Review: The Man From Earth (2007)

The science fiction film by Jerome Bixby, The Man From Earth starts simply with some friend gathering at the cabin of John Oldman. (played by David Lee Smith) He’s preparing to move on, somewhat abruptly, and he has gathered them to say goodbye. After opening the night with some Johnny Walker, they have an extraordinary conversation as the evening develops. His cabin is on the edge of a wilderness. While not an unusual locale, the thoughtful discussion brings to mind John’s past years when he was divorced from human influences. The college professors and some students are relishing the friendship that they share.

As the story progresses into deeper history, John offers his friends a lot of trust. He tells them that in the past he would leave and not explain where he is going nor why. This time, John trusts his friends enough that he can candidly describe his past. These friends prove to the viewer that it’s worthwhile to share an engaging discussion.

John reviews his life forward from the simple culture of prehistoric man. As he saw the world expand, he reflects how he first saw mountains and then the ocean. He has met some extraordinary people through his life.

Jerome Bixby, the author of the screenplay was a successful science fiction writer. Among other credits, he wrote for the original Star Trek and Twilight Zone. This movie was brought to life by his son because Bixby died shortly after the screenplay was finished. According to the commentary, it was made on a limited budget, but I think it is still well made. One effect of that is that due to limited lighting, for some of the footage taken after sunset, the video is grainy.

The Man From Earth is the anti-thesis of an action movie. There aren’t special effects, stuntmen or violent conflicts. Instead, the film ends on a surprising note after John’s ideas are presented at a comfortable pace.

I enjoyed the film and have watched its several times. The situation seems organic and not hobbled with stereotypical characters that are simplistic and stilted.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

The novel The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin has started me on a quest. I’ve reignited in my reading interest. More specifically, reading science fiction. I’m letting the Hugo and Nebula awards help me compose my reading list. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin won the 1970 Hugo and 1969 Nebula awards for best novel.

I obviously hate trees because I’m buying used copies of the books, rather than reading them on my kindle or other ebook format. I’ve found a convenient venue to locate used books at bookfinder.com.

The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from Ekumen, Genly Ai. Ekumen is a federation of planets connected by near light-speed starships. However, relativity’s time dilation affects travel and trade. Ekumen has developed a long-term perspective because travelers will often return home decades after they left on a mission.

The people living on the aptly named planet Winter (also known as Gethen) are unique because of their fluid gender.  Every person can bear children as well as father them. However, most of the time the individuals are genderless. The effects of this on their culture is complex. On one hand, sexuality and nudity become much less sensitive a topic. Raising children is a more cooperative enterprise with more than the parents responsible. People are hospitable and welcome strangers. It’s challenging to know how to look at them from this more-or-less solid-gendered world. It’s easy for Ai to consider everyone a “he.” When he notices feminine qualities in individuals, he finds it disorienting.

The story describes three different nations. One, Karhide, is hierarchical and like a large confusing family. It is hierarchical and formal. The second, Orgoreyn, is bureaucratic. Its citizens deal with interminable paperwork and passport documents when they travel. However, the bureaucratic culture has work for everyone. The more feudal Karhidish society has strong bonds of mutual aid and generosity. The third culture, the Handarata, is mystical and has a subtle mythology. It is not explored as deeply as the others but seems very Zen-like with contradiction and paradox essential attitudes.

The language of the novel is very clear and descriptive. During a journey over a large glacier, the feelings of fatigue and the difficulty dealing with the murderous cold was striking. At one point, the novel made me actually jump with surprise and emotion. The book’s early chapters do not provide a linear story. Alternating chapters include information from Gethenian mythology and storytelling. This is helps the novel be a little more anthropological so that I had get a better feel for the world.

The Left Hand of Darkness reveals that my native assumptions about gender are not the only way to see things. The Hainish people share strong bonds. There are intrigues and power struggles that Ai has to navigate through. The title is misleading because the book isn’t about a struggle between darkness and light. Instead, it is a testament to endurance and the ability of people to form bonds of trust and honor.

Film Review: 12 Monkeys (1995)

Twelve Monkeys is a story about the world after a viral plague kills 6 billion people in 1996. The time travel story jumps between the 1990s before the pandemic and decades into the future. The future is run by strange scientists who hope to track down the virus’ origin. They send James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time with a mission to gather information.

Another protagonist in the movie is the psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). She is interested in the history of people who present a Cassandra complex. The Cassandra myth describes someone who knows the future but cannot do anything to change it. She wrote a book documenting examples of such people appearing in the past.

She is unfazed when she meets Cole who has the same outlook. She believes that he is mentally ill and she first meets him in her psychiatric hospital in 1990. She tries to maintain a clinical and objective interest in Cole. Cole vanishes for several years after his first hospital stay. He meets her a few years later and he kidnaps her for several days. Much of the story takes place during that kidnapping as she learns more about Cole’s remarkable story.

The future scientists are interested in a mysterious Army of the Twelve Monkeys which their surveillance indicates is responsible for the virus’ release. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys was led by Jeffrey Goines, played by Brad Pitt. His wannabe insurgents appear to be central actors in the plague because Goines father is a biologist studying deadly viruses. However, the exact role of Goines’ team is unclear until the end of the film. Goines and Cole meet when he shows Cole around the psych ward in 1990.

Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt provide excellent performances in the film. Willis portrays Cole as disoriented by time travel who does not know whether he is delusional or a “volunteer” traveling back in time on behalf of the scientists. He clearly demonstrates the sense of confusion and helplessness that his character experienced. Pitt portrays Goines as privileged, crazy and unpredictable with many goofy antics. Often institutionalized, Goines acts paranoid, manic and defiant. While in the hospital in 1990, he has a wild pillow escapade to help Cole escape. Goines has boundless energy and Pitt plays him very convincingly. Gradually Goines’ friends in the Army of the Twelve Monkeys realize he is unhinged and that his plans are going to end badly.

Review: Gemini Man (2019)

Film canister
In Gemini Man, we meet a 50-year-old assassin who is retiring. Henry Brogan (Will Smith) starts the movie carrying out an astounding assassination on a train. After his retirement, strike teams attack him to “tie up loose ends.” The Gemini company attempts to kill Brogan, but he foils their plans. Brogan has an almost mystical level of vigilance that lets him escape. His gun acts with unbelievable precision. Without Brogan’s perfection as an assassin, the secret agencies would have been able to kill him.

On a fantasy/realism scale, Gemini Man takes a different turn than many movies. Commonly, a film tries to have realistic people who have physical fights that don’t injure the film’s heroes. In contrast, Gemini Man has heroes rooted in fantasy, possessing amazing skills and sketchbook characters. This film aspires to realism by showing real injuries after its knock-down fights. Smith and his allies undergo sutures and clean their wounds after the fights.

After the strike team fails, a mysterious figure comes to kill Brogan. That man is quickly revealed to be a clone of Brogan, 25 years younger. After their initial gunfight and chase, Brogan learns that the attacker is genetically identical to himself. Gemini had created the clone, Junior, to build a perfect soldier.

Gemini Man has successfully simulated a younger Will Smith with computer modeling. Junior is indistinguishable from a 25 years younger Will Smith. It’s commonplace to make an actor look older, but Gemini Man’s filmmakers worked hard at renewing the youth that Smith once had.

One conceit in the movie is that the genetic duplication of the character leads to identical struggles, weaknesses and attitudes. It works ok for making the plot flow, but it is another way the film is filled with caricatures.

Gemini Man was an average quality action movie. I went mainly to see the cloned Will Smith. It was an entertaining movie and left me with a positive feeling as I was leaving the cinema.

Passengers (2016)

Two wine glasses making a toast
In Passengers, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) has an impossible problem. He’s on a 120-year trip to colonize the planet Homestead II. He’s supposed to be in suspended animation for the trip but wakes up 90 years too early. Not good. He can’t be suspended again. Even less good.

He searches for help but finds none. He spends over a year solo on the Avalon. He tries to keep himself occupied, but eventually reaches his limit. He falls in love with a suspended woman and wakes her up, condemning her to never start the life she had planned.

After traveling for 30 years, the Avalon is moving at half the speed of light. It has a shield in front of it, but it isn’t impenetrable. Unbeknownst to Preston, the ship was critically damaged before he wakes up. It’s up to Preston and his victim, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), to fix it.

The Avalon is really beautiful. Graceful, delicate and vast. It is a good backdrop to this lonely love story.

Arrival

clapboardThis week, I was impressed by the movie Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve.

There can be different essences that permeate a movie. One builds an adrenaline rush as the winners conquer their foes. Another thrills the audience with fear and suspense. Others gush with emotions like pathos or euphoria. Further movies purpose is to misdirect and then surprise the audience.

I don’t think Arrival fits neatly into those categories–it comes closest to the misdirect & surprise-the-audience theme. However, mostly, it gave me reasons to think. The movie didn’t feel like an attempt to market products to me–I didn’t even notice who manufactured the computers that were everywhere. It only asked me to spend time engaged with the story and to think about the human experience.

Once I watched the extra features on the disk, I saw attributes that make me appreciate the film more. Those nuances weren’t overwhelming. On first viewing, they didn’t draw me away from my embedding in the creators’ imagination and my suspension of disbelief.

The essence of my review is that am glad that I saw the movie.

Another dimension of success for the movie is that I am interested in seeing more movies by director Denis Villeneuve or with actress Amy Adams, who played the protagonist Louise Banks. Thanks to IMDB, that’s a lot easier than it was 40 years ago.

As a side note, one of the final credits thanks Stephen Wolfram. He is the creator of the tool Mathematica and the web site wolframalpha.com. I doubt that he remembers me, but about 30 years ago I visited his research lab in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois which was an exciting experience.