Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)


Here is part two of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s!

Title: Interstellar
Release Date: November 5, 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | Warner Bros. Pictures
Legendary Pictures | Syncopy | Lynda Obst Productions
Summary/Review:

In the near future, the Earth has reached a crisis point and after a population crash, the surviving humans focus on raising food while facing blight and Dust Bowl-like conditions.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot forced into farming who raises his children to be intellectually curious about science, especially his daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy).  Cooper and Murph discover a secret NASA base and Professor John Brand (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper to pilot a space mission along with his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway).

Their goal is to explore a wormhole that sentient beings have opened near Saturn that may lead to habitable planets that humanity could escape to.  Because of relativity, Cooper and the crew of the Endurance, which includes a couple of weird looking robots named TARS and CASE (operated by Bill Irwin, of Mr. Noodle fame), age at a slower rate that the people on Earth.  So while Cooper and Dr. Brand are making contact with previous explorers who identified promising planets, an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) works on a gravity propulsion system that would allow a mass exodus of humanity.

This movie feels a lot like science fiction films of the 1970s and 80s than the flashy sci-fi movies of the 2010s. It’s also reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey because it tells a story mostly within the parameters of hard science, although like 2001, the denouement is fantastical.  McConaughey delivers all of his dialogue in a gravely near-whisper, which gets grating at times, but it’s a different role for him than say Dazed and Confused or How to Lose a Guy in 10 DaysInterstellar felt overlong as a movie, although I could see it being fleshed out into a successful limited TV series. Overall, Interstellar is an interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining film of adventure and human drama.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro


Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Title: Klara and the Sun
Narrator: Sura Siu
Publication Info: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.
Previously Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Set in the near future in a dystopian United States, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is a science fiction story narrated by an android named Klara who is purchased as an Artificial Friend (AF) for a teenage girl named Josie.  In this society some children are “lifted” (genetically-engineered for intelligence and academic advancement) and others are not.  Josie is lifted while her closest neighbor Rick is not, for which he suffers discrimination.

The parallels to our contemporary education system are clear. And while Ishiguro probably wrote this before the pandemic, the novel also depicts the children as socially isolated and learning remotely through screens. Since Klara is solar-powered she begins to view the sun as a deity.  Thus the novel metaphorically explores the origins of ritual and religion as Klara begins to petition the sun for add.  There is also an environmental message in the description of the pollution that obscures the sun.

Klara is intelligent and observant but naive of the human society she enters into.  I’m reminded of the character Charlie in Flowers for Algernon in that Klara narrates details where the reader is more aware of the significance of what she is observing.  I also see parallels to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree since Klara gives so much of herself to support her child.  The novel reminds me of the style of several young adult science fiction novels I’ve read in recent years.  This is a compliment because I think contemporary YA fiction is top notch and it’s interesting for a veteran author like Ishiguro to experiment with different styles.

Recommended books:

  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Rating: ***

Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Parable of the Sower
Narrator: Lynne Thigpen
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2000. [Originally published in 1993]
Summary/Review:

Set in the near future (Butler published the book in the 1990s, but it’s set in the 2020s), Parable of the Sower is a dystopian science fiction novel about the societal collapse caused by climate change, peak oil, and corporate greed. Things are in a bad state already when the novel begins but conditions gradually deteriorate for the characters in the story much like they do for the mythical boiling frog.  Butler also makes it clear that the dystopian state affects some people far earlier, much like they do in our real world, with the homeless and addicted gathered in the edges of the community.

The narrative begins in a walled community in Southern California.  The novel is written as the journal of Lauren Oya Olamina, a teenage girl as the novel begins and the daughter of a minister.  Lauren has a condition called empathy which causes her to feel the pleasure and pain of people near to her, a condition that can be crippling.  She also develops a belief system called Earthseed based on the concept that God is change, and thinks that Earthseed could be a means to saving humanity.

As Lauren grows into young adulthood, she faces tragedies in both her family and greater community.  But she also shows great resilience and leadership as she pulls together a group of allies (or as she would call them, the first Earthseed congregation).  The novel is a grim depiction of a world that doesn’t seem as far removed from our own reality of the 2020s as I would like.  But it is also a novel that offers a lot of humanity and hope.

Favorite Passages:

“No. No, Donner’s just a kind of human banister.” “A what?” “I mean he’s like … like a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we’re pushed into the future. He’s nothing. No substance. But having him there, the latest in a two-and-a-half-century-long line of American Presidents make people feel that the country, the culture that they grew up with is still here—that we’ll get through these bad times and back to normal.”

“That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.”

Freedom is dangerous but it’s precious, too. You can’t just throw it away or let it slip away. You can’t sell it for bread and pottage.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: The City of Lost Children (1995)


Title: The City of Lost Children
Release Date: May 17, 1995
Director: Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company: Canal+ | Centre National de la Cinématographie | Eurimages | France 3 Cinéma | Televisión Española
Summary/Review:

The Brattle Theatre podcast stated that The City of Lost Children is a Christmas movie, so I’m going to run with it since I’ve been meaning to rewatch this classic for some time.  The makers of another classic, Delicatessen, created this visually-stunning, creepy yet heartfelt story about chosen family and hope in dire times. The setting is a gritty port city (kind of a dystopian version of Sweet Haven from Robert Altman’s Popeye) populated by sideshow performers, a criminal gang of  orphans run by malicious conjoined twins, and a religious cult of Cyclops who kidnap children.

Many of these children are delivered to an evil scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) on an oil rog who is stealing their dreams because he can’t dream himself. Working with Krank are a half-dozen clones (all played by Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), a dwarf named Marth (Mireille Mossé), and a brain in a fish tank named Uncle Irvin (Jean-Louis Trintignant). This all really begins to make sense over time as details are revealed. In retrospect, I wonder how much this movie influenced the tv adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Into this milieu enters the strongman One (a brilliant performance by Ron Perlman) whose world is turned upside down after his carnival manager is stabbed and his little brother, Denree (Joseph Lucien), is abducted. He aligns with a member of the orphan gang, Miette (Judith Vittet), to track down his little brother. The bond formed between One and Miette is what makes this film great, and I’m very impressed by the 10-year-old Vittet’s acting chops.  I looked at her IMBD page expecting her to be in lots of great movies as an adult, but alas her acting career was very short (although she does work in costuming for French tv series). 

This movie is absolutely brilliant but it has to be seen to be believed. Oh, and the Krank dream sequences contain imagery of many creepy Santa Clauses, so there is your Christmas content.  The themes of hope and family, though, make it even more relevant to the holiday. 

Rating: *****

 
 

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Title: The Age of Miracles
Narrator: Emily Janice Card
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012)
Summary/Review:

This novel offers a speculative account of the crisis that occurs when the rotation of the Earth slows, lengthening the periods of daylight and nighttime.  This incident is referred to by the characters in the book as The Slowing, and it has the effect of causing birds to die off, an increase of solar radiation, a complete inability to grow traditional crops, and even causing some people to contract an illness.

While the premise is fantastical, the way the fictional American society responds to the crisis is realistic.  The US government determines that the country will continue to follow the 24-hour clock regardless of what time the sun is shining or not.  Some people rebel against this, insisting on living on “real time,” even going so far as forming their own separatist communities.

The narrator/protagonist of the novel is a junior high school girl from suburban San Diego named Julia.  From her perspective we see the dissolution of the social order among her family, friends, and school.  Any attempts to deal with the normal struggles of adolescence are overshadowed by the crisis that prevents any sense of predictability in the world. Julia narrates from an uncertain future while the narrative focuses on the first few months of the slowing as Julia faces changing friendships and an emerging relationship with a long-time crush.

This novel is dark and emotional and all too real to be reading at this time.

Recommended books:

  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Rating: ***

Book Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


AuthorJeanne DuPrau
TitleThe City of Ember 
Narrator: Wendy Dillon
Publication Info: Listening Library (2004)
Summary/Review:

This book is the first part of a series about a subterranean city built for reasons not yet explained over 240 years before the events of the novel.  By this time, the people of Ember have forgotten about their origins and are dealing with crumbling infrastructure and dwindling supplies (a very clear analogy to climate change).  The protagonists of the novel are Lina and Dina, two young people who have reached the age where they are given their “Assignments,” their jobs they have to do to contribute to the survival of the community (I don’t think the novel specifies their age, but they seem to be around 12 years old).  A curious pair, Lina and Doon piece together instructions left behind by the “Builders” of Ember, and find a way out of the underground city.  They are a clever and likable duo, albeit a bit one-note.  The plot is very simple but it should be readable for it’s target age group.  The book ends on a massive cliffhanger which makes of course makes me want to read the next book, but also a bit resentful because I didn’t find the book engaging enough on its own to want to read more.

Recommended booksGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, and The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer
Rating: **

Book Review: The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer


AuthorAndrea Cremer
TitleThe Inventor’s Secret
NarratorLeslie Bellair
Publication Info: Listening Library (2014)
Summary/Review:

This is the first in a series of an alternate universe dystopia in which Great Britain suppressed the revolution in the American colonies and have created a deeply stratified industrial tyranny.  I actually thought it was supposed to be set sometime in the far future, but since its  in the steampunk genre, it’s supposed to be in the 19th century despite the advanced technology.  The protagonist is Charlotte, a 16-year-old member of the resistance living with other children in camp hidden away from the empire.  When a mysterious newcomer arrives, it moves forward a plot for Charlotte, her brother and other companions to infiltrate the imperial society in New York.  It’s an interesting concept, but the story didn’t engage me .  I could see it’s appeal for younger readers interested in a mix of fantasy, alternate history, and romance.

Rating: **

Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde


AuthorJasper Fforde
TitleShades of Grey
Narrator: John Lee
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2009)
Summary/Review:

I’m a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s imaginative works, but a few years ago when I attempted to read Shades of Grey, I couldn’t finish it.  But due to my ffandom, I figured it would be worth giving the book another try as an audiobook.  The story takes place in a future dystopian society where people are sorted into castes based on their ability to perceive colors.  So, the protagonist of the story Eddie Russet is classified as a Red because he has the ability to see that color.  The concept is hard for me to grasp, and a lot of the novel, especially the early parts seems more geared to explaining this society that telling a story. I suppose all Jasper Fforde novels are set in a dystopia of some sort, but this one seems more serious than the others.  Nevertheless, I say it was worth getting through to the end of this book this time as the story definitely picks up in the second half of the book.  While not as great as Thursday Next or The Last Dragonslayer, I do look forward to reading (or listening to) future installments of this series.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Hunger Games


Title: The Hunger Games
Release Date: 23 March 2012
Director:
Gary Ross
Production Co:
Lionsgate
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Genre:
Dystopia | Science Fiction | Action Adventure
Rating:
***1/2

I had mixed feelings about the novel, and was concerned that the typical Hollywood spectacle in the adaptation would miss the point and glorify the violence of children murdering one another.  Luckily the filmakers took a restrained approach and while there are action-adventure tropes the film does not wallow in the violence and makes it grim and unnerving when it does happen. One of the effective aspects of the movie is the lack of music and sound at the most devastating moments.  The film faithfully follows the events of the book and with so many things to cover, the relationships among the characters are not developed as well.  It helps to have read the book previously to fill in those gaps.  Jennifer Lawrence puts in a great performance as the lead character Katniss Everdeen and Stanley Tucci also stands out as a slimy television presenter.

 

Book Reviews: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins


Author: Suzanne Collins
Title: Catching Fire
Publication Info: Scholastic Audio Books (2009)
ISBN:  0545101417

Books read by the same author: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Summary/Review: So I wanted to find out what happens next and couldn’t resist listening to the next book in The Hunger Games series.  It’s plagued by some of the same problems as the earlier book with weak prose (especially narrator/protagonist Katniss Everdeen’s interior debates) and thin characterization for some of the characters.  This especially hurts the first half of the book which is built around a love triangle that doesn’t work because neither of the indistinguishable boys is very interesting  (they both fit the Mary Sue trope).  There’s a lot of nitpicking I could do about this book but the plot kept me interested.  In the second half of the book by a trick of the evil President Snow, Katniss & Peeta are returned to the arena for another Hunger Games in kind of an all-star battle of the victors.  I thought this might be a cheap narrative trick but it  actually worked pretty well at developing the familiar characters as well as introducing interesting new characters.  The form of the arena is contrived but the response of the characters as they form an uneasy alliance is very interesting.  Yeah, I will read the conclusion too.

Rating: **1/2