Sunday, November 30, 2014

In Search Of The New World

Reel To Reel: Interstellar

Going Rate: Worth full price admission (especially in IMAX)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, Michael Caine
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sci-fi violence

Christopher Nolan makes movies for people who like heady sci-fi thrillers. He gave us a masterful reboot of the Batman franchise, the innovative adventure Inception, and now he comes at us with a mash-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, and last year's Gravity. At times I felt like I needed a physics degree to understand some of this film's concepts. But with so many films dumbing things down, why can't Nolan force his audiences to smarten up?

The film takes place on a decaying Earth sometime in the future. We don't know how many years have gone by between now and the future, but we see the world is in a dust-bowl crisis. We're running out of food, and even the corn farmers grow won't sustain life forever. Towns keep getting hit by haboobs -- presumably both Phoenix and Tucson, I gather, for all of you gripers who wonder why you're the ones who always have to clean all the sand out of the pool. In this future shock, science and scientists have taken a back seat to agriculture, demonstrated in a scene where a school leader explains the government curriculum that's hilariously ignorant.

Joseph Cooper (McConaughey) used to be an astronaut. Now he's running a family farm, occasionally turning old tech into something useful. During a dust storm, his young daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) notices something weird about the way the dirt is landing on the floor. She thinks ghosts are out there and trying to talk to her. Cooper, no believer in ghosts but a scientist at heart, works with her on trying to decipher the messages. It leads the two of them back to a secret base where NASA has been preparing for a mission to inhabit a new planet. Professor John Brand (Caine) reveals Earth is dying, and humanity has two choices: either find a way to efficiently get people off Earth and to a new world, or restart humanity from the beginning, something conveniently called "Plan B." And you thought moving to a new house was tough.

But first, we have to find that ideal planet. Several astronauts have already gone through a wormhole, a wrinkle in time that takes them to new universes with potentially habitable worlds. Cooper joins up on a mission with several other experts -- and a few creepy robots who look like walking ATM machines -- to follow up on the astronauts' work and potentially pick a planet. The journey will test not only the laws of physics, but of time, space and emotional resolve.

So much of this film revolves around scientific accuracy and danger that it feels more like an episode of Cosmos at times. But the TV series didn't play out in IMAX the way the movie does. It uses the large format and theater sound for maximum effect. I felt I was riding along with the astronauts in key scenes. When the starship rumbles, you feel it in your gut.

I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar. It doesn't have the emotional grip of Gravity or the revelations of Contact or 2011, but it's a geek-out film for physics and astronomy geeks which isn't afraid to take on tough questions or answer them intelligently.

The Revolution Will Be Televised

Reel To Reel: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sci-fi violence and war atrocities

The Hunger Games is not science fiction as much as it is social-science fiction. It's not a fantasy about how people have advanced or the tech surrounding them, but what they have created or destroyed and done to themselves that transcends any timeline. This is why Suzanne Collins' universe has so much impact. It's not about tomorrow; it's about today disguised as tomorrow modulated against your political leanings.

I noted the second film in this saga was mostly setup. Now we're at the payoff stage. Panem is coming apart as the rebellion grows, and Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is the reluctant face of the revolution. It's not a battle she wants to fight, but yet she is motivated by the capitol's destruction of her former home, District 12. Now living with her family in District 13, a deep underground bunker of the resistance, she has to find her role in this struggle. If she refuses to take leadership of the uprising, it could flame out. If she does, the cost could be tremendous, including the life of her love Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson).

Peeta is now in the hands of the Capitol, and he looks like he's turned traitor. Maybe. You know how your girlfriends always seem to know more about you than you think? Kat detects something is amiss as Peeta nearly begs for peace on state-controlled television. The resistance, in the meantime, is planting "propos:" propaganda bombs even more powerful than the dark money ads we saw in the midterms. Katniss is their star, but getting the right message out requires more than just looking good on camera.

Enter handler Effie Trinket (Banks). She's depressed and de-ruffled after ending up in the resistance bunker, sentenced to drab green instead of her beloved gaudiness. If this revolution succeeds, will the districts sentence the Capitol residents to wear t-shirts and sweat pants? Never mind. Trinket still knows how to coax out the right words, but it's up to Kat to give the performance. Gamemaker-turned-propagandist Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a bittersweet farewell performance) knows exactly what needs to happen with the businesslike manner of a political public-relations man. District 13 president Alma Coin (Moore) has a cool and inspiring manner of a stateswoman, but you have to wonder, is she a little too cool and measured? At the other end, we have the Capital's President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who continues to be as kindly and yet cold as his hair is white. He tells his people that Panem can only survive through cooperation while continuing to repress everyone and kill whomever he wants.

It's now clear that Panem does not exist on planet Earth -- or even a future Earth -- but in some parallel universe, otherwise I would expect some references to the U.S. Constitution, the Magna Carta, or at least the Declaration of Independence. We don't even get a token tricorn hat. Because it doesn't drag out history, it forces us to see the parallels in our own world through our own eyes.

Breaking this final part of the book trilogy into two parts makes sense once you see the end result on the screen. Hang on for the final part, but I'm betting this series still has enough gas for a few bonus episodes.