The Space Aliens Have Finally Come

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Movie reviews took a back seat at Liberty while the election dominated our pages. This was the most divisive election in recent history, with three flawed candidates being nominated by the three major parties. (Yes, I consider the LP a major party at this point, even if the chance of winning is still nonexistent.) The divisiveness only worsened after the surprise election of Donald Trump, with protests that quickly escalated into riots and derisive epithets of “Racist! Homophobe! Sexist!” that escalated into accusations (sometimes false) of personal attacks. College students, whimpering and wailing, were issued blankets, tissues, and even puppies by administrators more anxious to comfort their fears than to teach them how to cope with disappointment.

Sheesh.

As I decided to write my first review for Liberty in over a month, I wondered: which current film would provide the best opportunity to address these issues? Arrival seemed like a sure bet.

Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?”

In this movie, 12 alien spacecraft enter the earth’s atmosphere and hover above locations around the globe, virtually knocking at the door and asking to be let in. But what is their purpose? Do they come in peace, or as galactic imperialists? That’s the question asked in every alien-oriented movie, and it was the key issue that drove Trump’s rise to the presidency. Do we build a wall — a yuge wall — to keep everyone out (at least until a thorough vetting has been performed), or do we open the doors and admit workers from Mexico, refugees from Syria, boat-people from southeast Asia, and anyone else who wants to come in? Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?” Fittingly, that is the tagline of Arrival.

The opening moments of the film reinforced my intent to write a timely political review. I like the fact that the writers chose the neutral term “arrival” rather than the usual “invasion.” People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater in New York City. Our main character even references Fox News Channel while trying to calm her hysterical mother, saying, “Why are you watching that channel? How many times have I told you not to listen to those idiots?” She also admits to strategic lying in order to get her way: “The story isn’t true, but it proves my point, “ she mutters her sly justification.

But, as so often happens when I come to a movie already thinking about how I’m going to write my review, I soon let go of my preconceived plan and let the actual film envelop me. The film is slow for the alien invasion genre, more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Independence Day. Leaders in the 12 nations where the spacecraft are hovering do bring in their military, but they do so cautiously. They have learned to be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, but they won’t slam the gates or start shooting the arrows until they’ve seen what’s inside this Trojan horse. What is the purpose of these uninvited arrivals?

Tension develops not so much from fear of attack as from an agonizing slowness that affects our perception of time; unnatural gravity that affects our perception of nature; a 60-beat, pulsating percussion that affects our perception of the aliens; and discordant, dissonant music that simply grates on our nerves.

People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a respected linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a first-rate mathematician, are called in to see whether they can communicate with the beings. An academic argument ensues over which is the core of civilization, language or math, but the film does not ask us to endure a cutesy, hormone-driven competition between the two attractive academicians. This is serious business, and they are serious partners in their mission to discover why the aliens have come and whether their intent is peaceful.

Guided by thoughts of her daughter’s birth and childhood, Louise turns to such non-verbal communications as touch, eye contact, body language, and facial expressions as she and Ian work out the “Heptoid” vocabulary. She points out the ambiguity inherent in words, and the consequent importance of understanding context in order to discover intent. “The Sanskrit word for war,” she offers as an example, “is desire for more cows.” Soldiers and bullets, she suggests, are a symptom of war, not the definition of it. I couldn’t help but think of the quote attributed to Frederic Bastiat: “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” And I again thought of our president-elect and his misguided determination to limit international trade.

For a film about language and communication, there is surprisingly little dialogue. Instead, the actors are asked to communicate their thoughts and emotions to the audience in the way their characters are communicating with the aliens — through body language, movement, and facial expressions. Director Denis Villeneuve couldn’t have asked for a better actress for this task than the brilliantly talented Amy Adams. She approaches the aliens with the same wonder and engagement as she expresses in her interactions with the daughter of her thoughts. We know how she feels about language, and about these aliens, because we know what it’s like to interact with a baby or a child. Language becomes a tool and an emotion. Linguistics become exciting and engaging. And the denouement of the film is wondrous because of all this.

This is a film that surprises you with unexpected stillness, unexpected wonder, unexpected fulfillment. It asks us to embrace life, even when it includes inevitable trauma or sorrow. In the end, I discovered, it is the right film for right now. But not for the reasons I expected. Go see it before you hear any more about it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. 21 Laps Entertainment / FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 115 minutes.



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The New Cable

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“As a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or offered in your network TV listings. Strange things are afoot in home entertainment, and the made-for-Netflix series Stranger Things is a brilliant case in point.

If you’re tired of the endlessly inane sitcoms, crime dramas, talent shows and trashy pseudo-reality shows offered by CBS, NBC, and ABC, turn off your networks and turn on your Netflix. There you will find well-scripted shows with movie-quality production values streamed to you on your phone, your computer, or your Smart TV. And it won’t cost you the nearly $200 a month many are paying now for cable television throughout their homes. My Netflix account costs $9.99 a month — and I can even carry it with me when I travel and share it with family members in other states at no extra charge. I don’t need a cable box or even a digital video recorder, because Netflix provides all of its listings to me on demand, whenever I feel like watching it — no commercials, no interruptions, and no set schedule. All I need is an Internet connection. And the quality of the programming can be superb.

Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced.

Stranger Things, an eight-episode sci-fi series made specifically for Netflix, is a great example. Set in 1983, the show begins with a group of 12-year-old boys playing Dungeons & Dragons. They’re a lot like the kids in Steven Spielberg’s Goonies — likeable and outgoing, but slightly off. One has cleidocranial dysplasia, a genetic condition that prevents his permanent teeth from growing in; another has a weak chin that gives his face a beaklike quality. All of them are a little nerdy, but their friendship overcomes any sense of inadequacy.

When the game ends, the boys jump on their banana-seat bicycles and head for their various homes. (My immediate reaction: “Yes! Geeky boys on bicycles! I’m in!”) One of them, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), encounters a strange beast that seems connected to a strange government installation on the outskirts of town. No one is home when he arrives there, and he goes out to the shed to investigate. The lights start flickering, an ominous predatory growl is heard outside, and suddenly Will vanishes.

The rest of the series focuses on finding out what happened to Will and uncovering the truths behind that secret government laboratory. The eight hourlong episodes are sharp and suspenseful, and each ends with a cliffhanger reminiscent of Fox’s phenomenally successful, movie-quality 24. I “binge-watched” the entire series in a single day.

What makes Stranger Things so compelling? First is the quality of the scripts and the acting. Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced, reminiscent of my own son and his friends hanging out in the ’80s. My only caveat is Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, mother of the missing boy, who is cloyingly, ferally crazed throughout the series, until her character suddenly and inexplicably ends up wearing lipstick, eyeshadow and false lashes with her hair combed out of her eyes in the last two episodes. (Winona must have seen the rushes and decided too much was too much.)

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time.

Even more impressive than the script is the quality of the production. Netflix provided them a budget that allowed them to create a movie-quality show. But budget alone doesn’t lead to success; witness the nine-figure superhero films that have been dropping like flies at the box office this summer. The Duffer Brothers (twins Matt and Ross), who created the show and directed most of the episodes, know what they are doing. Much of their success (at least with semi-nerds like me) is in their skillfully crafted homage to Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, which is as impressive as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011). It’s a little bit E.T. mixed with Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner) too, with nods to numerous Stephen King books.

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time. She reportedly searched eBay, flea markets, rental companies and estate sales to find the vintage boomboxes, telephones, bicycles, cars, movie posters, clothing and home furnishings that give the show its striking ambience. The soundtrack too, is authentic ’80s, with the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” providing a particularly poignant recurring motif.

This is a show that could only be set in the ’80s, when boys could still ride their bikes around town without telling their parents where they were going or when they would be home (and without their parents being investigated by Child Protective Services for letting them do so). It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems, stand up to bullies, navigate relationships, and manage not to get killed while snooping around empty buildings or abandoned rock quarries. Without cellphones, it was also a harder time for parents in many ways. I love how often the characters have to look for a pay phone in order to contact one another, and the reminder of how a mother had to wait anxiously at home beside the landline phone to hear from a late or missing child. Worry and trust went hand in hand back in the ’80s; it was a magical time, and I hope filmmakers continue to remind us of what it was like when kids roamed free.

So how is Netflix able to produce great programming such as this on a subscription model of ten bucks a month for unlimited viewing with little-to-no commercial advertising? There was a time when “made-for-TV” was code for “don’t expect much” from a movie. I expected that would be even truer of “made-for-Netflix,” with its inexpensive business model. Stranger Things is no anomaly, however. Series like House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and the wildly popular (and well-made) Orange is the New Black are just as impressive. I wondered how Netflix could afford such quality while the traditional network shows are becoming markedly worse. So I did some checking around.

It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems.

Netflix started as a home-delivery alternative to Blockbuster. Instead of driving to the local video store, wandering the aisles in search of something to watch on Friday night, and then paying exorbitant late fees when you inevitably forgot to take it back on time (after forgetting even to watch it), customers could create a list of films they wanted to see and have them delivered to their mailbox with a pre-stamped return mailer. When they finished watching the movie, whether it was the next day or two weeks later, they just set it out in the prepaid mailer for the mail carrier to take, and Netflix automatically sent them the next film on the list (or films, depending on their subscription plan). Eventually streaming replaced the need for physical DVDs, and instant gratification was possible.

Netflix had signed a deal with Starz that provided them access to a huge library of current movies, but when that contract ended about five years ago, their selection shrunk significantly overnight. They were still making a ton of money off subscriptions, but they needed to give those subscribers a reason to keep paying each month. Just as they had recognized that the video store model had to change, they realized that their new business model needed to change again. People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow, the monthly streaming subscriptions.

Meanwhile, the television entertainment model was changing too. For decades the three major networks had dominated entertainment television, with cable as the poor stepsister largely providing cheap local-access programming, infomercials and news shows. Then HBO realized they could make inroads into in-home entertainment by providing original programming. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire,and Curb Your Enthusiasm provided top-quality scripts, actors, and production values, while also pushing against FCC rules regarding language and nudity that controlled network programming.

When their contract with Starz ended, Netflix programmers realized that they could continue to spend a ton of money buying existing content, or they could create their own exclusive content. They’ve done both, providing their customers with favorite old network series from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but also commissioning great new programs.

CEO Ted Sarandos was dead set on creating shows on par with those being made for HBO, and he had enough surplus cash to do it. Their first production was House of Cards, an American remake of a British series of the same name, and they managed to land David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl, Se7en) as director and Kevin Spacey as the star. (Netflix also greenlighted Fuller House, so the quality of their programming runs the gamut.).

People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow.

The biggest difference between Netflix programming and HBO programming is that Netflix is straight-to-consumer and subscription based, while HBO continues to go through the local cable TV model and requires a premium upcharge. With cable companies now requiring that customers rent a separate cable box (at $10 or more) for every television in the house, in-home entertainment now costs more than $100 a month. Add the Internet service and landline telephone that are usually bundled into the cable service, plus premium charges for movie channels, sports and HBO, and before long you’re paying closer to $200 a month. Is it any wonder that so many households are ripping out their landlines and cable and opting just for Internet-based entertainment? Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are all subscription-based, on-demand Internet streaming options that offer good quality programming at a more affordable price.

In response to the cable-free movement in many homes, most networks are now offering some form of streaming, including HBO. Of course, if you’re paying $9.99 for Netflix, $14.99 for HBO Now, $99 a year for Amazon Prime Video (a bonus with shipping perks) and a few specialty stations, pretty soon you’re back over $100 for in-home entertainment. Perhaps in the future some of these services will start rebundling, and customers will be able to choose the services they want at a reasonable price. Choice — what a novel idea!

What’s next? It’s hard to say. The Hollywood studios have made a conscious decision to focus entirely on blockbuster franchise films and ignore the smaller, script-driven movies, creating a vacuum that wants to be filled. Netflix has been responding to that vacuum, committing to a six-film contract with comedian Adam Sandler and winning a bidding war on a script called Bright from Max Landis, son of John Landis of Thriller fame and a super-hot screenwriter in LA right now. Bright has a reported $90 million budget, comparable to almost any Hollywood studio product.

Netflix is also experimenting with a new distribution model of purchasing independent films and releasing them in theaters and on Netflix almost simultaneously. Beasts of No Nations with Cary Fukunaga of True Detective fame is one example. It earned almost nothing in the box office — not surprisingly, since a single ticket, small popcorn, and small drink currently costs close to $25. I love the atmosphere of a movie theater, but at those prices I’m starting to think it’s time to convert the basement into a home entertainment center.

I’m also concerned about how this new model will affect the careers of fledgling directors, since my understanding is that they earn very little, if anything, from individual views on Netflix. How will new filmmakers be able to continue their craft in the future if “success” means a distribution deal with one week of ticket sales in the theaters and an eternity of streaming on Netflix? I have hope that the market will solve this problem, just as it is solving the problem of outrageously expensive monopoly cable service. In the meantime, if Orange is the New Black, then Netflix is the new Cable. And I think that’s a good thing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Stranger Things," directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Netflix, 2016, eight 50-minute episodes.



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Star Wars Rewakens

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Unless you’ve been frozen in a block of carbonite for the past year, you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise, opened last weekend to the largest box office in film history, pulling in nearly $250 million in North America alone, and over half a billion dollars worldwide. Stormtroopers trooped into selected theaters on opening night for pre-screening festivities and fans dressed in costume to celebrate the return of the “real” Star Wars. (Many fans refuse to acknowledge the disappointing prequels.) Actors, director, and film pundits were interviewed on television and in print for weeks leading up to the release. Hour-long specials chronicled the history of the franchise and the making of this film. Jimmy Fallon watched, aghast, as guest Harrison Ford tore apart a collectible 1977 Han Solo doll (er, action figure) on the Tonight Show. It has been a spectacle worthy of the Roman Colosseum — or Boba Fett’s next dinner party.

So let’s start by addressing the first question reviewers are asked whenever an overhyped movie comes to town: is it any good?

Fox Business host Neil Cavuto spent an entire show last week proclaiming the film to be “stupid” and “nonsense.” To be fair, I think Cavuto was just being contrarian and having a good time in a spontaneous interchange with Bobby Jindal. Nevertheless, my advice to Cavuto is, stick with your day job and leave the night job to film lovers. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is spectacular.

Star Wars was a once upon a time, a Saturday matinee cliffhanger, an old-fashioned romance, and a cowboy western all rolled into one, dressed up in spacesuits and alien life forms.

Cavuto — and fans — had reason to be skeptical about this latest offering. The original trilogy was a masterpiece of mythic storytelling combined with groundbreaking special effects that changed the direction of action films. Who can forget the first sight of that gigantic spaceship scrolling across the screen, looming ever larger and bringing with it an ever-increasing sense of wonder and foreboding? Before we could even think, “How did they do that?” we were drawn into the story that took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It was a once upon a time, a Saturday matinee cliffhanger, an old-fashioned romance, and a cowboy western all rolled into one, dressed up in spacesuits and alien life forms. When the ending credits for Return of the Jedi rolled six years later, we were satisfied, but immediately hungry for more. We wanted to know: how did Chewbacca and Han meet? Why were Luke and Leia separated at birth? What happened to change the shining Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, into the Dark Knight, Darth Vader? Fans wrote their own stories, made their own movies, and longed for the official prequel.

So George Lucas complied. When he decided to create a trilogy of prequels that would “explain it all,” audiences salivated with anticipation. As the master filmmaker who could do no wrong, especially when he followed Star Wars by teaming up with Steven Spielberg for the Indiana Jones trilogy, Lucas was given carte blanche over the script and the filming. And the trilogy bombed. Instead of showing us the backstories of the characters we loved, Lucas introduced a whole new cast of characters, tinged with heavy-handed politicking and a nonsensical romance that was simply unbelievable — in the non-hyperbolic sense of the word. (See my review in Liberty.)

What was missing? In my opinion it was Marcia Lucas, who was no longer married to George and thus was no longer guiding the story from behind the scenes. Marcia edited the original Star Wars films and won an Oscar for it in 1977. By contrast, George has yet to earn a competitive Oscar. Lucas deserves all the credit for his creative vision and his skybreaking technology of Star Wars, and is responsible for the way every action film is made today. Kudos to him for all he has accomplished. But he needed someone who would nurture the characters. He found that someone in director J.J. Abrams.

Nurtured himself by Steven Spielberg, Abrams knows how to make an action film exciting. He also knows how to create an homage that can stand on its own. Super 8 (2011), in which a group of young teens saves the world while making a home movie, is probably the best example. It is made in the style of Abrams’ mentor, Steven Spielberg, and contains a plethora of “Easter egg” references to Spielberg’s trademark moments, yet it stands entirely on its own as an exciting, well-made film. (See my review.) Similarly, in The Force Awakens Abrams provides audiences with ample nods to the original trilogy, including some sets and scenes that are nearly identical. Yet the homage never becomes distracting or overbearing. We simply enjoy the sense of nostalgia as we are carried along by the story. My grandson was so enthralled that he forgot to eat his popcorn until the movie was over!

Marcia Lucas edited the original Star Wars films and won an Oscar for it in 1977. By contrast, George has yet to earn a competitive Oscar.

The story is a simple, classic quest: the rebel forces must find Luke Skywalker before the Empire, now called the First Order, can reach him. Within this overarching plotline we also find a story that focuses on friendship and family, and a theme that resonates with loyalty, redemption, and the freedom to choose one’s path. The characters care about each other, and because of that, we care about them too. There’s nothing stupid or nonsensical about that, Mr. Cavuto.

Is The Force Awakens a sequel or a remake? It takes place 30 or so years after Return of the Jedi, and Han, Luke, and Leia are senior members of the ongoing resistance. Sequel, right? Yet in many ways the story is a remake of the original: as stormtroopers attack, a droid is entrusted with an urgent message. A trio of rebels — one woman, two men — travels through the galaxy in the ”piece of junk” Millennium Falcon on a quest to save the world. Once again we are treated to wide vistas of strange, majestic landscapes through which our heroes trudge with tireless resolve on their way to new adventures. We see sets and scenes that seem familiar, and some that are identical to those that appear in previous films. Abrams even casts rebel pilots who look almost exactly like the pilots in the original film 40 years ago. Some reviewers have called this repetition “derivative,” but I consider it thematically essential. The message is subtle but clear: history repeats itself. We must be constantly on guard and ready to fight against the tyrannical forces that would enslave or destroy us. Each victory is but a respite before the next onslaught against our freedom.

Characters in film are often defined by the costumes they wear, and the costuming is outstanding. As before, officers in the First Order wear caps and epaulets reminiscent of the Third Reich, reminding us of the tyranny of empire-building. Their textures are heavy, dark, and oppressive. By contrast, members of the resistance wear natural fabrics and leathers. Rey (Daisy Ridley) wears a tunic with soft, feminine ruching held in place (and out of the way) by rustic leather straps. Her costume reminds us that she is a woman, but she is girded to fight. She carries the weight of the resistance in her careworn eyes and doesn’t have time to worry about holding her own against “male privilege.” I suspect her name (which means “king” in Spanish) will be revealed as significant in a future episode. Ridley is simply perfect in the role.

History repeats itself. We must be constantly on guard and ready to fight against the tyrannical forces that would enslave or destroy us.

Finn (John Boyega) is another character defined by his costume; when he puts on the leather jacket of the rebel Poe (Oscar Isaac), he also puts on Poe’s mission.

Unfortunately, Boyega doesn’t put on Poe’s personality. I was disappointed by his bland acting — no charisma. I also wanted Carrie Fisher to open her mouth a little bit more when she spoke, but I had the same problem with her in the original Star Wars In fact, I had to watch it a third time before I could decipher all the dialogue. But these are niggling complaints. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a triumphant return of the Jedi. I can’t want for the next installment.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams. Disney, 2015. 135 minutes.



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Marooned on Mars

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The final story in Ray Bradbury’s collection The Martian Chronicles is called “The Million Year Picnic.” In it, an American family escapes the nuclear destruction of the earth and lands on Mars, where the father tells his children, “Tomorrow you will see the Martians.” The next day he takes them on a picnic near an ancient canal, where they look into the water and see their own reflections. Simply by moving there and colonizing, they have become Martians. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes a similar point when he is stranded on Mars in Ridley Scott’s The Martian: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.”

The Martian is a tense, intelligent, and engaging story about an astronaut who is left for dead when his fellow crew members are forced to make an emergency launch to escape a destructive sandstorm. Knocked out rather than killed, he regains consciousness and discovers that he is utterly alone on the planet. Solar panels can provide him with renewable energy, oxygen, heat, and air pressure. But the next mission to Mars isn’t due for another five years, and he has enough food to last just 400 days. What can he do?

As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome.

There is something fascinating about this storyline of being marooned or abandoned and left entirely to one’s own devices, whether the protagonist be Robinson Crusoe on his desert island; The 33 (2015) workers, trapped in a Chilean copper mine; Tom Hanks, Cast Away (2000) in the Pacific; the Apollo 13 (1995) crew, trapped in their capsule; Sandra Bullock, lost in space (Gravity, 2013);or even Macaulay Culkin, left Home Alone (1990), just to name a few. These films allow us to consider what we would do in such a situation. Could we survive?

I well remember the time I was left behind at a gas station at the age of ten on the way to a family camping trip. I had been riding in the camper of the pickup truck while my parents and sister rode in the cab. I had stepped out of the camper to tell my mother I was going to the bathroom, but before I could knock on her window, my father shoved the transmission into gear and started driving away. I didn’t know where we were, where we were going, or how I would contact my parents after they left without me. I was even more afraid of strangers than I was of being lost. It would be at least 300 miles before they stopped again for gas, and even then, they might not look into the camper until nighttime, and how would they find me after that? All of this went through my mind in a flash. Then I leapt onto the rear bumper of the truck as it eased past me and clung tightly to the handle of the camper.

I was hidden from sight by the trailer we were pulling behind us. No one would see me there, and if I jumped off or lost my balance, I would be crushed by the trailer. As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome. I managed to pry open the door of the camper, squeeze through the narrow opening, and collapse onto the floor, pulling the door shut behind me. Instead of being frightened by the experience, I was exhilarated by my successful maneuver and problem-solving skills. I could do anything! My only regret was that no one saw my amazing feat.

One of the reasons we enjoy movies like The Martian is that they allow us to participate with the protagonist in solving the problem of survival. Rather than curl up and wait to die, à la Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (honestly — five years on a tropical island and he’s still living in a cave, talking to a volleyball? He hasn’t even made a shelter or a hammock?), Watney assesses his supplies and figures out how to survive until the next mission arrives. A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does. He makes the difficult decision to cut up some of his precious potatoes for seed, knowing that his only chance for survival is to grow more food. He figures out how to make water, how to extend his battery life, how to deal with the brutally freezing temperatures.

He also keeps a witty video journal, through which he seems to speak directly to the audience. This allows us to remain intensely engaged in what he is doing and avoids the problem encountered in Robert Redford’s 2013 castaway film All is Lost, where perhaps three sentences are uttered in the entire dreary film. Welike Watney’s upbeat attitude, his irreverent sense of humor, his physical and mental prowess, and his relentless determination to survive. We try to anticipate his next move.

A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does.

The visual effects are stunning. Many of them would not have been possible even three years ago, before the innovations created for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). The techniques used to create weightlessness as the astronauts slither through the space station are especially impressive; we simply forget that they aren’t really weightless. The unfamiliar landscape — the red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where the outdoor scenes were filmed — is a bit reminiscent of a futuristic Monument Valley. It contributes to the western-hero sensibility while creating a feeling that we really are on Mars. I’m not sure the science works in the dramatic ending, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The Martian is smart, entertaining, and manages to work without a single antagonist — nary a nasty businessman or greedy bureaucrat can be found. If that’s what our future holds, I’m all for it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott. Scott Free Productions, 20th Century Fox, 2015, 142 minutes.



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Pulp

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When I was in grade school, a neighbor had an unfinished basement room, all studs and drywall, filled with paperback science fiction books and magazines. I was given free rein to browse and borrow. It was a treasure trove.

Among the things I read was the 1951 short story, The Marching Morons, by Cyril M. Kornbluth. It takes place in a distant future where, because of adverse genetic selection, the average IQ has fallen to 45.

A detail of the story that has stayed with me was the marketing of cars in that imaginary distant future. The cars weren’t very fast or powerful, so they were fitted out with electronic sound effects that made them sound like rolling thunder.

Here's the short story.

Reading the Washington Post the other day, I stumbled upon this:

For the 2015 Mustang EcoBoost, Ford sound engineers and developers worked on an “Active Noise Control” system that amplifies the engine’s purr through the car speakers . . .

Ford said in a statement that the vintage V-8 engine boom “has long been considered the mating call of Mustang,” but added that the newly processed pony-car sound is “athletic and youthful,” “a more refined growl” with “a low-frequency sense of powerfulness.”

Here's the link to the piece.

Welcome to the future.




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Okies in Outer Space

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After last year’s Gravity introduced technological advances that led to cinematic magic on the screen, I couldn’t wait to see Interstellar, this year’s much-heralded space flick. Helmed by master action director Christopher Nolan and with a cast led by last year’s Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, it had every reason to be, well, stellar. That it has taken me two weeks to write this review might give you a hint as to my reaction.

Interstellar is set in a not-so-dystopian future when the military industrial complex has been disbanded, machines and computers are no longer being manufactured, the space program has been closed for refusing to drop bombs, and textbooks proclaim that the lunar landing was a hoax. Anarchy has not led to chaos, however. No dictator enforces tyrannical rule, nor have marauding gangs taken over à la Mad Max. Neighbors play baseball, farmers plant corn, and life seems idyllic — except for the fact that corn is the only crop that will still grow, and gigantic clouds of dirt rivaling those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s regularly blow through town. Yet no one on earth seems remotely aware of the impending extinction or even has the gumption to move to another part of the country. At least the Okies packed the rocking chair on top of the truck and moved to California to find better fields and opportunities.

I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance. But that part of the film is short-lived.

A few souls do remember the old days. Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer who used to be a pilot, wistfully laments to his children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet), “There was a time when we were explorers and pioneers. Now we’re just caretakers.” When Murphy’s teacher calls Coop to task for telling Murphy that the moon landing really did happen, Coop rightly asserts his authority as a father to teach her what he knows to be true. Freedom of thought, if not intellectual honesty, seems reasonably alive and well in the future, according to this film. As I settled in to watch it unfold, I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance.

But that part of the film is short-lived. Through pseudo-supernatural means, Coop and Murph are led to an underground research lab where former NASA rocket scientists have been working on a project to discover a compatible planet in outer space. They hope to transport the remnant of humankind there. Within hours Cooper is pressed into service as the only pilot capable of flying the rocket, and a couple of days later he is blasting off. Tearfully he hugs his children goodbye, knowing that, because of the effects of traveling beyond the speed of light, he is likely to be much younger than they are when he returns. Murphy is understandably despondent and refuses to say goodbye even as Coop drives away.

Murphy’s refusal to talk to her father is the only dramatic conflict we encounter inthe first half of this nearly three-hour film. No one is hoarding or looting, and everyone seems calm. “The last to starve will be the first to suffocate,” someone shrugs about their future, but no one seems to be in a panic about it. They aren’t even motivated to move to a less dusty area where the climate might still be conducive to agriculture. Without dramatic conflict, the film has about as much tension as a science documentary.

That all changes in the second half of the film, when our space travelers encounter catastrophic forces of nature, mortal combat with crazed enemies, devastating rocket explosions, split-second rescues, and a time-travel sequence that, while implausible, is inventive, suspenseful, and exciting. For the last hour of the film I was right where I wanted to be, on the edge of my seat. But it took way too long to get there.

Ultimately Interstellar is more about an irrational father-daughter dynamic than it is about space travel or saving the world. It suffers from serious plot holes, unresolved character discrepancies, and weak dramatic conflict. The special effects are pretty special, and the second half makes the film worth seeing once. But I wouldn’t want to sit through the first half twice.


Editor's Note: Review of "Interstellar," directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 169 minutes at well below the speed of light.



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Protecting the Universe

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Do we really need another movie about superheroes protecting the universe from power-hungry villains? Probably not. And yet here we are with another space western, and this one is pretty good.

Guardians of the Galaxy is about as formulaic as they come. The comparison with the first Star Wars is inevitable: with an earnest young protagonist (Chris Pratt) who loses his family early in the film and a sexy female protagonist (Zoe Saldana) who can hold her own in a fight. It sports a giant, loveable Wookiee-like creature (a tall tree voiced by Vin Diesel) who can only be understood by his cynical, wisecracking Han Solo-like best friend (a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper). Guardians has also its share of eccentric intergalactic traders, thugs, and black marketeers as well as bad guys who blow up planets and want to control the galaxy.

The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well.

Nevertheless, there is something fun and endearing about Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters are reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise, but without being a parody or a carbon copy. It’s more like the Star Wars sequel we’ve been longing to see, and it’s backed by ’80s songs that will make you want to run out and buy the soundtrack. (In fact, the soundtrack album, “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1,” reached number 1 on the US Billboard chart.)

Peter Quill (Pratt) is a space-age scavenger-for-hire who was abducted by aliens on the night of his mother’s death. He works for low-level space criminals, drives a tricked-out muscle car of a spaceship, and still listens to the ’80s music mix his mother made for him just before she died. More Han Solo than Luke Skywalker, he faces danger with sassy aplomb and power-kicks aliens in time to the tunes blasting from his vintage Sony Walkman. His life is endangered when he takes possession of a mysterious orb that is wanted by numerous sinister buyers, and he ends up joining forces with Groot (the tree character), Rocket (the raccoon), Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) to prevent the orb from falling into the wrong hands.

That’s about it. The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well, largely because of the chemistry of the characters Quill and Rocket and because of that perfect soundtrack. Director James Gunn explained the importance of the music to the film and the characters: "The music . . . is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that Quill is a real person from planet Earth who's just like you and me, except that he's in this big outer space adventure."

Yep — just like you and me. Guarding the galaxy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy," directed by James Gunn. Columbia Pictures/Walt Disney/ Marvel Studios, 2014, 121 minutes.



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The Road to Potential

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How I hate the word “potential”! While acknowledging innate abilities with faint praise, it reeks of withering disappointment, talents wasted, opportunities lost.

Transcendence is a film with tremendous potential.

It begins with a talented cast of discriminating actors that includes Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and Paul Bettany. (OK, scratch Morgan Freeman from the list of “discriminating actors.” Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become as ubiquitous as Michael Caine.) Add a postapocalyptic setting, an army of zombified robotic post-humans, a love story that transcends death, and the time-honored “collision between mankind and technology.” Mix in some dialogue about challenging authority and questioning the meaning of life, and create a metaphor suggesting the thirst for power in the form of the World Wide Web. It seems like the perfect formula for an exciting sci-fi thriller.

Yet Transcendence barely gets off the ground. The story, about terrorists who attack the world’s computer hubs simultaneously in order to stop the Internet, should be powerfully engaging, but it lacks any building of tension or suspense. Instead it is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a computer programmer working on ways to heal the planet through nanotechnology. When terrorists attack his computer lab and infect him with deadly radiation poison, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his research partner Max (Paul Bettany) convince him to let them upload his consciousness onto a hard drive that will allow his sentient self to continue to live within the machine. It’s an interesting concept that ought to cause one to reflect on what makes us human: is it the physical body of flesh and bones that can move and act? Or is it the non-physical collection of memories, thoughts, and personality? Many people have had their heads cryogenically frozen after death, in hopes that someday their minds can be restored within a synthetic body and they can regain life. But that isn’t what this movie is about.

“Transcendence” is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

The plan works, and Will speaks from the computer screen after his death. However, Max immediately and inexplicably regrets having uploaded Will to the machine, so he joins forces with the terrorists (who also join forces with the government — it’s hard to keep all the factions and their motivations straight) to stop Will from doing what he was uploaded to do. Meanwhile, Evelyn joins forces with Will and together they build a solar power grid in an isolated Nevada desert to give Will enough juice to mingle with every scintilla of the Internet.

Yes, this makes Will omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. And that’s a definition of God, right? Will is treated like God’s evil twin, set on sucking up all the power in the universe (there’s that metaphor of the power grid.) But he doesn’t do anything evil. He doesn’t steal power from others; he creates his own from the sun — and he pays the Nevada residents a good wage to work for him. He doesn’t kill anyone, destroy anything, or even growl menacingly. In fact, he uses his power to refine his work in nanotechnology, and soon he is able to heal the blind, make the lame walk, and restore life to those who have been killed. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this is godlike too.) As they are healed, his new followers become like him — imbued with the Internet and able to communicate with Will through his spirit — that is, the Cloud.

This storyline has the potential for being eerie and scary, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers; but Will’s followers don’t do anything wrong either, and they aren’t at all zombie-like. They are just humans who once were disabled and now can see, walk, lift, run, hear, and produce. How is that different from living with a pacemaker or a titanium hip, and carrying around a smart phone that keeps one constantly connected to the Internet? Nevertheless, the government is determined to take them out, simply because they are now created in Will’s image and have the ability to communicate worldwide.

All of this has the potential for philosophical discussion, but I had to use all my creativity as a literature professor to reach the potential message I’ve described here. The message is beyond subtle — so subtle, in fact, that I think it went over the director’s own head. I’m not sure what he intended to suggest, except possibly that the collision between mankind and technology is usually good for a studio green light. I doubt that he was even aware of the potential metaphor or deeper meaning of the film he created.

Ah. There’s that word again. “Potential.” A film that had transcendent potential is instead fraught with withering disappointment, wasted talent, and lost opportunities. Insomniacs will love it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Transcendence," directed by Wally Pfister. Alcon Entertainment, 2014, 119 minutes.



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Passing the Promethean Torch

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The affinity between science fiction and libertarian thought is longstanding (think Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson — or, for that matter, Ayn Rand), so that when the Prometheus Award was created in 1979 to honor the best pro-freedom science-fiction novel of the year, it was an acknowledgment rather than an establishment of a trend. Each year the Libertarian Futurist Society gives out the Prometheus Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and if the quality of the winners varies widely, year to year, well, that's a problem faced by all yearly awards. (To give the LFS full credit, "None of the Above" is always an option, but has carried the ballot only once.) Although this year's winner has now been announced, I beg the reader's indulgence for a few paragraphs; please endeavor to retain a certain feeling of suspense as I review this year's five nominees.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian. Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, is a well-crafted technothriller set in a near future in which unmanned drones are just a bit more scarily effective than they are today — and just a bit more scary is very scary indeed. The novel uses the tried-and-true technique of beginning with a broad selection of seemingly unrelated scenes, each well-described, and zeroing in on two main characters. In skilled hands, there is probably no thriller formula more satisfying. The mostly veiled but realistic villains, the horror of swarming drones, a satisfying dose of real science (including passages on "one of the few extirpator species on earth," weaver ants), all enhance this well-paced and ultimately quite thrilling thriller. Kill Decision is certainly a cautionary tale about the abuses of power in a technological age, but as most of the good guys are working for the government, and the bad guys are probably representative of one or more multinational corporations, it would be difficult to see it as reflecting libertarian ideas. But pro-human it certainly is.

The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

The other technothriller on the list, Arctic Rising, does, late in the novel, lay in a sudden vision of libertarian conclaves at the North Pole. But the vast majority of the novel's pages revel in nonstop action sequences that leave little room for reflection. Arctic Rising is told in the first person by Anika Duncan, an airship pilot; the action begins as she is shot out of the sky, for reasons unknown. Her narrative voice, though neither sophisticated nor literary, is fully adequate to the job, with just enough self-reflection to avoid dullness. The near-future setup is fun and intriguing — global warming has melted the ice caps to the point where Greenland and Baffin Island boom with development — and the action occurs in the newly thawed northern waters of the Northwest Passage. Author Tobias S. Buckell delivers a surfeit of action as well as an appropriately complex climax. An added pleasure is the pair of contrasting villains, one surprisingly sympathetic, the other the reverse, but equally convinced he is right. The bare bones of the thriller formula do for some reason show through the constant dangers, reducing the desired illusion of reality. But then thriller aficionados are known for their willingness to suspend disbelief.

Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, the only young-adult novel among this year's nominees, is also the only one that does not depend on violence to provide its kicks. Kudos for that. Pirate Cinema is set in so near a future it is just barely science fiction at all. Like most of Doctorow's recent novels, it pits freedom-loving youths against an alliance of evil corporations and intrusive government.

Copyright issues are central to Pirate Cinema, and it's not hard to discover what Doctorow's own position is: he's a supporter of (and former participator in) the Creative Commons initiative, and his approach is to make his novels available digitally for free, but to continue to publish and sell both print and ebook editions in the ordinary way.

For the most part, the novel focuses narrowly on the plight of 16-year-old Trent McCauley, whose crime is sampling old movies in order to assemble his own pastiches. It might seem hard to muster the necessary moral self-righteousness on this issue; the right to sample copyrighted material for non-commercial use is not exactly a candidate for the Bill of Rights. Incredibly, though, according to Doctorow's foreword, Britain's new Digital Economy Act "allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement." That definitely raises the stakes, in today's interconnected world.

Doctorow is a skilled writer, and he manages to make Trent McCauley's first-person narration both authentic and mostly interesting — no mean trick. The plot winds and twists appropriately, with first love fitting nicely with political considerations. The ending follows Doctorow's established formula, but that's all right; the reader would be disappointed with any other denouement.

We jump now to the farther future for two sequels to previous Award winners. It is so very hard for sequels to live up to their progenitors . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, which won the Prometheus Award in 2011, is an unusual genre-blending mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Most of the fun of this, the original book, lay in its imaginative worldbuilding, complete with a portrait of an advanced, stateless society. But in its sequel, Darkship Renegades, the worldbuilding is done, and the reader is left with a first-person narration of the heroine's ongoing perils. Athena Sinistra's immaturity and lack of self-restraint, her obsession with looks and sexual attraction, soon turn what was space opera into something more like soap opera. And the stateless society itself seems to have also lost its balance, being unable to cope with the emergence of a monopolistic "Energy Board." The climax of the novel features a shootout in a crowded meeting hall, hardly the most appealing portrait of problem-solving in a supposedly advanced libertarian society.

Dani and Eytan Kollins' novel The Unincorporated Man, Prometheus Award winner of 2010, told the story of Justin Cord, a self-made billionaire who, on being reawakened three hundred years in the future, refuses to go along with the personal incorporation that is part of the new society's norms. The conflict is made more interesting because this incorporation of the individual, in which outsiders (including the state) come to own more shares than the person, seems in many ways a less onerous burden than the open-ended taxation that exists today. The "bad guys," defending a relatively benign status quo, elicit the reader's sympathy, even as we root for Cord's intransigent stand.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian.

No such nuance disturbs the black-and-white spacescape of The Unincorporated Future, the fourth and last in what turned out to be an "Unincorporated" series. (I have not read the intervening two novels, The Unincorporated War and The Unincorporated Woman.) Whereas the first novel was the story of a fight for freedom, the fourth is mostly just a fight. The unincorporated trend, though banned on Earth, has flourished on the asteroids and beyond, and the novel begins in the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war as Earth tries to subdue their rebellion. It is now a given that the Outer Alliance represents the good guys, and Earth the bad guys, and with that backdrop let the space opera begin.

War is of course a great destroyer of freedom (my son maintains that the opposite of war is the free market), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes that animated the first book are missing here. Instead we have strong leaders, making on the one side painful decisions, on the other cold-blooded decisions, with both kinds costing millions of lives at a time. The ensuing space opera is entertaining enough, and the sequel is perhaps more consistent in tone and smoother in plot than the first novel in the series. But the issue of freedom has been left well in the background.

***

In the past, the Libertarian Futurist Society has shown a commendable willingness to honor novels that are not overtly libertarian. The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

This year's Best Novel award-winner, to be presented on August 30 at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas, is Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has won the award once before, in 2009, for his novel Little Brother, in which the villain was the bureaucratic Department of Homeland Security run amok. Although Pirate Cinema is a more narrowly focused work, libertarians should enjoy its youthful, anarchic spirit, part of Doctorow's ongoing novelistic campaign against conformity and coercion.

Easily beating out "None of the Above."




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The Never-Ending Trek

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Wookiee vs. Trekkie: The friendly competition between Star Wars and Star Trek aficionados has raged for decades. Star Trek was more scientific and cool, emphasizing the technology of "Beam me up" rather than the intuition of "Feel the force." Even their goals were different: the cast of Star Trek was on a mission merely to observe the universe, while the cast of Star Wars was out to save it. But Star Trek's "Prime Directive" demonstrates democracy at its worst: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." No wonder I've never been a Trekkie.

The latest episode of Star Trek — Star Trek: Into Darkness — is a bit of a muddle between these two fan-chises: some characters early in the film look and talk like Ewoks, a la Return of the Jedi; they meet in a jazzy bar populated by strange rubber-bodied creatures a la Star Wars: and the film begins with our heroes fleeing alien creatures on an alien world without our knowing why, a la The Empire Strikes Back. James Kirk (Chris Pine) even looks a lot like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the second two Star Wars films, after Hamill's aquiline nose became pugged from a car accident he had between films.

The technique of beginning a film at the climax of a storyline that the audience hasn’t seen is recognized as Cubby Broccoli's trademark opening for the James Bond films, and it’s used in this movie too. It succeeds in giving the audience an early adrenaline rush. Just five minutes into the film we see Spock falling into a churning volcano. (Hmmm. Spock is a Vulcan. Vulcan is the god of volcanoes and the forge . . . shouldn't he have felt right at home there?) After his dramatic rescue (no spoiler alert here, since this happens ten minutes into the film), that storyline ends, and we settle into the central conflict for this film.

In this episode a former Starfleet commander (Benedict Cumberbatch) has turned rogue (a la Darth Vader . . . there they go again!), and the crew of the Enterprise is enlisted to go after him. That's about all you need to know. There's a lot of warp speed action, dodging of asteroids, climbing around on cool CGI-generated equipment, and fist-to-fist fighting — love how these Star Trek films come full circle and use brawn over brain or technology when people are fighting; Star Wars still goes in for those laser swords.

The Star Trek films were popular in the ’80s and ’90s, but they started to wear thin, as the original actors started to wax larger, both in age and in heft. The only way to continue the franchise was to turn from sequel to prequel. That worked extremely well in Star Trek (2009). It was fun to ooh and ahh over the excellent casting selections and see the back stories of the characters who have become a part of our cultural fabric for more than four decades. And director J.J. Abrams successfully repackaged Star Trek from a cerebral exercise in philosophy to an action-packed sci-fi adventure.

It was also cool in the 2009 movie to see the young Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) fall in love with the young Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). For nearly 50 years the biggest challenge for the Star Trek crew has not been fighting Klingons but trying to get Mr. Spock to feel and express emotion. Spock is a Vulcan, and Vulcans don't have feelings (odd that the god of fire would be chosen as the name for the passionless planet, isn't it?). But Spock is also half human, and in every film there is the possibility that his human heart might kick in and overpower his logic. All of that has happened in previous episodes, however, so that too is starting to wear thin. We get it: with enough provocation, Mr. Spock can cry. He can kiss. He can bicker with his girlfriend. Enflamed by a desire for revenge, he can even beat an enemy to a pulp with his bare hands. He's becoming positively touchy-feely.

Star Trek fans love this movie. Reviewers seem to like it too. I thought it was pretty good, for what it is. But my patience for the whole Star Trek franchise is starting to wear thin. Or maybe I'm just waxing old. I'd rather just see a movie that boldly goes where no man has gone before.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," directed by J.J. Abrams. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 129 minutes.



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