Interstellar (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 49 min.

Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 5; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (0-5): 4

 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?

Psalm 8:3-4

 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:31-35

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This far-ranging adventure begins on Earth where Cooper must leave his young daughter Murph, who feels that he is abandoning her.        (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures

Christopher Nolan’s challenging film begins in a Midwestern cornfield, but this is no Field of Dreams, though the relationship between a father and daughter is just as close—until the father makes a fateful choice that will drive a breach between them lasting for decades. This is pure science fiction in that it is an exploration of big concepts and ideas rather than what was coined over a half century ago, “space opera,” the latter employing the s-f genre merely for action and thrills. As a study of not just interstellar travel, but intergalactic travel, and the affect on time that dense gravitational fields might have, this is a mind-boggling trip.

Set in the middle of this century when over population and climate change have turned the earth into a vast dustbowl on which the surviving population ekes out a living growing corn, former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must set forth through a wormhole near Saturn to find out what happened to NASA teams sent there ten years earlier seeking another planet on which at least a portion of beleaguered humanity might survive. Before this however, there is the sequence on the farm that gives heart to the proceedings. Cooper lives with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), teenaged son Tom, and young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). We especially see how close he is to Murph, and it is in her bedroom that a mysterious power emanates, leaving clues by which he will discover not far away the underground silo where a former NASA team is busy developing the rockets and technology that might save humanity. When its leader Professor Brand (Michael Caine) shares two plans for saving humanity and convinces Cooper to command the spacecraft they are about to launch, the action, along with many puzzlements, begins. His crew of four consists of Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway); scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi); and the robot TARS (Bill Irwin), a more friendly version HAL 9000. They immerse themselves in sleep pods for the two-year journey to Saturn, wakening when they are about to enter the wormhole close by.

There are so many things in this film I do not understand, as there was decades ago after seeing 2001: Space Odyssey, so I look forward to seeing this one again. What I did understand is that this is an emotional tale of survival and sacrifice, as well as of big ideas and questions. Several times we hear Prof. Brand refer to Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night; Rage, rage against the dying light,” so I presume that one theme clearly intended is that humanity must never give in to a perceived catastrophe, but fight on and on.

Cooper also accepts, as Jesus did in the passage quoted from Mark, that at times we must commit ourselves to loyalties beyond our family—and this is an issue that will haunt his daughter Murph for the rest of her life. The girl is so upset when her father is leaving the farm for a voyage that it will take years (if ever) to complete, she refuses to come and say goodbye to him. During the deep space voyage she also refuses to come to the monitor to talk with him, so he has to hear about her through his son and father-in-law.

There is a lot more, including time dilation, the slowing down of time when they are on one of the planets on the other side of the wormhole, so that an hour there is equivalent to seven Earth years. There also is a strange reversal of time that loops back to Murph’s bedroom and the mysterious phenomena there that had puzzled them before. Some of the last scenes are very moving, but I will refrain from going on. I will welcome any insights that you readers who have seen the film might have!

 A set of discussion questions will accompany this review in the Dec. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.

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.

 

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

(extended version)

Rated: PG. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

 Our content rating (0-10): Violence-1; Language-2; Sex/Nudity-1.

Our star rating (0-5): 5

 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:1-3

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The children stare in wonder and amazement at their little extra-terrestrial friend. (c) 1982 Universal Pictures

 

My idea of a great film is one that not only continues to arouse with each viewing primal feelings of awe and wonder, joy and sorrow that transport us to its own special world, but also offers a new discovery with each repeat showing. Steven Spielberg’s “LT.” is such a film, and the 20th Anniversary theatrical release gives us a chance to see it on a big screen again.

Yes, the added scene in the bath all room is a delight, as are the en hanced digital effects, but the film was a great theatrical experience even without these. This time around I appreciated John Williams’ perfectly matched music the more, and also was more sensitive to the back story of the recent divorce that makes Elliott’s all the more poignant.

It is also worth noting that Spielberg seems to share Jesus’ delight in the openness and wonder of children. Elliott and Gertie are the ones who discover the little alien. The adults are either too busy with their preoccupations to notice him—didn’t you love their Mom just missing seeing him? There are some adults who are hunting E.T., but they are not interested in establishing a relationship with him, as the children are. They want to “study” him as they would a rare specimen of animal—“for science.”

I love also the parallel with the Peter Pan story that Mary reads to Gertie, right down to the girl’s desperate wish that E.T. could live when he dies. And that joy on their faces, beginning with Elliott’s almost disbelieving cry “He’s alive!” as he rushes to the funeral capsule-how much like the cry of those women who fled from the empty tomb on the first Easter. There’s humor mixed in, too, with brother Michael hitting his head on a tent bar as he also exclaims, “He’s alive!” And only the big screen and full Dolby sound can do justice to the two bike flights. “E.T.” is what movies at their could best are all about!