Monday, November 16, 2015


     Interstellar could have been the most compelling and highest quality reality-based sci-fi movie of the decade. Outer space as a setting has featured in every movie genre, from comedy to thriller, yet it has been a while since space featured in a hardcore drama. Interstellar has some intense moments and sci-fi peril, but it's not an adventure flick or an action movie. It has some lofty concepts in terms of relativity and black holes, but it's not fantasy. Every now and then the movie floats towards one of these genres and touches them briefly, and then bounces gently away back into what I would classify as survivor drama. In many ways, Interstellar is a classic man vs. nature movie, except that nature is the vast and unknowable universe; dangerous, beautiful, haunting, and seemingly infinite. 

     Despite the breath-taking special effects, unorthodox Zimmer score, and solid acting from the cast, what really stands out from the positive side of things, is the emotional heaviness that Interstellar portrays from it's earth-based beginning, to its semi-hopeful end. Cooper's painful parting from his family is magnified when a few hours on his mission equates a few decades for his family back on earth. One of the most powerful scenes portrays Cooper watching all the messages that his son has sent over the years, with Cooper unable to celebrate the birth of his own grandson, unable to comfort his family at the passing of his own father, unable to grieve over the death of his grandson, unable to tell his son not to give up, and unable to reach back and tell him that he's still out there. In a few emotionally charged and masterfully directed scenes, Coop's son tells twenty three years worth of story. One message from Coop's daughter Murph that bitterly states "I'm now the same age you were when you left," gives the hard reality that time is passing, and Coop is outside of it.

     Elsewhere, Interstellar offers a bleak look at the cruel unhinging power of solitude, and the ethical grey areas that men are willing to tread in the name of the greater good. At one affecting moment in the movie when Coop and Brand return to the ship a few hours after they left, their crew mate Romily solemnly states "I've been waiting for twenty three years." During this time, he didn't dare go into cryosleep for too long, for fear of missing important transmissions. He simply stayed awake, alone for all that time. Romily has greyed and aged visibly, is clearly somber, but otherwise stable. Dr. Mann however, a scientist who has been alone on a frigid planet for 35 years (many of which have been in cryosleep), has not fared so well. While still lucid and as intelligent as ever, the years of solitude have skewed Mann's ethical boundaries, and he is now willing to do anything at all to rescue himself and get off the planet that has been his prison. Yet it becomes clear that it doesn't take decades of solitude to skew ethics when Dr. Brand Sr. admits to a serious deception that he allowed his own daughter to invest her life in, all for the greater good.

     For a movie that truly excels in its special effects, dramatic tension, ambitious musical score, and fairly solid acting throughout, Interstellar's final moments hit a brick wall at maximum speed. Throughout Interstellar, I kept thinking of the 1997 movie Contact, and the similarities between the two movies. Contact copped out at the end with the character returning, but no one believing her. Interstellar goes a few steps further, in the complete wrong direction, by turning love into a scientific force and creating a circular concept of time that raises more questions than it answers. Then the story steps back into its place, and tries to conclude satisfactorily. This attempt is not entirely unsuccessful, but feels somewhat empty due to the strange events leading up to it. Ultimately there is at least conclusion and a spark of hope, even if it does seem a bit cold. While the human race will go on, the final images of the movie deliver one last crushed hope to reinforce the cost of survival.

     Interstellar has exceptionally strong things going for it, but when you start introducing an existential construction that allows the manipulation of time as concurrent rather than chronological events, there are going to be great big plot holes harpooned in the story. The would-be satisfying ending felt somehow cheapened and hijacked by the preceding ten minutes. Unfortunately, those few minutes are the most enduring memory of what would have been one of the best sci-fi dramas of the decade.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

AT LAST!! I'm catching up my summer movies!!

It's only November, so that's not that bad right?

Okay it is. Especially when it comes to the summer movie season. But I'm doing my best to catch up, and in my defense I have several drafts of movie reviews that I just haven't gotten around to finishing, but they're coming eventually. Maybe. I concede that it depends on when my next stroke of inspiration happens to hit.

So anyway, The Avengers: Age of Ultron reunites our favorite team of heroes for another round of world-saving against an all-new foe named... Ultron! Ultron is not your typical Marvel foe, because he is, in fact, one of Tony Stark's own creations gone grievously wrong. Ultron was created to be an artificial intelligence that would protect the planet from the desolation that the malevolent universe will inevitably wreak upon Earth. The problem is, Ultron is a little too artificially intelligent, and within a few minutes of his being, determines that humankind is the real threat to Earth, and must therefore be decimated. Soon, like a deep dark clone of Tony Stark himself, Ultron is strutting his way to total annihilation of the human race, delivering off-handed zingers as he goes.

True to his character, Iron Ego (Tony Stark) isn't quick to repent of creating Ultron. Though in his defense, he did have a devastating nightmarish scenario planted in his brain by Wanda (aka, Scarlet Witch). But even after realizing that the woman somehow got inside his head (which must have been an interesting change for Stark, whose women are usually inside anywhere but his head), he's still convinced that he saw a vision, not an illusion. This is one way in which Stark and Ultron are too similar-- neither one will be easily swayed from believing in their relative superiority. Stark creates a god in his own image, and then refuses to see his own reflection in the creation. As a result, the team's trust in one another, common purpose, and united power begin to dissolve.

The idea of artificial intelligence is one of the most terrifying concepts that humankind has ever conceived. Movies such as I, Robot and Oblivion have explored this same notion and the devastating consequences should such an advent ever occur. Smarter minds than mine agree. As a villain, Ultron should have been absolutely terrifying. James Spader's voice talents certainly give the audience a sense of danger, especially when compared to the even and calm voice of Jarvis. Ultron's control of the internet and electronic-laced world adequately give the feeling of no escape. And yet, something about Ultron simply did not inspire a proper amount of fear and loathing. After consideration and discussion, I think that the failing here was that Ultron was too much like Stark, ergo too much like a human. His sarcasm, poetic and dark dialogue, body language, and expressions seem to give Ultron a soul. It's a warped soul, but a soul nevertheless. This is a distinct difference from the cold, sterile intelligence of say, VIKI from I, Robot. Therefore, Ultron seems like he would be more at home in Star Wars, where droids with personalities are normal.

The secondary villains to this installment are the Maximoff twins Wanda and Petrie. Petrie....? No wait, Pietro. These twins are supposedly the victims of human experimentation, which gives them formidable powers. But really, all we needed was that one moment in the first ten minutes where Wanda messes with Stark's head. It sets up the rest of the plot, and then they really have no point other than to be excuses to use special effects. After the initial thought is planted in Stark's mind, the twins serve no purpose. One of them is disposed of later on in a contrived scene written entirely for the purpose of getting rid of the character. The character's insignificance to the larger story is confirmed not only by the character's death, but also by how unaffected the audience is by the person's demise.

While Age of Ultron was a greatly enjoyable summer blockbuster type flick with some interesting character twists (and a few missteps), I've often said that great villains make great stories, and this story lacks a great villain. Unfortunately, it tries to compensate by taking the road that too many sequels have tread: over-crowding the cast. In Age of Ultron, not only are we dealing with all of the Avengers from the first film, but we also have characters from the stand-alone films featuring in brief but significant ways (Sam Wilson aka Falcon, Peggy Carter, Rhodie, Heimdall). Add to that the Maximoff twins, Ultron and a smattering of minor bad guys, a new superhero, and Hawkeye's family, and the audience has too much to keep up with. By the end of the movie, a new team has assembled, but as the viewer, I don't want to see the new team-- I want the original band back together.

As most Marvel movies are, Age of Ultron is entertaining, funny, often over-the-top, and be-speckled with endearing character moments. The main team of Avengers are distinct and relatable in some way or another, and most viewers have their favorites, which makes these movies just fun. Age of Ultron operates on the assumption that the audience will have seen every Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man movie, so it's not a movie for a newcomer to the Marvel universe, but is certainly an entertaining addition to the already existing library of movies. The movie has its flaws, is cliche in many ways, and would not serve as a good template for sequels, as it doesn't reach the same heights as its predecessor, but that doesn't mean that it's a bad movie. It's simply not a great movie. It's just fun.

Too much to keep up with