Last year, remember how traffic felt a little lighter on December 16, 2016? Or how there were a few less colleagues in the cubicle next to you crunching away on their Doritos? Or how our nations GDP dipped three points because everyone stayed home.
No, it was not because of the approaching holidays. No, it was not because of the wet winter weather gripping both coasts. It was because Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was released in theaters and America took a collective national sick day as the hardcore Star Wars faithful, casual fans of nerd culture, and the allies of geeks everywhere took a day to visit a galaxy far, far away.
Why do I remind you of this? Because on Friday, December 15, 2017 this will all happen again. This time, in response to the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Thor Halvorssen, founder of Moving Picture Institute (MPI), has just been named as a producer for Twentieth Century Fox production of Robert A. Heilein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects, X-Men) is attached to direct as well. Halvorssen’s work on human rights by airdropping films and educational materials into heavily censored North Korea, through his Human Rights Foundation have made headlines in world wide news outlets.
Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) was the recipient of the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1967 and is often cited as one the best novels to promote individual liberty and a free society. An early democrat activist who worked for Upton Sinclair’s Democratic bid for California Governor in 1934, Heinlein later considered himself a libertarian with a strong belief in the importance of self-reliance and human freedom.
Why on earth are we comparing a space science-fiction epic with a period romance melodrama you ask? Simple: both Interstellar and Theory of Everything came out this weekend trying to tread the thematic tight rope between human story and scientific ideas.
For those of you who don’t know, Interstellar tells the story of a former astronaut-turned-farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who travels to the edges of space on a dangerous mission to save humanity. Theory of Everything, on the other hand, chronicles the tumultuous romantic relationship between famed Cambridge physicist, Stephen Hawking, and the love of his life, Jane Wilde (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, respectively).
Firstly: you should go see both. The performances alone are reason enough to justify a ticket for Theory of Everything, with Redmayne’s Hawking being the stuff that Oscar gold is made of. Likewise, Interstellar boasts one of the most immersive story telling experiences since Avatar, marked by stunning visuals and performances that manage to keep up – Jessica Chastain’s brooding turn as Cooper’s estranged daughter is particularly compelling.
At the core of these widely different films though is a single thematic concern: the interplay of science and love. Both films spend a considerable amount of their running time examining love in the context of scientific pursuit.
For Interstellar, this concern manifests itself primarily in the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murph, who is both his reason for going and the source of his guilt for doing so. At its most cosmic, Interstellar asks the question of whether or not love can transcend the barriers of space and time, and if so, what that love looks like. On its most practical level though, it examines the conflict between one’s duty to science (and by extension, humanity) and one’s dedication to their family. Ultimately, without giving away too many details, the film’s answers are somewhat overly sentimental – resulting in an emotional resolution that is satisfactory though not perhaps as cathartic as the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, might have hoped.
Theory of Everything, though not dealing with love on such a macro scale, similarly examines if and how science and romance can co-exist. Ironically, it is not the physical handicap that presents the most obstacles to Stephen and Jane’s relationship, but rather Stephen’s academic pursuits and subsequent fame as physicist. In this way, the film questions whether the demands of science and one’s commitment to its tenants allow for a romantic relationship. The issue of the existence of God, for example, is one of particular importance to the couple who are divided along the lines of faith – Jane an Anglican Christian and Stephen an agnostic. Again without spoiling too much, Theory of Everything’s conclusion proffers quite satisfyingly that regardless of whether in science or in love – its the tangibles that count.
Part of the reason that Theory of Everything balances science and human emotion somewhat more convincingly than Interstellar would be perhaps because the film makes a point of not weighing itself down in the tech.
Interstellar, at its core, is about science in the context of love.Theory of Everything is about love in the context of science.
It’s this distinction that gives Theory of Everything the human edge over Interstellar. That’s not to say Interstellar’s human story isn’t compelling – its the very impetus of the film. But by its inherent nature as a space epic, Interstellar more interested in using its human elements to explore the larger questions of science than allowing them to take center stage.
Ultimately, both Theory of Everything and Interstellar ask big questions about love, science, and where we fit into all of it. And as stated before: both films are well worth the price of admission. But where Interstellar asks you to gaze up at the stars in wonder, Theory of Everything asks to train that same awe-inspired gaze at the person right next to you.
It’s no secret that the Rom-Com has become a tired genre. With the notable exception of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, there have been few straight romantic-comedies in recent years to make a significant cultural (and box-office) impact. On a more tangible level, the genre has simply become repetitive, relying on the same narrative tropes and comedic cliches that brought the rom-com to prominence back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. As much as we all might love When Harry Met Sallyor Sleepless in Seattle, we moviegoers can only tolerate clones of these films for so long.
What, then, is left for the romantic-comedy, if audiences have become anesthetized to its charms and conventions? How can the genre reinvigorate itself in the face of movie-goers who have seemingly gone and seen it all? Like a noble family with an empty bank account, the rom-com has opted to marry itself off to another genre. And the results have been impressive (and surprising) to say the least. The suitor? Perhaps the most unlikely genre imaginable: the science-fiction film.
The union began in 2011 with Woody Allen’s time-warping wonder Midnight in Parisin which a discouraged writer inadvertently travels back to 1920’s Paris, encountering an enchanting Parisian art-lover along with the famed artists of the era. The film was a critical and box office hit, in part, because of its unorthodox, Twilight Zone-esque twist on the romantic comedy. The high profile success of the film has inspired a wave of similarly situated, sci-fi-rom-com hybrids that are breathing fresh life into a genre that has been weighed down by its own conventions and structures. Films like Warm Bodiesor Safety Not Guaranteed for example,which have tentatively explored the realm between science fiction and romantic comedy (or in the case of Warm Bodies, romantic comedy in science fiction). Over the last year, however, this hybrid genre has come into its own right, solidifying its unique strengths as well as its position in the film market.
Take, for instance, the recently released independent film The One I Love. Directed by first time director Charlie McDowell, the film follows an estranged couple, played by Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss, who go on a weekend trip to the Ojai Valley to try and reignite their passion for one another. Without spoiling too much (the film is still in theaters and everyone should go see it), the trip takes a dark, supernatural turn when the couple discover that their guest-house is not all that it appears to be.
It’s difficult to talk about the film without ruining its appeal, but it can safely be said that the film’s brilliance comes from the way in which it offers up certain conventions of the rom-com genre, asking both the audience and the film’s characters to decide whether the idealized narrative of the rom-com is ever actually in their the best interest. This examination is only made possible through the film’s bizarre, science-fiction-ified set-up.
Another recent romantic-comedy hybrid would be 2013’s About Time, the story of an awkward English lawyer, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who learns that the men in his family have the uncanny ability to travel back in time. The film centers around Tim’s romance with the independent but adorable Mary (Rachel McAdams) and his fumbling attempts to use his ability to help shape the life that he dreams of having.
Rather than simply setting a romantic comedy within these unusual circumstances, the film utilizes its science-fiction elements to subvert the tropes of the rom-com itself. For example, Tim and Marry initially have the classic ‘meet cute’ introduction, in which the two share an adorable, chemistry-laden first encounter. This ‘meet cute’ however is inadvertently erased by Tim’s own meddling with time, resulting in a second, disastrous ‘first’ meeting that is anything but cute. By subverting this convention, as well as several others, About Time manages to inject fresh blood into a premise that has otherwise been played out – i.e. the awkward guy who just wants to get the girl. Interestingly, the film was written and directed by rom-com veteran Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually), proving that the hybridization of the genre has moved out of just the independent film market and well into the mainstream.
If About Time and The One I Love are any indication, then sci-fi is shaping up to be the unlikely savior of the rom-com, reinvigorating the genre’s tired tropes and helping it reconnect with jaded audiences. Its almost ironic that the redemption of the romantic-comedy is playing out just like one of its own cliched plots: an unlikely couple, thrust together, learn to need one another. In this case,it’s one cliche we can all be happy about.
Apocalyptic movies have a certain undying appeal. We like to see ourselves ripped away from our technology and tools while keeping just enough knowledge intact to know that we had them. It’s a take on the old humans against nature trope where nature, in this case, exists in opposition to humanity because of some previous accident or mistake; the recent spate of zombie-centered entertainment in the last few years is the most obvious example. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes adopts this zombie aesthetic with an interesting twist. The threat of nature doesn’t come from former humans, it comes from, in a way, proto-humans: apes.
Like zombie movies, our supremacy is destroyed by a virus. Ten years after Caesar (Andy Serkis) led his ape-kin to freedom in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the simian virus that gave apes their intelligence has wrecked human civilization. Most of humanity is dead; the survivors work to rebuild their cities. A colony of human survivors in former San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), desperately needs power. Salvation rests in a decrepit hydroelectric dam but Caesar’s hostile colony of apes stands in the way. Just as the two groups reach a tenuous peace, distrust on both sides splinters diplomatic solutions into the kindlings of a minor war. Presumably, whoever wins takes the throne of the dominant species.
This film could not exist without the use of visual effects. Rise of the Planet of the Apes suffered from inconsistent effects where the realism of the apes varied given the shot. This time around, the effects maintain an impressive level of quality. They have a weight and a history; they’ve cut the world we know down to a haunting shadow. When characters are effects as in the case of this series (no, Mr. Serkis, I’m not endorsing your comments on digital makeup), the caliber and quality of effects the film boasts are crucial. And the effort does pay off for the apes. But the human performances are stale and lackluster in comparison. None of the characters have compelling reasons for their choices. They tell us of course why they do what they do, but it’s obvious the actors (with the possible exception of Oldman) don’t believe what they’re saying. When the first half of the movie uses characters to set the stage for the second half, this is a problem.
Just as with the characters themselves, the human side of the story is not terribly complex: “humans are against apes in some form or another.” The conflict between Caesar and his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) provides a solid counterpoint to this homogeneity but it’s just not enough. Even if the characters were more dynamic, even if the conflict was more nuanced, the lingering questions about the nature of this post-apocalyptic world are never answered. In other words, the humans and the apes don’t feel like they’re part of the world revealed through the spectacular effects. They don’t really answer why war was inevitable. How the simians and humans diverged to be virtually unknown to each other in ten years is a mystery given their proximity. How the apes managed to build a city, to use guns, and to develop husbandry is equally confusing: after all, a capacity for intelligence isn’t a command of a given knowledge, especially when the undirected whims of curiosity haven’t realized that the knowledge exists to be discovered.
Now, for a movie dramatizing a struggle between humans and apes, you might say I’m being a bit picky. Maybe I am. But the accumulation of all these little cracks in the foundations of this silver screen universe is all the more necessary if such a fantastical situation is to be believed as fundamentally human. We can forgive errors in logic in our world because we rarely question the world’s premise; errors in an unfamiliar world’s premise source a much more acute pain. And this pain keeps Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from truly shining as anything more than a fun summer movie.
If you are a fan of the science fiction genre, then you probably became elated at the sight of the first trailer for Snowpiercer. Although the trailer itself does not reveal too much, it tells us genre nerds just enough of what we need to know to become intrigued. The set up is rather simple.
In a post-apocalyptic world, this little known phenomenon called “global warming” has taken mass effect, actually doing the exact opposite of warming the globe. The entire planet has essentially been plunged into a new ice age, now covered in a freezing layer of snow and ice, making it uninhabitable. Almost the entire population of Earth has been wiped out, and the few remaining survivors live aboard a futuristic train called…you guessed it…Snowpiercer.
DISCLAIMER: Spoilers ahead. Real life, major spoilers. Read at your own risk!
So now we have a somewhat intriguing, if not slightly lopsided, set up of our world. Then comes the deep stuff. Inside the train (the exact length of which is never specified) the varying cars are divided up by social class, the lowest of which reside in the tail-end of the train. Naturally, the privileged live towards the front of the train. The train is said to run on a “perpetual engine” that can never die, and said engine was created by the mysterious Wilford, a God-like figure whom is worshipped by those on the front of the train, and utterly loathed by those on the back. Social allegories galore!
One determined young man named Curtis (Chris Evans), living in the tail-end under the mentorship of an old man named Gilliam (John Hurt), is sick of his life feeding on nothing but gelatin-like protein bars (revealed to be made of something rather unmentionable). He wants what the privileged have (Sushi). He dreams of forcing his way to the front. He initiates a rebellion with the help of some of the tail-enders, consisting of an excellent ensemble cast that includes Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and Ewen Bremner.
In order to make it through, they take into captivity Mason (Tilda Swinton), a bureaucratic cult-leader type who represents those from the front of the train and perhaps bows down the lowest to Wilford. As the biggest source of comic relief, she is by far one of the most dynamic and entertaining characters and Swinton’s performance made the film that much more watchable.
As the group of scrappy tail-enders force their way towards the front, we as the audience are immersed in some truly magnificent action sequences and cinematography. For such a contained setting, director Bong Joon-ho was able to get very creative with the camerawork. Not to mention the frozen world outside is very well done, creating a landscape that looks truly terrifying.
Upon reaching the very front of the train, where the perpetual engine presides, Curtis is finally able to confront Wilford (Ed Harris). Without spoiling too much, it is revealed that Curtis was essentially fooled into leading the rebellion, to be used as a sick way of population control for those in the tail-end. As stated by Wilford, natural selection doesn’t work quickly enough on the train.
I will force myself to stop at this point, as there are many more twists revealed within the final act. However, with all the aforementioned criticisms about a one-sided viewpoint being driven throughout the storyline of fairness and equality, the film is quite an experience in itself and it uses a lot of symbolism for life and redemption. As films go, it has a solid story and extremely well-written characters. Of course, the ensemble cast never ceases to entertain amidst the 2-hour-plus runtime. I never once found myself wondering when it would end.
All in all, “Snowpiercer” is definitely worth a view. Although it was only given a limited theatrical release, it will be available on Video On Demand as of this Friday, July 11th.