Science Fiction

Arrival made me cry.

Not because it was sad, but because it gave me more feels than my lizard brain could handle in one sitting. As a consequence, I spent most of its closing 10 minutes with tears in my eyes and a big, goofy grin on my face.

Then, as my wife and I walked out of the theater—both nattering on about our favorite scenes—I experienced that magical sensation that great art can engender: the feeling that the universe had expanded while we were in that darkened room, and that the saturation dial on life had been turned up a notch (or two).

I don’t want to give anything away about the movie, so this really isn’t a review. And, in any case, I think you’re better off going into it knowing as little as possible (a somewhat ironic statement, but you won’t understand why until after you’ve seen the film). Still, if you don’t want to take my word for it, Kenneth Turan at the Washington Post offers a good write-up that doesn’t reveal too much. Here’s a snippet:

“One of the most satisfying things about Denis Villeneuve’s elegant, involving ‘Arrival’ is that it is simultaneously old and new, revisiting many of these alien-invasion conventions but with unexpected intelligence, visual style and heart.”

If you have time this weekend, please consider going to see Arrival. I saw Doctor Strange last weekend and enjoyed it, but, if I’m being honest, I’d have to acknowledge that if you’ve seen one Marvel origin-story movie, you’ve seen them all.

Arrival, on the other hand, is something we don’t see very often—a film with the production values and star power of a blockbuster that somehow manages to retain the intimacy and soul of an indy. It’s my favorite movie of the year so far, edging just ahead of the excellent and criminally under-seen Hell or High Water. These are the types of movies we say we wish Hollywood would make more of, but they won’t fund them if we won’t prove to the number crunchers that there’s a market for well-made films that aren’t afraid to provoke thought while providing entertainment.

Update: I forgot to mention that Arrival is based on a short story by acclaimed author Ted Chiang titled Story of Your Life. It’s a terrifically poignant piece that you can easily tear through in one sitting. I know I suggested above that it would be best to go into the movie knowing as little as possible, but I had read Chiang’s story before seeing Arrival and still found myself on the edge of my seat. If anything, I felt that the movie enriched my understanding of Chiang’s text. All that being said, I still think it would be best to go into the movie in as “unspoiled” a state as possible—in other words, do as I say, not as I do. Then, absolutely give Chiang’s Story of Your Life a read.  It’s currently available on Amazon and the iBooks Store as part of an updated anthology of his works titled, appropriately enough, Arrival.

Go see Ex Machina

Just got back from seeing Ex Machina, the directorial debut from British filmmaker Alex Garland, and my mind is racing. Here’s the trailer:

I went into the movie knowing very little about it beyond the most basic tenets of its premise, and it was great fun to watch it all unfold. I’m going to refrain from a review to give you an opportunity to experience the same sense of discovery. But if you absolutely feel the need to learn more before deciding whether or not to see the film, I’d recommend the critique from New Scientist magazine, which was written by Anil Seth, a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex. Here’s a snippet from his review—and, don’t worry, it’s entirely spoiler free:

It’s a rare thing to see a movie about science that takes no prisoners intellectually. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is just that: a stylish, spare and cerebral psycho-techno-thriller, which gives a much-needed shot in the arm for smart science fiction.

So, in short, if you have even a passing interest in the influence of technology on culture and humanity, see Ex Machina. And, after you’ve seen it, let me know if you think it’s a brilliant piece of speculative fiction or a documentary sent to us from the near future. Shoot your thoughts to @edotkim on Twitter, and we can each try to determine whether the other is human or machine.

Interstellar review

I saw Interstellar last night and can’t get it out of my head.

First, should you see it? My answer to that question is easy: Yes. If you have even a remote interest in cinema, Interstellar is worth watching in a theatre on the biggest screen you can find. The tougher question is whether you’ll enjoy it. The current 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is indicative of the mixed opinions of professional reviewers, and I can understand their lack of consensus. Many movie-goers will actively dislike the film, while many others will love it—very few will fall in between. Such a dichotomy of opinion is generally reserved for those rare films that cloak a deeply personal story within the gilded folds of a grand epic, and that’s Interstellar to a T.

Two reviews that I think fairly and effectively encapsulate the positive and negative views of the film are from Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times (positive) and Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post (negative). Here are key excerpts from their reviews...

Turan: Much less of a B picture dramatically than last year’s “Gravity,” [Interstellar’s] exploration of the ways in which love, mendacity and the core nature of humanity are informed by the physical and psychological demands of outer space ensures that this story will stay with you, its themes taking permanent residence at the back of your mind.
Hornaday: Once Cooper and his colleagues cross back and forth between the space-time continuum, “Interstellar” falls into the talky trap, with the filmmaker trying to overcome plodding, drearily explanatory passages with Hans Zimmer’s basso profundo organ-music score and pummeling sound effects.

Indeed, your opinion of Hans Zimmer—and particularly his contributions to previous Nolan films—is probably the best indicator of how you’ll react to Interstellar. If you liked his work in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, chances are better than good that you’ll enjoy Interstellar. But if you found the scores for those films overbearing, you’ll likely share Hornaday’s less positive take. And she is by no means out on a limb: Complaints that the dialogue in Interstellar is too often overshadowed by its score and sound effects are already widespread.

Perhaps I’m being a Nolan apologist here, but, after seeing the film, I’m fairly certain that what some are describing as sound mix issues were actually conscious directorial decisions. In the scenes in which the score washes over the dialogue, the intent is not to convey information through language, it’s to engender feeling through a combination of sight, sound and the physicality of over 10,000 watts of audio power vibrating the air around you. Nolan seems to hint at this in a fantastic interview with The Guardian:

“What I’ve found is, people who let my films wash over them—who don’t treat it like a crossword puzzle, or like there is a test afterwards—they get the most out of the film,” he said. “I have done various things in my career, including, with Memento, telling a very simple story in an incredibly complex way. Inception is a very complicated story told in a very complicated way. Interstellar is very upfront about being simple as a story.”

The Guardian piece also discloses an interesting tidbit: “No green screens were used during Interstellar, the majority of which was shot with real locations, miniatures, or sets using massive projectors.” Though highly unusual for our modern era of film-making, I think Nolan’s insistence on physical models and practical effects is of a piece with his desire to make audiences feel his films rather than simply viewing them. The “reality” of his sets and scenes coaxes the viewer into letting our guard down—into suspending disbelief just enough to allow the otherwise unbelievable things we’re seeing scratch beneath the surface of conscious thought to touch our emotional cores.

At left is a bust of Costanza Bonarelli by Gianlorenzo Bernini, circa 1635—a masterwork of representational sculpture. At right is a sculpture from Pablo Picasso’s Cubist period called  Head of a Woman , circa 1909. Both are powerful and affecting works, but they deliver their impact in fundamentally different ways. Whereas a movie like  Gone Girl  benefits from David Fincher’s Bernini-esque hyper-reality,  Interstellar  is more in the vein of Picasso’s visceral symbolism.

At left is a bust of Costanza Bonarelli by Gianlorenzo Bernini, circa 1635—a masterwork of representational sculpture. At right is a sculpture from Pablo Picasso’s Cubist period called Head of a Woman, circa 1909. Both are powerful and affecting works, but they deliver their impact in fundamentally different ways. Whereas a movie like Gone Girl benefits from David Fincher’s Bernini-esque hyper-reality, Interstellar is more in the vein of Picasso’s visceral symbolism.

I know I’m getting pretty highfalutin here, but the best way I can think of to describe Interstellar is to say that it is to conventional cinema as abstraction is to representational art. Both are mechanisms that humanity has developed to communicate across time; one takes a more literal approach to that communication, while the other is more visceral. If you go into Interstellar looking for that more literal A leads to B leads to C form of storytelling, you’ll leave disappointed. But if you open yourself up to the film as something you process with your feelings as much as your intellect, I think you’ll find it a deeply rewarding experience.

Agree? Disagree? Either way, let’s continue the conversation on Twitter @edotkim.