Archive for June, 2016

2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain (voice), William Sylvester

Movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” are like a magic act. The fun is not in figuring out how the stunt works, but in the experience of witnessing the performance. The magician, Stanley Kubrick, is not interested in spelling things out for us. The intent is not to tell us a story, but to show us a story. Kubrick certainly could have chosen to spin a more conventional science-fiction yarn accompanied by an ordinary soundtrack, but that wasn’t his style. If it was, we wouldn’t still be discussing “2001” with the same fervor as when the film first premiered nearly half a century ago.

“2001” can also be defined as a four-act play. Act One takes place many millions of years ago, well before the first appearance of homo sapiens. Two tribes of apes are at odds over possession of a water hole. The group which had previously laid claim to it is chased away, but is then visited the next morning by a black monolith. The trepidation with which they greet this strange object is relatable to anyone who has hesitated to take that next step in his/her own personal evolution. All they require is a little push. Soon, the apes discover how to make use of tools and they assert themselves as the dominant tribe, re-taking the water hole from their enemy.

One of the greatest shots in the film occurs as the tribe’s leader triumphantly tosses a bone up into the air. As the bone begins its descent, we are instantly transported millions of years into the future. Signaling the beginning of Act Two, the bone becomes a satellite in orbit, and it is now the year 1999 AD. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to Clavius Base on the Moon where another monolith has been discovered. Naturally, this proof of extra-terrestrial life is kept secret from the general public to prevent widespread panic. The monolith emits a signal directed straight at Jupiter.

Act Three picks things up 18 months later. In 2001 AD, the United States space vessel Discovery One is en route to Jupiter. The crew consists of Drs. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as well as three others in hibernation. But the ship’s main functions are controlled by the HAL 9000 computer (Douglas Rain). A crucial scene early in this portion of the film depicts a BBC television interview segment in which Bowman and Poole discuss their working relationship with HAL, and the computer boasts about its perfect operational record. The insinuation that nothing can possibly go wrong is always a portent of doom.

HAL exhibits erratic behavior when he misdiagnoses a faulty antenna control device, digging himself a deeper hole by trying to cover his tracks. Fearing that HAL’s behavior puts the mission at risk, Bowman and Poole take steps to ensure that they cannot be heard as they discuss the option of disconnecting HAL. Unfortunately, they hadn’t counted on HAL’s ability to lip-read. Reasoning that the mission is too important to allow anything to jeopardize it, HAL kills Poole while he is out on a space walk, prompting Bowman to jump into an EVA pod sans helmet to attempt to recover the body. When he returns, HAL won’t open the door to let Bowman back in. While doing this, HAL is also terminating the life functions of the three hibernating astronauts. Bowman re-enters the Discovery via the emergency hatch and moves on to the part of the ship which, effectively, is HAL’s brain. HAL pleads with Bowman to no avail, as the errant machine is shut down. Just then, as the ship arrives at Jupiter, a pre-recorded message from Heywood Floyd reveals the details of the mission which had previously been known to HAL but kept secret from the crew. Wonderful timing, Dr. Floyd!

The fourth, final and most dizzying act commences with Bowman flying an EVA pod out to intercept a monolith now in orbit around Jupiter. The pod is then sucked into a seemingly endless vortex filled with bright colors which carries Bowman across unfathomable distances, revealing many alien landscapes and other uncharted heavenly bodies before landing him in a setting which would appear more familiar to someone of Terran origin such as himself. There, time seems to pass at a more accelerated rate. Bowman comes face-to-face with older versions of himself, switching perspectives each time until he winds up old and dying in bed. With one final gesture, he extends a hand as if to touch the monolith that now stands at the foot of his bed… and is transformed (or evolves) into a being called a Star Child.

When thinking about Man’s exploration of outer space, it provokes a feeling of peace and serenity. Regardless of the dangers inherent in venturing out into the stars, that sense of awe and wonder triumphs over all. I get the same feeling from the outer space sequences in “2001,” though it would not have been accomplished so completely were it not for the accompaniment of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” in particular. I’ve heard the original intended score from Alex North, and it just doesn’t fit. The movie would have been made more ordinary. That simply would not do.

There is also a certain serenity about the way the humans in this movie carry themselves. Very efficient and businesslike. That is, of course, until HAL starts malfunctioning. That’s when Keir Dullea is allowed to remove the veil of calm, and play Dave Bowman with more impulse and emotion. HAL, being an artificial intelligence, never has this problem. Even when explaining to Bowman why he won’t “open the pod bay doors,” HAL’s voice maintains a constant, disturbing calm. Thus, the film’s best performance comes from the one actor whose face you never see. HAL is another of Kubrick’s great magic tricks in “2001,” and plays an integral role in elevating this Space Odyssey into the all-time sci-fi classic status which it has so deservedly earned.

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The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor

I do love edge-of-your-seat science fiction. Recent years have produced such films as “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” both of which I consider to be modern technical masterpieces. I also love it when a seemingly past their prime director like Ridley Scott can surprise us with something truly special. This is what he’s done with 2015’s “The Martian,” Scott’s best work since “Blade Runner.”

I sincerely hope that, by the time I’m at or around 50 years of age, we’ll have learned how to send manned missions to Mars. Going by the the timeline of “The Martian,” we will! It’s the year 2035, and the crew of the Ares III is 18 Martian solar days (sols) into their planned 31-sol mission. Plans change when a dust storm forces a more hasty exit. During the course of this storm, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and knocked well beyond anything resembling a line of sight. Unable to locate Watney, communicate with him or even establish that the man is still alive, his crew make the hard choice to leave without him.

All is not lost. It turns out that Watney survived the storm, and that the reason why his vital signs were undetectable was due to a jagged piece of antenna which had pierced clean through his biomonitor and caused a rather nasty gash that required medical attention.  As Watney begins to reason what needs to happen in order for him to survive, he calculates how long it will take before his food supply runs out. As luck would have it, Watney is a botanist and is thus able to create a makeshift farm using human excrement for soil, water derived from rocket fuel, and potatoes in storage for a Thanksgiving meal that’s decidedly no longer on the schedule.

Meanwhile, a dilemma of a different kind emerges once NASA, after reviewing satellite photos from Mars, comes to the realization that Watney still lives. Quickly, attention is drawn to the crew of the Ares III. To put it mildly, mission director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) feels that it would be irresponsible of them not to inform the crew, who are still en route back to Earth. Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the Director of NASA, overrules Henderson and prioritizes the completion of the mission. When it becomes necessary (not to mention possible) to explain all this to Watney, he’s not well pleased. A few f-bombs later, Watney insists that the crew be made aware that he’s alive. Sanders relents.

You know that, as soon as anyone dares to utter such fateful words as “assuming nothing goes wrong,” something inevitably WILL go wrong, and it does. First, Watney’s potato crop is destroyed in an accident. Next, the unmanned supply ship meant to restock Watney’s food rations explodes shortly after takeoff. Desperately running out of time and options, NASA secretly negotiates with the Chinese for use of one of their probes. A plan is devised which would involve the Ares III crew using the Chinese probe to instead resupply their ship so that they can have enough provisions when they slingshot around the Earth for a return trip to Mars to rescue Watney themselves. Sanders, a pragmatic man who is not keen on the idea of risking six lives to save one, rejects the plan. However, Henderson sends the plan to the crew anyway. They are unanimously for it, and get to work right away.

That things will turn out okay is no real spoiler and in fact should be expected. It would be cruel to string the audience along for not quite two and a half hours only to have the story end tragically. What’s important is whether the journey is entertaining. Boy, is it ever! The cast is (inter)stellar. Matt Damon is really good at playing stranded astronauts, having done so in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” …which also co-starred Jessica Chastain. Here, Chastain plays the Ares III mission commander Melissa Lewis, whose 1970’s music collection it is that makes up most of the film’s soundtrack as the only music on hand for Watney to listen to while on Mars. With a particular nod to disco, the songs are often relevant to the situation at hand.

“The Martian” is also a visual treat. The scenes on Mars are all completely believable. To the untrained eye, it looks as though Matt Damon has actually filmed his scenes on the fourth planet of the solar system. I enjoy these parts of the movie so much that I liken it to a good dream, one which cannot reasonably last as long as I want it to. As good as “Interstellar” and “Gravity” are, “The Martian” is that much greater  and really speaks well for the future of the science-fiction genre at-large. I can only hope, when we do finally send men to Mars, that it will be within my lifetime and that it will be an awe-inspiring, routine (i.e. incident-free) mission.