submitting them to him. Stafford piles on the work and blacks out large portions of the reports he gives her. When she protests that she needs all the information to do her job verifying the figures, he smugly tells her that she does not have security clearance. Later, when he accompanies Harrison to meetings with the military in which details of launchings and landings are discussed, he refuses to include her, even though the decisions at the meetings change the numbers, thus rendering obsolete the many hours of work she has put into a report. Also, though she has done most of the work on a report, he refuses to allow her to add her name to his on the cover sheet.

Again, the scenes in which she is vindicated are sweet moments of triumph, topped probably by the scene in which astronaut John Glenn stops the countdown for his history making Friendship 7 orbit by insisting that one of “the girls” check the IBM machine’s numbers. When Harrison speaks with him on the phone, he asks “Which one,” to which Glenn replies, “The smart one.”

To the warm eulogies given John Glenn after his recent death I want to add how positively he is depicted in another scene as well. As played by Glen Powell, he is a dedicated astronaut with an unprejudiced eye. In the scene in which the Mercury astronauts visit the Langley Research Center, all the staff stand in straight-rowed groups on the field. True to Jim Crow dictates, the “colored” staff stands apart. The group of astronauts go down the line shaking hands, and, guided by their host, start to turn away before they reach the African Americans. However, Glenn leaves his comrades and strides over to the black women, exchanging pleasantries with Katherine and the others. If anyone in that period ever had “the right stuff” in its broadest sense, it was he.

The stories of Katherine’s two math whiz friends are also inspiring. Dorothy, who has been acting as the supervisor for the others in the “Colored Computers’ section, is treated with scarcely concealed condescension when she, several times, asks Vivian about the position vacated weeks before by the former supervisor. She also takes note of the large room into which the huge IBM machine is to be installed. (The planning was so poor that the wall around the small doorway must be smashed to get the computer moved in.) Once installed, the IBM staff is unable to get the main frame to work. Meanwhile, telling her friends that soon they will be made obsolete by the machine, the forward-looking Dorothy goes to Hampton’s white’s only Public Library to obtain a book on the computer language to be used with the machine. Of course, being black, she is hustled out by a security guard, but not before she has been able to hide on her person the sought-after manual.

Another of the delightful sequences of triumph comes when, after many days of studying the book and sneaking into the room to try to communicate with the computer, Dorothy is caught and chastised by the IBM staff. But when they read the print-out of her figures, their demeanor changes. Eventually not only Dorothy, as head of the division, but her black colleagues as well are staffing the room. As she leads the line of her colleagues to their new work quarters, the film not only gives a nod to The Right Stuff’s scene of the astronauts walking down a corridor, but also to the Civil Rights marches taking place in the South at that time. In my mind, as she led the women through the street and into the building housing the computer I could hear strains of “We Shall Overcome.”

The third story of quick-tonged Mary Jackson involves her seeking to become an engineer after a chief NASA engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, encourages her to look beyond her present situation. Also, supported by a husband who becomes chief caretaker of their children because of the incredibly long hours imposed by Al Harrison due to one more Soviet victory, she decides to seek an engineering degree. Her barrier, of course, is Virginia’s Jim Crow law closing public universities to blacks. Her solution is like the one in the scene with the racist cop. Eventually arguing her case before a judge all too willing to go along with Jim Crow, she lays aside her tartness and demurely appeals to the man’s patriotism. Once more love of country trumps racism.

Although it is their work on which the filmmakers focus the most, there are numerous scenes of their families and personal lives—even a romance. At her church worship service Dorothy’s pastor acknowledges her important NASA work, and also welcomes newcomer Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a National Guard officer. The latter is drawn to Dorothy at the church picnic, but gets off on the wrong foot when he expresses his surprise that a woman could do such important work. Later, when he apologizes for his ignorance and arrogance, she accepts and warms up to him, the two beginning to spend together what little personal time she has. Although not shown, their time together has obviously included her three daughters. In perhaps the most charming proposal scene I know of, they are included when, at the family dinner table to which she has returned home a bit late, Jim brings in not only a dish of food, but also a small case with the engagement ring once worn by his mother.

The ring-offering scene, plus so many others, make this such an inspiring film that I would gladly award it more than five stars my web site allows. The scenes in which former detractors come around to admire and acknowledge the women as equals remind me of the ending of the two films about the black Tuskegee Airmen during WW 2, the first, a TV film with that name, and the other, Red Tails—in each of them their once racist foes express their gratitude and admiration for how skillfully the black airmen had protected them during their bombing missions over enemy territory.

I have read that some of the white characters were made up by the filmmakers so as to visualize the racist culture surrounding the women. Indeed, Al Harrison is a composite of three different directors. So, we must regard this film as a representation of the historic period and not a historical record. But the three women are real, and they made great contributions to our space program, so much so that Katherine Johnson, the surviving one*, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on November 24, 2015. And her marriage is real, she and Col. Johnson having been married for 52 years. These and other facts about the three we are told as pictures of the actors and the women they portrayed are shown during the end credits.

The cast is as good as the script, revealing a slice of our history that justifies the “hidden” in the title. Why weren’t any of them at least mentioned in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13? I suppose for the same reason that we never saw black cowboys in Westerns until after their heyday in the Fifties. Hidden Figures will rank high on VP’s Top Ten list, the women clearly depicted as persons of faith. This is a film we should be encouraging our adolescent daughters and granddaughters to see, if they still are listening to us.

  • Mary Jackson died on February 11, 2005, and Dorothy Vaughan on November 10, 2008.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.

The Martian (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 24 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 3; Sex /Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Psalm 8:3-8

Crew

The crew of the Hermes. (c) 20th Century Fox

Back in my youth when I was an avid science fiction fan, I must have read more than a hundred stories about Mars, but none ever included duct tape as a necessity for saving the day in in the planet’s hostile environment. This is just one of the many small details that add to the realism of Ridley Scott’s totally engrossing new film. Drew Goddard’s delightful script, based on a carefully researched novel by Andy Weir, is a far cry from Ray Bradbury’s poetic and speculative The Martian Chronicles or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ swashbuckling John Carter of Mars series. The phrase might not seem appropriate, but The Martian is more down to earth, never venturing into the question of whether or not there was ever intelligent life on the Red Planet. This tale of Ares Mission III is as much of a survival film as All Is Lost or Castaway.

A huge wind/sand storm catches most of the NASA astronauts outside their Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) where they are engaged in collecting soil samples. As they are rushing back to the ship the crew’s botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by the disk of their communications system. Assuming that he is dead, everyone else hastily clamors aboard so that they can take off before the listing vessel is blown over by the fierce winds. Very reluctantly Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the commander, gives the order to blast off and head for their interplanetary vessel, Hermes, and then head for home. She is deeply remorseful at losing one of her crew members.

On Earth Teddy Sanders, the head of NASA ( Jeff Daniels), has to break the sad news that one of the more popular astronauts has been killed. Then comes the thrilling moment when engineer Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers while comparing satellite photos of the site taken a minute apart that there is movement at the site. She talks with the director of Mars MissionsVincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and they confer with Sanders and NASA’s public relations director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig). Although Sanders jubilantly announces to the public that Watney is alive, he nixes the others’ desire to let the crew aboard the Hermes know because he thinks it might spoil their concentration on their complicated tasks.

We have seen on Mars Watney’s waking up and dealing with a piece of an antenna that has impaled him. (The extreme close up of his bloody wound and his extracting a tiny piece still lodged inside is not for the squeamish!) Once he patches himself up, he sets forth, like the good scientist that he is, to take stock of his supplies, and calculate how long they will last—at first this including oxygen and water. After a few sols (Martian days) he figures out how to create water and make it rain; to form arable soil using his own excretement; and how to grow a crop of potatoes by cutting up those they had brought along. (Was it for a Thanksgiving meal?) Also, with the ingenious use of the satellite connection, camera, and computer, he figures out how to communicate with NASA at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. One neat touch are his NASA colleagues who, watching him go about his tasks, who say that they think they know what he is about to do.

One need not understand all the science involved—I admit that I did not—to come to admire not only the Robinson Carusoe atsronaut’s ingenuity, but his pluck, his refusal to give up in the face of what seems like impossible odds. To help future astronauts, especially should he die, he records a daily video log—his narrative also helping us viewers to understand what he is doing as he goes about his tasks. He even tries out the rover to see if he could reach a distant point where the next Mars landing is scheduled. By digging up a shielded plutonium core that had been buried and attaching it and some solar panels, he is able to extend considerably the life of the rover’s batteries, and thus its range.

There are numerous setbacks for Watney, some that could be fatal, as when his airlock fails and he loses almost all of his crop of potatoes, and others are sources of humor. One of the latter is during his attempt to make water, he says, “If I want water, I’ll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately, I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn.” However, apparently using too much hydrogen, the mixture explodes, after which he says, “So… I blew myself up.”

The witty script includes even more humor in the following Watney observations: “I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the greatest botanist on this planet;” “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!” “Mars will come to fear my botany powers;” and, because he is sick of listening to the only kind of music that she uploaded to the Hermes’ system, “Tell Commander Lewis, disco sucks.” The one exception that pleases him is the rousing Gloria Gaynor song “I Will Survive,” which could serve as a most fitting anthem for the film.

At one point Watney keeps up his spirits by reminding himself that he has the smartest guys on the planet working to bring him back home safely. And watching the numerous characters produce their piece of the giant puzzle of getting him back to Earth is a major part of the inspiration of this feel good film. I love the way the Chinese are brought into the picture, and that their initial concern for secrecy gives way to the greater concern for the welfare of another human being. All of the people in this film are scientists first and patriots second. We see that due to NASA’s transparency the rescue attempt is being transmitted to crowds all around the world. At the climax we see them gathering around giants screens in London, Times Square, China, and elsewhere, all waching with breathless concern for the safety of one human being.

During the lengthy period things go wrong not only for Watney, but also for NASA when the rocket that is carrying relief supplies blows up a few seconds into the flight. There follows a complicated sequence that involves some disobeying of orders and even employing the crew of the Hermes in an elaborate scheme. From beginning to end this film never lets up in suspense.

Matt Damon well deserves all of the praise he has been receiving for his portrayal of the stranded astronaut. He exudes the calm confidence of the science nerd whose logic wards off panic and self pity. And yet when things go wrong, he, like any other human being, gives vent to his rage and frustration—at one point in unsuitable words that, he is reminded, are being broadcast around the world. His humor, as noted above, is almost as important a saving factor against loneliness and despair as his scientific training and competence.

In addition to Mr. Pitt we are also indebted to the large, gifted cast of supporting actors, each of them, like their character, contributing an important key to the project. We see that any journey into space is not a Han Solo project, but one requiring a talented team, even when things do not go according to plan. It is encouraging to see that the team also is an inter-racial and multicultyral one.

To go back to that mention of duct tape, this film brings up a myriad of little details that add so much to the realism of the film. First, the tape itself—how handy for Watney to seal up the cracks in the face glass of his helmet, and then later to seal the plastic canopy of the small craft that will lift him off the surface of Mars. (This was part of the requirement that he jettison the small craft’s heavy nose plate in order to lighten the load.) Note how often when we see Watney’s backgroud there are a couple of dust devils on the horison. Or when we learn the number of potatoes necessary to keep one man alive for the hundreds of days until a rescue mission can arrive? And I enjoyed the references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and to Marvel Comics’ Iron Man.

This is not a religious film, even though death is close at hand throughout. There is little of Watney’s inner life revealed, probably because as a man of science he has cast aside any measure of spirituality. Instead, the film is an exploration of and a tribute to the human spirit at its best. I will end with this insightful comment made by Watney because it shows that Scott’s film is the antithesis of the pack of dystrophic films that have flooded into our cinemaplexes the past few years. Every time in our communities when someone is in trouble we see his observation played out:

“Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”*

*All quotations are from the “Quotations” of the IMDB’s page on the film.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. VP.

ARMAGEDDON (1998)

Rated PG-13. Running time:  2 hr 31 min.

Our content rating (1-10): Violence -5; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 4

Armagdon

Our heroes enrout to save the world, this time from an asteroid. (c) 1998 Touchstone

The publicity lavished on this blockbuster must have cost more than the average film (the Count Down Digital Clock sent to me by the studio now reads “0 Days, 0 Hours, 00 Min., 00 Sec.”), maybe even as much as the spectacular special effects. The result is an exciting, bumpy ride that scarcely gives you time to catch your breath before the next life-threatening crisis erupts. If you are looking for something that makes you forget your own troubles, this Dirty Dozen in Space Suits might do–but if you have sensitive ears, you’d better bring some earplugs, or plenty of aspirin. Nor is the 1967 Lee Marvin adventure film the only one referenced: there is the scene in which the traditional motor-mouthed Wise Guy straddles a nuclear weapon like the cowboy character in Dr. Strangelove; and there’s also references to Star Wars and The Right Stuff.

Bruce Willis plays the Lee Marvin-type character Harry S. Stamper, a hard-driving, tough talking head of an oil drilling firm. He can be so mean and volatile that when he finds his protégé A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck) in bed with daughter Grace, he takes after the would-be son-in-law with a shot gun–on an oil rig platform far out at sea. Yeah, sure. Ole Harry has the roughest, toughest, meanest, orneriest crew in the whole world, and only they can handle the job of digging an 800 foot hole in the Texas-sized astronaut hurtling toward Earth at 22,000 miles an hour. The poor government trainers and psychologists having to deal with this crew more than earn their money as they try to get them ready for the rigors of space in less than two weeks.

A.J. is placed in a second space shuttle and crew, NASA always doubling up any system. As we see, getting to the asteroid proves as dangerous as landing and drilling, so NASA’s redundancy is a good thing. The story of Harry’s relationship with A.J., Grace, and the crew is touching at times, but we can tell pretty well how it all will turn out. But the crisis a minute, frantic pace of the film gives you little time to think. And the sound volume is so loud that your ears feel like they are being assaulted! You just hold on to your seat and go with the bumpy ride.

A few thoughts, now that the ride is over: The title is a bit bothersome, reflecting Hollywood’s usual misreading of the Bible, especially of the Book of Revelation. In John’s scheme of things Armageddon (from the Hebrew “Megiddo” where several historic battles were fought) is the place of the final battle between the forces of good and evil at the end times, in no way applicable to a natural threat to humanity. Like most science fiction films, this one puts great store in technology and human ingenuity (and courage)–and yet, whether it is a pandering to popular piety or is a heart-felt notion, the writers temper this by having one character utter a brief prayer to God on several occasions. And he is the least likely person anyone would suspect to find a touch of piety, Harry S. Stamper. But in the end such films involve humans trying to prevent Armageddon, not bring it on as the promise of God’s goodness and power over evil. Never forget the the Apocalypse of John ends with the plea, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Gravity (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our Content Adviserories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 4.5

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Astronauts Dr. Ryan Jones and Mission Commander Mat Kowalski are stranded in space when debris destroys their space shuttle.
(c) 2013 Warner brothers

 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

            Psalm 31:2-5

We see no evidence in this suspenseful space film that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a believer, but if she were, the above words of the psalmist might well have been her prayer. A medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, she is space suited up and teamed with another astronaut repairing a device on the Hubble telescope’s extended arm while the mission commander, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is enjoying using a thruster pack to propel himself around. This being his last mission, he regrets that he will fall short by a few hours of beating the space walk record of a Russian cosmonaut. The three are chatting with each other and Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, a delightful bit of voice casting because he was one of the stars of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), Matt repeating an old astronaut joke, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” A few minutes later this turns out to be prophetic when Houston sends an emergency warning that a Russian station has blown up, the debris hurtling their way at 55,000 mph.  When Ryan is slow to respond to Matt’s command to stop her work and reboard their station, he yells at her to get moving. By then jagged bits and pieces of the remains of the Russian station are flying by them.

Thus, after a marvelous single shot scene lasting about 13 minutes, the roller coaster sequence begins in which the two struggle in zero gravity, first to connect with each other, and then to decide what to do when their station is destroyed, killing all aboard. The third astronaut out working with them also is killed. Ryan, already struggling with the nausea of motion sickness, has trouble when the long cargo arm of the station breaks loose, swinging her wildly around and around and around. When she extricates herself from it, she keeps spinning out of control. Thanks to the calmness of Matt, she overcomes her momentary panic, and at last he is able to connect with her. They are running low on oxygen, so he decides they must head for the Russian International Space Station which should have a shuttle to transport them safely back to earth. There follows a series of mini-disasters that could be regarded as confirmation of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Their contact with Mission Control is severed, so they are completely on their own.

This is one film that truly deserves that overworked expletive “Awesome!” Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, as well as his co-script writer son Jonas, has produced a variation of the old survival film worthy of placing alongside of Cast Away and Life of Pi. And not since t he latter film and Avatar has 3-D photography been used so effectively—and is so essential to fully experiencing the film. For once 3-D is not a financial rip off to increase a film’s profits.

Thus Gravity is not a film to wait for until it comes out on DVD in order to save a few bucks. You owe it to yourself to see it on a large screen, with the 3-D really bringing you into the action. When Matt reaches out for a special wrench or nut that is floating toward you, you have to stifle the urge to dodge the gloved hand. There are spectacular, glorious shots of the earth and stars, but equally effective are the close ups of Sandra Bullock’s face, which might remind film buffs of the almost exclusive use of such close ups in Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ms. Bullock is fully up to the challenge of conveying through her facial expressions the gamut of emotions, ranging from nausea, fear, and near panic to relief and determination to survive. The camera at times seamlessly moves from the external or third person POV into her helmet so that we see her in extreme close up, and then it swivels so that we are sharing her perspective on her predicament. She also achieves the almost ballet-like motions of a dancer in the sequence in which, shedding her bulky space suit, she floats her way through a long corridor of a space shuttle. With the least amount of dialogue of any of her films, it is through her facial expressions and the movements—or lack of them when during her period of despair she assumes a fetal position –that she reveals what a consummate actress she is. If you appreciated Tom Hank’s solo feat in Castaway, you are sure to love her performance in this masterful film.

We are reminded at the beginning of the film that nothing can be heard in space, where there is no atmosphere to convey the sound. This makes the sound of Ryan’s labored breathing all the more effective, reminding us that her oxygen is in short supply. Her struggle to reach the ISS, and from there the even more distant Chinese space station, becomes an epic journey of the mind and spirit as well as of the body, a testament of human pluck and perseverance. Steven Price’s musical soundtrack stops at just the right moments so that the silence of space is emphasized all the more.

From one standpoint the coldness and indifference of space might lead to an atheistic outlook—what difference does it make if these two humans live or die out there almost four hundred miles from home? On the other hand, for those who believe, to quote from William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” Ryan’s moment of hallucination might be the modern equivalent of Joseph’s life saving dreams early on in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with despair at one point in the Chinese station so that she is resigned to death, Ryan turns down the oxygen to hasten the inevitable. But her hallucination awakens her to the clue for the possibility of survival that she had not thought of before, and she springs into action. Scriptures in many places suggest that dreams or hallucinations at times have an external, as well as an internal, source. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but then isn’t that what faith is all about? As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Again, I urge you not to put off seeing this film, one that will no doubt be up for multiple awards, from Best Actress to all of the technical awards that the Motion Picture Academy offers. “Awesome!” really does sum up this film.

 The full version of this review, including a set of 9 discussion questions, will be in the November 2013 issue of the journal Visual Parables, available to subscribers near the end of October.