See It Instead: Interstellar

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See It Instead:  Interstellar

Time once again to scour the bargain bin and bring you excellent films from yesteryear.  When you want the big time feel of the theater without the big time price of a 3D, surround sound, feel-around butter flavored blockbuster, turn to See It Instead for three quality flicks that deserve your attention instead!

Interstellar (2014)

Upon reaching a new home for humanity, I would first like to thank myself, for being so awesome...
Upon reaching a new home for humanity, I would first like to thank myself, for being so awesome…

New this weekend is the heavily anticipated sci-fi space odyssey from director Chris Nolan, Interstellar.  Starring the slightly self-aware heart-throb, Matthew McConaughey, a former Disney princess, Anne Hathaway, and a fully self-aware British accent masquerading as a man, Michael Caine, this film explores a future where humanity must flee to the stars in order to survive a depleted and dying Earth.  A mysterious wormhole behind Saturn allows astronauts to find three possible planets to colonize, but time is running out and the crew must face personal and existential danger in order to complete their mission.  Hopefully they avoid LV-233, as that planetoid spells certain doom with its flimsy logic and life-threatening space mumbo-jumbo…

The Serious Pick:  Contact (1997)

Jodie Foster is a straight-laced scientist working on the fringe of scientific respectability, searching for extraterrestrial life with the SETI project.  When a chance transmission not only alerts her to the presence of ET’s, but provides her with a detailed set of instructions to create an alien device, she, and the rest of the world, must ponder the ethics, scientific merits, and theological implications of the apparent alien overture to humanity.  Assisting her in this task is Palmer Joss (McConaughey), a christian philosopher who engages and challenges her about the religious and social dangers her quest to create the machine will create.  Despite a fundamentalist bombing the machine on the eve of its first test-run, Foster is able to complete her mission, and make Contact.

So, just sitting here and science-ing. No big deal.
So, just sitting here and science-ing. No big deal.

Written by scientific guru Carl Sagan, based upon his novel of the same name, Contact manages to curiously side-step presenting a great deal of science.  At issue are the implications for humanity from a first contact, and Sagan (and director Robert Zemeckis) focus on these issues like a laser.  Scientific methods become almost an episode of CSI: Alpha Centauri…while mostly realistic, they are just window dressings to allow the bigger story to unfold.  Luckily, through inclusion of edited casts of news reports, pundit shows, and even presidential speeches, the film manages to explore many possible reactions to such a discovery in a realistic and even-handed manner.  The relationship between Foster and McConaughey is likewise fair and balanced, allowing both to challenge and support each other without straying into diatribe or sermon.

The science is light, but engaging, and the acting is superb in this trip around the galaxy.  An inconclusive finale accomplishes exactly what Sagan sets out to achieve:  a dialogue between opposed world-views that may actually manage to find middle ground.

The Lighthearted Spine-tingling Pick:  Frailty (2001)

Umm...we're not really here for firewood, are we dad?
Umm…we’re not really here for firewood, are we dad?

Otherworldly in quite a different manner, Matthew McConaughey is the son of a religiously fanatical father (Bill Paxton,) who may either be a latter day prophet or a diabolical creature.  Filmed as a series of confessions by McConaughey to the police about his troubled childhood, he recounts living with a younger brother who adores and idolizes their increasingly detached father.  Frailty uses the unreliable narrator trope to amazing success, and you never know who’s word to believe.  A psychological thriller worthy of the name, the less said about the story of  Frailty, the better, except that it is terrifying and wonderful.  If you have a friend who attempts to spoil this movie for you, you shout “NO!” and raise your arms over your head to make yourself very tall.  If that doesn’t work, I don’t know, punch them in the throat or something.

The story is taut and lean, the characters are fantastic, and Bill Paxton is a delight, both as an actor and as the director.  Don’t miss this film.

The Unconventional Pick:  Voices of a Distant Star (2002)

Data plans are good in the future, alright?
Data plans are good in the future, alright?

A short OVA (original video animation) from Japan from the intensely cerebral Makoto Shinkai, Voices of a Distant Star is sparsely animated, but generously loaded with big ideas.  Taking a page from the galaxy spanning adventure genre made popular by films  such as Macross and Neon Genesis Evangelion (and more recently, Ender’s Game,) Shinkai focuses on the minutia of what a sci-fi world like those must feel like to their protagonists.  A threat from a warlike entity called the Tarsians tears two friends apart:  Mikako is drafted from school as a gifted pilot who will journey across the stars to help Earth attack the Tarsians, while Noboru must remain at home, continuing his education.  The two communicate via text message, and as the distances traveled increase, the time delay between the two grows vast.  Isolated in her ship from any semblance of human life, Mikako must cling to the increasingly spotty communications from Noboru to hold her together.

For the last time, there is nobody named Major Tom here, now get off the line!
For the last time, there is nobody named Major Tom here, now get off the line!

The alien threat is present and dire, but mostly a backdrop for the technological and psychological drama that unfolds.  If you want to see ships being ripped apart, you’ll get it, but it is presented almost off-handedly, as a reality of the world that the two must work around as they attempt to remain normal.  Hermetically sealed away from reality in her advanced war-fighter, Mikako’s quotidian concerns loom large:  she’s lonely, she’s scared, and (she belatedly realizes) she is in love with Noboru.  Unfortunately, relativistic physics means that a revelation that suddenly dawns on her will take nearly a decade to reach the object of her fumbling emotions.  And meanwhile, she has a hostile enemy to make extinct.

A delightfully melancholic exploration of the twin paradox, this story makes the academic proposition gripping and fraught with human meaning.

 

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