Old Friends and Movie Reviews

A long time ago, I had a friend who was into films big-time–she was a film and videography major, in fact–and it was a pleasure to talk with her about movies because we had similar tastes and appreciated filmmaking from very different perspectives. I really wish we were still friends sometimes because I’d love to pick her brain about Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to a film we both loved. Continue reading “Old Friends and Movie Reviews”

Movie Review: Rogue One

I will try to keep this review spoiler-free. No, really. 

If you’re a fan of Star Wars, you’re going to see this film. You know it and I know it. What you might be worried about is will you like the film? Rest assured, fanboys (and gals), you will come out of theater happy with what you see.

The setup

Many Star Wars fans–I am among them–have memorized the opening crawl text from the first film, now titled Episode IV: A New Hope:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.

Rogue One, as shown in the trailers, is the dramatization of that prologue. The MacGuffin moving the story forward is, as in Episode IV, the Death Star plans.

This is a fun film. The title: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story covers it nicely. It weaves in and out of Episode IV here and there while concentrating on a new batch of characters, both members of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Many of the elements are familiar: the Death Star, the force, Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, X-wings, Tie Fighters, Imperial Stardestroyers, etc.

As is typical of a Star Wars story, the story also takes its characters and us, the audience, to a variety of exotic planets. Unusual aliens greet us, as do a new set of spacecraft–some sleek, some ugly and dented–all part of the “lived in” universe George Lucas did so much to bring to life (yikes) 39 years ago.

Why I liked it

This will be tricky without spoilers, but I’ll give it a shot.

Geek that I am, I always like to see what new stuff the folks at Lucasfilm will add to the galaxy far, far away, and I was not disappointed. They’re running out of new landscapes to film on Earth, but through careful hunting around our diverse planet and some judicious matte painting or digital effects, the filmmakers still manage to give us (if I may cross genres for a moment) strange, new worlds.

I liked the new characters, who manage to carry on the snarky interactions and uncertain-friendship dynamics of the original trilogy while still being likable. Over the course of two hours and some-odd minutes, I managed to care about how they fare. That’s no easy thing, as we learned, painfully, from Episodes I-III.

I suppose what impressed me the most about this film was the production design. Everything from helmets to tools to clothing to architecture to spacecraft looked believable. Again, that “lived in” feeling of the environment was meticulously crafted. And, more to the point, much of it was crafted to look functional, worn, and used, as everyday objects are in our real lives. There are also some other special effects tricks in the film that I can’t describe without spoiling things for the fans, but suffice to say you will be impressed.

The plot I described above. Director Gareth Edwards deftly handles the script and all of the moving parts necessary to make a good Star Wars story. The pacing is good. The dialogue is mostly “business” (moving the plot forward) with just enough character moments to remind you that these are supposed to be people we’re rooting for, not action figures. The space and planetary battles moved by at a rapid clip, as expected, almost a shade too fast to follow at points, but nothing glaring.

I suppose the best compliment I can pay to the film is that I want to see it again. And really, isn’t that what we want out of a good movie?

A couple thoughts for non-Star Wars fans

I know you’re out there: people who are not Star Wars fans or who for your own reasons have never seen any part of the franchise. Yet now your spouse or significant other has told you that you’re going, and you’re wondering if you’re going to care at all. If you like adventure stories, yes, you should like this. There’s some “heart” to be found as well.

The best piece of advice I could give to the uninitiated would be to at least watch the first Star Wars, the one for which this story serves as a prologue. It will introduce you to the Star Wars universe and provide the background for what’s going on. You don’t need to watch the entire series. Episode IV will also provide you with some timeline connections that will help you see how this episode fits in with that one while telling its own story.

Okay, I’ve blathered on long enough. Go see the movie. You know you want to.

Movie Review: Star Wars VII

I will do my best to make this a spoiler-free review, as I’m posting opening day and a lot of people haven’t seen the film yet. Maybe I’ll do this in Q&A format.

Did you like the film?

Yes indeed I did! Star Wars is back*, with a movie worthy of the name for the first time since 1983. It has a good story that moves along at a pace similar to Episode IV, with a script that (for the most part) sounds like real people talking, albeit in a space fantasy universe. The characters are–and I can’t emphasize this nearly enough–likable. Not just our old friends like Han Solo, Chewbacca, or Princess (now General) Leia, but the new kids on the block. I found myself caring about these new characters in a way that I just could not manage with the prequel characters. What a difference good directing makes!

The technology in the film that “lived in,” scruffy look that the original trilogy has, and of course all of it has the telltale music orchestrated by the immortal John Williams. And really, some of the moments in the film where you’ve got the original story’s characters doing their thing and Williams’ soundtrack doing its thing are quite enough to warm the heart of the most cynical Gen Xer. Note on that: I preordered the SWVII soundtrack, and unlike previous soundtracks, there are no “spoilers” in the musical piece titles. I did encounter that on the prequel trilogy soundtracks.

(*Yes, I know there have been other movies, books, comic books, and other media bric-a-brac in this universe, but I’m not so enamored of the series that I’ve been willing to watch all of them.)

Are there major plot surprises in the story?

Yes. If you want to know what the spoilers are, go here.

Can I take the kids?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for several reasons, mostly violence related with some “language” and other situations that you might not want to have to explain to your curious, impatient, or easily frightened 6-10 year old. Your call. Some of the stuff that might bother younger viewers would qualify as spoilers, so bear with me if I don’t divulge too much.

Without revealing spoilers, what can you tell me about the movie?

Set around 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, we find the galaxy far, far away still in turmoil, this time through a war between The New Order (the bad guys) and the Resistance (the good guys). The bad guys, led by a new scary guy in a mask named Kylo Ren, have a new, scary weapon to terrorize the good people of the galaxy.

In the midst of this turmoil, we have some new characters living out their lives–a junk scavenger, a stormtrooper deserting his post, a crack Resistance pilot, a new lovable droid–as well as some people we’ve seen before, advancing in age, but still charmingly likable and doing things true to their characters.

Did I mention that the heroes are likable? Why is this such a big deal? Because the characters in Episodes I-III were so damned unlikable. I can’t blame all of the mess in Episodes I-III on the actors. Much of that must be laid at the feet of the director/executive producer/money man George Lucas, who in the years between 1983 and 1999 forgot how to write and direct.

Do you have any gripes with the movie?

While watching the film, I had a couple moments where I couldn’t understand what people were saying, either because the technobabble was  spoken too quickly or was overwhelmed by sound effects or music. Nothing critical and not often, but these things happened.

The political situation in this film is a bit murky, but then compared to certain other films in the franchise, it’s a model of parliamentary coherence. I might buy the novelization to see if some things I’m curious about are explained, but none of my questions affected the action or my enjoyment of the story.

There are also a couple of moments in the film that are predictable if you’re attuned to storytelling.

After the film I had to sniff around a spoiler site or two to pick up what other gripes there were to be found. I’m not going to lie to you: I had misgivings about this film due to some of the things director JJ Abrams did with the Star Trek franchise. He has a tendency to repeat things done with the original material he’s working with, if only out of nostalgia, but the things he did with The Force Awakens were done respectfully and handled entertainingly. There were places where The Force Awakens “rhymes” with the original film (e.g., mission to destroy large superweapon). As long as he doesn’t retell the entire Episode IV-VI trilogy, things will be fine.

However, given all of these nits above, none of that really bothered me because I got to involve myself in a story with characters I wanted to see succeed. Isn’t that why we go to the movies?

Should I go see it?

Yes! In the theater! I paid extra to see the film in 3D, which was a nice touch, but isn’t 100% necessary. In case you hadn’t noticed, this film has won me over simply because of the charm of the characters and JJ Abrams’ ability to tell a good Star War story. In fact, I found the film enjoyable enough to forgive him for much of what he did to the Star Trek franchise. That’s saying a lot, I guess, depending on the type of nerd you are.

Mars in 2015–Books, Movies, and Reality

In the last month I’ve been indulging in a bit of Mars mania. I read Andy Weir’s book The Martian, followed by the movie starring Matt Damon, which was based upon the book. On the heels of this double helping of The Martian I read Rescue Mode, a new science fiction novel by Ben Bova and a NASA friend of mine, Les Johnson.


Both books go to superb lengths to achieve engineering realism in depicting hardware for getting to and living on Mars. The Martian focuses on one man who is stranded on the red planet while Rescue Mode concentrates on the efforts of a crew of eight astronauts whose vehicle is severely damaged on the way to Mars. Different problems, but same stakes: survival beyond the Earth.

The Martian 

The Martian is written entirely in the first person and the protagonist–portrayed well in the movie by Matt Damon–concentrates more on the lone astronaut’s Robinson Crusoe-type challenges with nature using the tools at hand. The movie gives more life to the characters “off screen” in the book. I found the book hilarious, probably because it was easy to identify with a sarcastic white guy who’s a Chicago Cubs fan and has an occasionally profane manner of expressing himself.

The movie version of astronaut Mark Watney is a bit more subdued, perhaps not quite as juvenile, but an admirable character nonetheless. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Matt Damon’s acting is excellent while the movie overall is simply good. The movie has some long stretches of just watching a rover move across the lonely Martian landscape. Or, as someone pointed out about The Lord of the Rings, just a lot of walking. The novel of The Martian needs to keep the reader engaged–in my case, I devoured the book in a couple of days–and so has a few more problems to solve. And there’s just more opportunity for smart remarks by the narrator.

Another thing Weir (and director Ridley Scott, to his credit) handles well is giving all the technology a real-world feel, complete with acronym-heavy jargon, rules and regulations, and a good feel not just for what things are designed to do but what they can be made to do in case of emergencies. Even duct tape makes a good showing.

Perhaps the biggest downside to being faithful to the book is that Weir’s (Watney’s) profanity does not make the movie exactly kid-friendly. S-bombs, F-bombs, cussing galore. Depending on how old your kids are and how much profanity they’re used to, they can probably start watching this film at around age 10-12 (the film is PG-13, though I’m surprised it didn’t make R). It’s not that I’m a huge prude when it comes to cussing, but that does mean limit the age range for kids to watch the story and get inspired by its can-do spirit. Regardless, the book and the movie are great fun and manage to capture an Apollo 13 level of what author David Brin calls “competence porn” set in space as Watney moves from bare survival to problem solving to transcending his situation. I might need to go back to the theaters for another shot at viewing it on the big screen. Worth it.

Rescue Mode

Rescue Mode, which to my knowledge isn’t being made into a movie yet, is a different project. It still features peril on a Mars mission and requires a lot of technological competence to put things right. However, instead of concentrating on one character’s efforts or point of view, Bova and Johnson write about a crew of eight: four men, four women, with a mix of nationalities and races, plus a variety of NASA people and politicians back on Earth. In this way, Rescue Mode is a more mature (in the literary sense), complex, and ambitious work.

The crew includes some rivalries, sexual tension, and personality clashes that add a bit of humanity to the astronauts. The Martian, by contrast, isn’t quite as diverse or nuanced–the primary motivation for most of the off-stage players is dedication to duty. On the whole, the character interactions are handled well, including some eye rolling by the other characters when one of them says something that might be taken as stereotypical in some fashion.

The book is a little slow to start as we’re introduced to the crew and the political players, but once the crew get into space, the pace picks up quickly. You might wonder what sort of political drama is included in a book ostensibly about space exploration. In this case, the authors chose to depict a battle in Washington, DC, over the continued funding of human space exploration, with the president for it and an ambitious senator trying to shut down the Mars program as “too dangerous” and “wasteful.”

One thing I found interesting in comparing The Martian and Rescue Mode is that both books seem to have used the same (or similar) NASA reports in designing their spacecraft and other hardware. Not surprising, I suppose–if NASA manages to get to Mars in the near future, realism demands that you use the hardware they say they’re going to use. Which brings me to a few concluding thoughts about Mars exploration in the real world of 2015.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

Both of these books assume something that right now is not foreseeable, or maybe even realistic: the political will to spend the money and time to build all that NASA wants to build to get humans to Mars. The Martian just assumes that it happened without questioning the how or why. Rescue Mode takes a shot at explaining how it might be done with solid support from a U.S. President. Bova and Johnson note that their mission takes place late in the supporting president’s term and that the program would be vulnerable to the next president to come along–even if that president came from the same party. I don’t fault Andy Weir for this–he’s telling an rollicking good adventure story. Bova and Johnson wrote an adventure story but had larger fish to fry, as they try to make a larger political case for human spaceflight. Realistically, any actual future that includes a massive human mission to Mars or even back to the Moon will need to address the politics of it.

Another political point Rescue Mode makes is that the people most likely to benefit from closing or cutting back on NASA-led human space exploration would be commercial entities like SpaceX. Indeed, Elon Musk has stated that he wants to send people to Mars. The book includes a spaceport in New Mexico and makes reference to other commercial enterprises in Texas, Florida, and on the Moon. The real political battle over human spaceflight is not really between people who want it and those who want to close it down but between differing visions of how it should be carried out–and by whom: should the future glory go to NASA or a dedicated billionaire? The Martian doesn’t depict this battle per se, but it clearly stands behind NASA getting the job; Rescue Mode shows NASA having the job but facing pressure from others who would prefer that they don’t.

If it seems strange to be pro-space exploration but anti-NASA, it probably is–just as it’s strange that a Democrat administration is more supportive of commercial space while Republicans are favoring a large government program. However, if you spend some time observing the space business in the 21st century, you will see that we live in strange times. Welcome to the future.