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

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: ***

Movie Review: Gravity (2013)

Here’s my first review this week for a mini-series of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s.

Title: Gravity
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Heyday Films | Esperanto Filmoj

The explosion of a satellite in earth orbit leads to a chain reaction of destruction from a cloud of high speed space debris. The debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer leaving only two survivors who were performing extravehicular activity at the time of the strike.  Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist on her first mission to space while Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a garrulous NASA veteran on his final mission.  Together they need to make their way to the International Space Station and then to China’s Tiangon space station to find a spacecraft that can return them safely to Earth. The film attempts to be scientifically grounded (although I’m sure that nitpickers can find many errors) and prevent a plausible if extremely unlikely series of events in their attempt to reach safety.

I did find it weird that Kowalski and Stone talk to one another like they’re just getting to know one another when they would’ve been training together for months.  I also was a bit annoyed that Kowalski got to be confident and competent all the time while Stone panics and makes mistakes, although this does pay off later in the film.  In the 21st century, movies have been getting longer and longer, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I appreciate that Gravity is taut 91 minutes long.  It’s really all action from beginning to end, and Bullock puts in a great performance for someone who is basically carrying the movie on her own for the better part of it’s runtime.

I’m growing to appreciate the work of Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the best Harry Potter movie and one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, and seems to excel at making wildly different styles of film.  I’ll have to watch some more of his films.

Rating: ***1/2

Documentary Movie Review: The Farthest — Voyager in Space (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “F” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “F” documentaries I’ve reviewed are F is for Fake, 56 Up, Finding Vivian MaierFour Days in Octoberand Frank Lloyd Wright.

Title: The Farthest — Voyager in Space
Release Date: August 23, 2017
Director: Emer Reynolds
Production Company: Crossing the Line and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Production for PBS

I’ve always been fascinated by the Voyager program, and remember the excitement in my childhood each time the Voyager spacecraft would fly-by a new planet.  The Voyager program began in the 1960s at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to take advantage of the unique alignment of the Outer Planets that allowed for a “grand tour.”  Passing each planet provided a gravity assist that propelled the probes toward the next planet and eventually out of the solar system.

The documentary features interviews with key figures from NASA and JPL, archival photographs and film, and animated reenactments of the Voyager journeys.  Voyager is responsible for some remarkable discoveries but is famous for being a “message in a bottle” to extraterrestrial intelligence, including the Golden Record with a selection of music and greetings from the people of the Earth. In 1990, at the insistence of Carl Sagan, the Voyager I camera was turned back toward the solar system and took a series of “family portraits” including one of the Earth appearing as a pale blue dot in a ray of sunshine.

Rating: ****

Book Review: One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Author:Charles Fishman
Title: One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
Narrator: Fred Sanders
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019)

50 years after the United States first landed people on the moon and returned them safely to Earth, the story of the Apollo program in the popular imagination is compressed.  The general story is that three courageous men flew into space and two walked on the moon and planted a flag. There have been moments in popular culture that offered glimpses into the bigger story – the movie Apollo 13 which showed the nerds at Mission Control as the real heroes rather than the jocks in space, and more recently the book and movie Hidden Figures that brought greater awareness to Black women performing calculations by hand for the early space program.

The goal of One Giant Leap is to broaden the understanding of the Apollo Program, getting a better sense of the tens of thousands of people who worked millions of hours over 11 years to get those two men to the moon (and then repeat if five more times). NASA had people working on the project in all 50 states, a sign of both the scale of the project and the need to divide up government spending to gain wide support.  Fishman also asks the question of whether flying men to the moon was worth the cost and effort, and provides some interesting answers.

Going to the moon was never popular, as it polled poorly throughout the 1960s.  People, now and then, asked whether that money and effort would be better spent solving a problem on Earth. Fishman wisely notes that budgets generally don’t work in a way where funding for Apollo could’ve been easily redirected to, say, ending poverty, but also that a discrete project with an defined end goal is actually easier to pull off than more dynamic problems such as ending poverty, racism, and war, and they need not be mutually exclusive.  Fishman also notes that despite the high cost of the Apollo Program, it did achieve its goal within the stated time, unlike other government programs that do not receive similar criticism. The Vietnam War, which occurred roughly contemporaneously with the Apollo Program, cost six times as much, lead to hundreds of thousands dead, and destroyed much of the country it was supposed to save.

One person surprisingly not that much interested in exploring space was John F. Kennedy.  His famous “we go to the Moon” speech (analysed in depth in this book) came in the context of the embarrassment felt at the USSR beating the US to every key space exploration milestone and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Within in two years, Kennedy was looking to cut NASA funding and set a more leisurely timeline toward landing on the Moon as long as it looked like the Soviets weren’t going to get there first (and perhaps a bit selfishly, since NASA original promise of landing on the Moon by 1967 was pushed back, JFK saw no need to push a big program that wouldn’t even come to fruition until after his potential second term was over).  Kennedy’s assassination ironically saved the Apollo Program as it made a true believer in the space program, Lyndon Johnson, the President, and Kennedy’s “we go to the Moon” speech became an impetus to complete the mission in his honor.

Looking back on Apollo, people wonder what it’s legacy is since no humans have ever returned to the Moon and it did not usher in a Space Age.  Fishman offers that the true legacy of Apollo is not the Space Age, but the Digital Age.  In order to navigate the lunar module to the Moon and then rendezvous with the command module, the Apollo Program needed innovations in interactive computing and integrated circuitry. These advances sped up the development of computers that have revolutionized all aspects of society over the past 50 years.  Apollo also stood as a model of innovative project management. Even the more mundane nature of later space programs like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Program is a sign of the success of Apollo as it has made space exploration routine.

If there’s one critique of the book is that the narrative doesn’t flow as the author jumps around from topic to topic and could’ve spent more time diving into particular issues.  Nevertheless, the topics and anecdotes he shares are interesting, and include:

  • the key role of Bill Tindall, an aerospace engineer with the ability focus in on minute details, and who’s memos – called Tindallgrams – became must-read material within NASA
  • NASA almost forgot to pack a flag on Apollo 11, and a great analysis of the cultural importance of the flag planting ceremony on the Moon
  • how the lunar rover aided greater exploration of the Moon on later missions

Recommended books:

  • A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin
  • Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon by Alan Shepard
  • Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

TitleHidden Figures
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures

This historical drama tells the story of 3 of the 20 or so African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s as “computers,” mathematicians who performed vital calculations during the early days of the space race.  Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), considered “the brain” even among her peers, is assigned to the all-white, overwhelmingly male Space Task Group to use her skills in analytical geometry to calculate flight trajectories for the Mercury program.  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has the talent to become an engineer, goes to court in order to fight the Jim Crow laws that prevent her from attending a University of Virginia engineering program at a local whites-only high school.  And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the de facto manager of the women in the human computers group without the title or the pay.  When she learns that an IBM mainframe will eventually replace her group, she sees it as an opportunity to to teach herself FORTRAN and retrains her colleagues as programmers, eventually being officially promoted to supervisor of the Programming Department.

Like many historical dramas, a number of supporting characters are fictional or composites, but in Hidden Figures that helps keep the focus on our three leads. Similarly, historical facts are fudged with a lot of details compressed or presented out of order, but again for a movie its more dramatic to have John Glenn request that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM’s calculations while he’s heading to the launch pad rather than a few days earlier.  As a humanities person, I’m also grateful that they dumbed down all the mathematics in a way I could understand, while simultaneously realizing that the best minds at NASA would not have been discussing such basic issues at Langley.

All three leads are well-acted and I appreciate that they show three very different ways that these women responded to the hurdles placed before them and achieved their goals.  Kevin Costner puts in a decent performance as the leader of the Space Task Group, who seems motivated to desegregate Langley less out of a sense of justice, and more due to it causing delays.  Kirsten Dunst plays Vaughn’s casually racist supervisor who eventually grows to respect her, kind of a stock character, but keeps it subtle enough.

A fun part of this movie is how much it parallels one of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff, with some scenes and dialogue being exactly the same but from different perspectives. Hidden Figures is also a great historical film that I think I’ll enjoy revisiting, and especially important for making the story of Johnson, Jackson, Vaughn, and others at NASA so well known.

Rating: ****


Book Review: Who Was Neil Armstrong by Robert Edwards

Author:  Robert Edwards
Title:  Who Was Neil Armstrong
Publication Info:  New York, New York, USA : Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012.

My son and I enjoyed another “Who Was?” biography about the first person to set foot on the moon.  Armstrong was always a private person so he was harder to feel like you knew anything about him compared with Buzz Aldrin and other more outgoing astronauts.  This book fills in the details such as his early love for flying and becoming a pilot at a young age.  There’s also the sad story of his daughter dying at the age of two, something that Armstrong never spoke about.  This is a good bio for children (and their parents) wanting to learn about the man who took “one small step” and changed the world.
Rating: ***

MESSENGER’s Mission to Mercury

I’ve learned from the Bad Astronomy Blog that MESSENGER – NASA’s mission to Mercury – will make a flyby of the first planet from the sun today! This is cool. There seem to have been a lot of high profile space exploration to the outer planets, so it’s interesting to see them heading closer to the sun.

MESSENGER means MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry, and Ranging. The official MESSENGER website has all the details for the mission, including a countdown until the time for the closest approach of the flyby. There’s also a countdown for when MESSENGER goes into orbit around Mercury starting on March 18, 2011.