When I read M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts I was aware that the movie rights for the book had been optioned, but since I heard nothing further about the project, I thought it had been abandoned as it’s bound to happen sometimes: imagine then my surprise when I discovered that a movie was indeed filmed in 2016. I have no way of knowing whether the movie was a direct-to-DVD production or more simply it skipped the theatre run in my part of the world: what matters is that I was recently able to see and appreciate the filmed version of this amazing story.
The premise might seem taken out of a classic horror scenario: a fungal infection taking possession of the victims’ cognitive faculties turns them into ravenous zombies, and the few survivors live in military enclaves surrounded by the hordes of the “hungries”. In one of such besieged areas, a group of children is used as test subjects to find a cure for the infection: they were all born after the spread of the disease and, while affected like the rest o humanity, they retain both intelligence and rationality. These children represent the next stage, or the new humans, but for Dr. Caldwell (a chillingly efficient Glen Close) they are nothing but specimens, to be used in the search for a cure, and likewise the military personnel treat them like unthinking animals, unmoved by some of the children’s continuing demonstrations of intellect and empathy. The only person on the base ready to see the humanity beyond the danger is the teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), whose special pupil is Melanie (portrayed with amazing skill by emergent Sennia Nanua), narrating voice of the inspiring book.
Like the novel, the movie leaves little space to the zombie-like hordes roaming the Earth, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, going beyond the somewhat limited focus of book-Melanie’s observations to delve deeper into the other characters: Sergeant Parks, the rough-mannered soldier trying to keep them all alive after the base has been overrun by hungries, the most vocal about the need to keep Melanie constrained like the dangerous animal he sees in her; Doctor Caldwell, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude allows her to conveniently forget that she’s killing children to save a doomed humanity, that they are alive and possess feelings – something she is unwilling to accept; and Miss Justineau, who enjoys teaching her young charges and is too happy to read them tales from the classical myths instead of instructing them in math or chemistry.
And a Greek myth is indeed at the core of this story, that of Pandora who set free all the afflictions contained in the proverbial box, but ended her act by also freeing hope as a parting gift: hope is indeed what remains for a beleaguered humanity in this post-apocalyptic world – not the hope of being saved by some miracle cure, but the hope represented by the next generation, the children who will inherit the changed Earth. It’s not exactly a comforting scenario but it’s definitely better than the usual total-annihilation solution that so many offerings of the genre portray.
What makes the movie – and the book – quite special is Melanie’s voice, given life on the screen by an emerging performer whose amazing talent gives the lie to her young age: Sennia Nanua shows Melanie’s transition from the initial secluded innocence to the awareness of who and what she is with remarkable skill, managing the coexistence of the helpful child – able to navigate unscathed the dangers of the changed world – with the feral creature who needs to feed on living flesh, or the merciless fighter battling against the wild children of the city to defend the adults who find themselves suddenly in need of her protection. The visuals are quite stunning as well, not so much because of any special effects (the movie does not possess the feel of the huge, money-heavy production) but because it’s able to create the right atmosphere with the abandoned buildings chocked by fungal growths and peopled by unmoving hungrier waiting for a sign of life to jump into murderous activity.
The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since it mostly consists of human voices raised in a wail-like song that seems like a lament for the end of the world: it’s eerie and terrifying and it complements to perfection the images rolling on the screen.
The Girl with All the Gifts is not exactly an uplifting movie, and neither was the book that inspired it, but if offers so much inspiration for thought, as a window on the human soul, that I can heartily recommend it.
It was impossible not to be aware of the expectations – both for good and bad – surrounding this movie, in consideration of the troubled life of its predecessors, disowned by the staunchest Star Trek fans for the perceived lack of ties with the original material, if not for the outright betrayal of the original vision.
While I enjoyed Star Trek in the past, with time it lost much of its appeal, especially once I was able to compare it with other more mature, and more daring, science fiction shows: don’t misunderstand me, Trek will always have a place in my “affections”, because I started studying English some 40 years ago through the TOS episodes’ novelizations by James Blish, and in so doing discovered the fascinating universe it depicted, and the existence of a SF show I had not been previously aware of. Yet it’s not the one I would choose to define what I most enjoy in science fiction.
For starters, what looked like innovative premises at the time of its conception (a huge alliance of cultures working together in harmony; a society that has gone beyond the need for money or basic creature comforts; a galaxy where knowledge and mutual understanding are highly valued; and so on…) represents the kind of utopia that’s nice to see but that we know could never take shape, not with what we understand about humanity now, when we have lost many of the hopes that were the show’s backbone then. Moreover, the need to follow this particular universe’s ground rules ended up creating several constraints for the many writers who were called to work for the franchise. In Gene Roddenberry’s vision, there should have been no conflicts, no troubles among the perfectly integrated crews of the Federation starships, or among the many races of the Federation, and in such far-reaching peace and harmony there was far too much space for predictability and boredom, and almost none for some interesting clash of characters and personalities. Some of the most die-hard fans adhere to this vision with far more tenacity than did the series’ creator himself, and look with suspicion – or worse – on any attempt at splicing some different features into Trek’s “genome”.
It’s no secret that the Trek incarnation that attempted to get out of these rigid schemes – Deep Space 9 – is the one that those die-hard fans like less: in DS9 there was interpersonal conflict and we were shown how the Federation and Starfleet were not perfect and irreproachable entities but were instead, quite humanly, prone to flaws and areas of darkness. What others might perceive as shortcomings was, to me, the reason for a renewed interest in the saga, so that this series is the only one I can re-watch even now without feeling that time has left its inexorable mark upon it – at least for the episodes who follow a particular narrative arc, without wasting time and effort in improbable holodeck escapades or Ferengi capers that to me hold nothing of the wonder and adventure I expect to find in space opera.
After the poor results of the last TV series, Enterprise, it looked as if Star Trek had said all it had to say, so the news that a reboot would be accomplished through big-screen movies was welcomed with mixed reactions: many worried at the changes that would be introduced by story and characterization, altering forever the perceptions built over the decades. For me, the first two movies – while spectacular and entertaining – were something of a disappointment: the use of the word “reboot”, at least as I intend it, means the renewal of a story through the insertion of fresh ideas and points of view. Sadly, there was nothing of the sort in those two first movies, on the contrary they re-used old patterns and narrative threads, only presenting them in a new, more modern and glittery dress. It seemed to me that the powers-that-be had decided to take the show’s catchphrase and to twist it into an unimaginative “where everyone has already gone before” – too many times. For a story that took its inspiration from the exploration of the unknown, it seemed that the boldness had evaporated and the choice for time-tested secondhand material had removed any desire for expansion and evolution out of the playing field.
That said, I was nevertheless curious about this latest movie, and as I always do I was ready to give it the benefit of the doubt, refusing to condemn it out of hand like many did, especially when the first trailer hit the web. True, it looked like another offer with a great deal of action, explosions and daring stunts, and little in the way of character growth or depth, but I told myself that in summertime even a loud, boisterous “popcorn movie” can be acceptable, even if it’s not on the same line of its source material. And the friends with whom I went to the theater agreed with me.
Well, sometimes going in with low expectations does pay off in the end: the movie was a pleasant surprise, overall. The story, for once, was original and not a rehash of some previous episode, or some already-used theme: granted, it was nothing world-changing, but it went over well, and the pacing was fast and at times quite breathless. The characterization showed some improvements too, offering new facets on the main characters’ personalities and inner drive, with a few introspective moments that were rather nice to witness. There was the appropriate amount of humor, placed at the right moments, and when it was directed inwards – almost in an attempt to deconstruct some long-standing traditions of the show – it worked like a charm: there is a brief sequence, near the beginning, when Kirk comes back aboard after a not-so-successful mission, and he off-handedly comments about “another ripped shirt” that had me laughing out loud in sheer delight, since it was very effective because of its tongue-in-cheek nature, and the unspoken but clear subtext it carried.
There were some poignant moments as well, and they integrated seamlessly with the more boisterous whole: the brief, almost subliminal “for Anton”, paying homage to the recently deceased Anton Yelchin (a.k.a. Chekov); and the tribute paid to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the first, iconic Mr. Spock: this was carried out in a way that was so starkly emotional that even a true Vulcan would not have objected to it – to say how deeply spectators were affected would be redundant…
And even if the required Bad Guy’s motivations seemed a bit of a dejà vu, even if there were a few plot glitches – something that hit my awareness only after the movie ended, which means that the momentum carried them well nonetheless – the overall effect is more than positive, and for the first time since the Borg I felt that the adversaries’ might was something to be frightened of. Look at that swarm of ships and tell me you are not scared!
If this is the new course the franchise has chosen to travel on, I can get back on board: nothing special or Earth-shattering happened, I’ll give you that, but for once I felt some substance under the glitter, and it was enough.
Fresh from the vision of this much-awaited movie, here are some of my immediate thoughts – rigorously spoiler-free, of course.
All things considered, I truly enjoyed it, even though it was not perfect, mostly because it added nothing new in the way of story-telling but rather seemed to revisit the themes of the original movie with new people in some of the old roles: the main character’s hero’s journey somewhat parallels that of young Luke Skywalker, and the story itself follows the same guidelines as the first Star Wars movie. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course: after all, mythology rests on a few basic concepts that are mixed and recombined in various legends, but still I would have liked to witness some new ideas. On the other hand, these concepts were executed very well, and carried by old and new faces that integrated quite seamlessly into an entertaining and exciting whole, so… no big complaints. As far as the path for this hero’s journey is concerned, it did not disappoint, and I was also fondly amused by the frequent nods to some details from the original trilogy.
That said, the story moves forward at a good pace, aided by stunning visuals and complicated battle choreographies – both on the ground and in space – that at times took my breath away: the balance between real action and CGI-enhanced scenes is excellent and facilitates the immersive experience that any good movie should aspire to. Visuals would be quite poor fare, though, if they were not sustained by believable, well-portrayed characters and strong dialogue, and the movie lacks for neither: on the contrary, characterization is indeed the strongest point of the whole experience, starting with the protagonist, Rey.
She is a true revelation, both as a fictional character and as an actress: Daisy Ridley manages to bring on screen a mixture of strength, courage and human frailness that is as endearing as it is realistic. Times have indeed changed since the original movie, and women don’t need to be princesses in need of a savior, but are rather quite able to save themselves, and others as well. Living like a scavenger rooting for mechanical parts in an unforgiving desert waste, Rey has clearly learned to fend for herself while still harboring a deep pain borne of loneliness and the unexpressed feelings of abandonment – that last detail being the more intriguing part of her mysterious past. Hard-ass heroines often tend to be brittle and aggressive, while Rey walks a fine balance between inner strength and compassion that makes her instantly likable, instantly recognizable as the true hero of the story. If the unsolved puzzle of who she is and how she came to be here represents a strong point of attraction, we don’t really need to know more beyond her willingness to help the weak, be they flesh-and-blood people or funny looking androids, and to resolutely face any challenge. I think the best representation of who she really is, deep down, comes from the scene where, after having consumed a meagre meal, she sits outside her makeshift shelter (the carcass of an old imperial Walker!) and dons an old pilot’s helmet with the shadow of a wistful expression on her face, not unlike a child who plays at being someone else, in a more exciting, better life. I think my heart went out to her in that scene, and remained firmly there.
Her counterpart Finn, played by John Boyega, opens a window on the life of Stormtroopers: for the first time we are allowed to see a flesh-and-blood person inside the hard shell of white armor they all wear, and in this case it’s someone who’s appalled at the mindless destruction the soldiers are ordered to inflict on defenseless people. Learning that Stormtroopers are taken from their families at a very young age, to be trained and conditioned in the unquestioning obedience required from them, adds a dramatic quality to their existence, and through Finn we are finally allowed to understand there are people inside that faceless casing. There is one small scene in which a superior officer orders Finn to put on again the helmet he took off in a moment of suffocating panic: the message is clear – the helmet removes any trace of humanity from the wearer, any personal or distinguishing trait, and automatons cannot afford to be reminded, or to remind others, of that humanity. All this makes Finn’s rejection of his training all the more powerful: when he appears on screen, his body language clearly transmits the anguish and horror of a young man sent – probably for the first time – into actual combat, and his need to put as much distance between himself and the evil he’s been forced to serve. He’s no hero material, that’s clear from the start, but there is a great deal of room for growth in him: he somehow reminds me of a cross between Wizard of Oz’s Lion and Tin Man, someone in search of his courage and his heart, who finds along the way much, much more than he bargained for.
The third new face in the movie is no face at all, since it belongs to a (very cute) android named BB-8: he’s clearly there for some comic relief, but I’m happy to report it’s all done with a light hand and with the right degree of humor that makes the little droid instantly lovable, also thanks to the peculiar, rolling gait due to its form. I was strongly reminded of another beloved mechanical creature, Wall-E: BB-8 possesses the same kind of innocence and openness toward the world, and its child-like attitude in some of the scenes reinforces that impression. This character might have been created with a very young audience in mind, but it can easily reach out to adults too, and that’s a great thing indeed.
Without doubt, part of the expectations for this movie centered on the reappearance on screen of the main players from the original trilogy, and they did not disappoint – even those whose air time was all too brief: I understand with hindsight that their main function was to hand over the proverbial torch to the younger generation, and that this required some bittersweet choices, hard as they are to accept. Nonetheless it was great to see familiar faces, even though they were lined by the passing of time and the inevitable grief life can burden people with: in this respect, Han Solo and Leia are the keenest example, and I liked their interactions that, while rooted in the estrangement that divided them, could still delve into the good memories they built together. There is not much dialogue between them, but somehow the looks they exchange – and the subtext being carried by those looks – are enough to fill the silence. And I liked that very much.
It goes of course without saying that Chewbacca’s appearance was greeted with joyful enthusiasm…
All well and good then? Not quite, unfortunately.
The heroes of any story need good opponents, and the “bad guys” in this movie don’t exactly fit the bill.
In the first place we have once more a power-hungry individual bent on total conquest who uses a doomsday weapon capable of shattering whole planets. Sound familiar, doesn’t it? The only difference is that this new Death-Star-lookalike is crafted out of a whole planet instead of being a mere station, so that, in my opinion, this choice robs the audience of any suspense concerning the outcome. Unfortunately, homage to the core story is one thing, simple repetition of a past pattern is not.
Last but not least, Kylo Ren: the glimpses accorded by trailers hinted at an interesting narrative thread here, while I was disappointed by this character’s very feeble motivations for his actions, especially in light of his origins – which I can’t discuss without entering spoiler territory. Considering who he is and where he comes from, his choice for the “dark side” appears more of a plot device than anything else, as unsubstantial and wavering as his personality – again, knowing where he comes from, there seems to be little reason for the way he turned out, or for his actions. My only hope is that more will be explained in the next movies…
My disappointment with the portrayal of the antagonists is not enough, however, to diminish my enjoyment of the movie: it was not everything I had hoped for, but it was enough to be a reasonably pleasing experience. And enough to warrant a second viewing in the near future 🙂
At long last I managed to see this movie, not without some slight qualm due to my negative reception of the book that inspired it: but as many online reviews promised, it was indeed an extraordinary experience on many levels, starting with the script, that paid the story a great service, enhancing the details I sorely missed in the novel.
One of my main contentions with Andy Weir’s story was the perceived lack of drama, the apparent ease with which the main character not only adapts to extreme conditions, but makes fun of them, sometimes taking the situation far too lightly than warranted. On screen, we see Mark Watney dealing with his dire situation through a sort of metabolic process, first huddling in the habitat as a ferocious storm rages outside, and looking through the port with a lost, forlorn expression; then he slowly takes control of his situation, getting on with the business of survival. This phase is presented with very little dialogue, using the images in a very effective way and letting the viewers fill in the blanks – because, after all, spectators and/or readers are able to do that, they don’t need to be led through any given number of steps. And yet, it was far easier to empathize with the protagonist, to feel close to him and his plight, while the novel never gave me the sense of a man undergoing a physical and psychological transformation.
The log entries are used quite sparingly, and if in the book they are more necessary because they are not supported by visual imagery as in the movie, here they give you both a sense of progress in Watney’s journey of survival, and function as a welcome tension relief when he slips into the occasional humorous remark. While I found book-Watney unnecessarily droll, and even borderline silly, movie-Watney shows the successful results of the intensive astronaut training he received: he’s steady, competent, positive even when confronting huge obstacles or spectacular defeats. When he indulges in some fun toward his missing companions, there is always a poignant note to it, showing he does miss them and that he established a relationship with each of them, one where the mutual differences strengthened those bonds, and did not leave room for the ill-concealed scorn I perceived in the book. In this respect, the best moment happens when he finally manages to establish a contact with Earth: the emotional outburst we see when he reads the first line of text – the first human “voice” to break his silence and isolation – is something that sparked a similar response in me, as proof that I felt invested in what happened to Watney. Something that I missed while reading the book.
Once the focus shifts to Earth, we can see the various characters working to save the marooned astronaut as more than talking heads: their frantic efforts, the urgency of the situation, are something the viewer feels quite strongly, as a counterpoint to Watney’s heroic efforts to stay alive. The same happens with the other astronauts, on their way home after the hurried departure: the sense of failure, the guilt weighing on them for being still alive while one of their own lost their life, are something that comes across in no uncertain terms, as does their determination to do everything in their power to bring their companion back, once they learn he’s still alive. And let’s not forget the huge crowds following the mission on big screens put up all over the world: we viewers are ideally part of those crowds, worrying and holding our collective breath and screaming our joy in the end – it’s not cheesy nor rhetorical, just a plain human reaction that feels quite good.
Last but not least, Mars: one of my complaints was that I had almost no awareness of an alien environment as I read the book, while the movie offers breath-taking views of the red planet (“played” by a stunning location in Jordan, I learned). Those bleak yet fascinating landscapes are the superb background for a compelling story, one that manages to speak louder than words through amazing images. And for someone who usually prefers words over images, like me, that’s a huge acknowledgement.
Interstellar is without doubt one of the most anticipated movies of this year, and certainly a controversial one, at least judging from the divergent opinions I’ve read on the subject. After finally seeing it, I feel compelled to add my voice to the discussion.
The story. In a not-so-distant time in our future the Earth is suffering: repeated crop failures have forced the population to rely solely on the cultivation of corn, whose fields extend all over the place. Dust storms plague our planet and there are several indications that even corn might not be long for this world, so that humankind’s prospects of survival look quite bleak. What’s worse, people’s mindset has changed: concentrating on the needs of the planet, they have stopped to look outward, even negating the evidence of the space program and the moon missions – labeled as complicated hoaxes – to keep humanity from wasting energy on anything non directly concerned with immediate survival. NASA, now turned into something of an underground movement, enrolls former astronaut Cooper for a mission through a wormhole located near Saturn, in search of a new home for the human race in one of the three maybe-viable planets located beyond the portal.
I’ll say up front that I liked the movie, even though I think it might have been shorter, tighter and less wordy: my impression is that the creators had been given free rein with the production and they choose to exercise their right not to edit. Nonetheless, I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride despite the drawbacks I mentioned, probably because I went in with low expectations and therefore suffered no disappointment: I’ve often wondered if part of the reason for the negative reactions I’ve read comes from the huge hype mounted around this movie and the equally huge burden of expectations that went unfulfilled.
The movie’s visuals are indeed exceptional, and the soundtrack from Hans Zimmer a perfect complement for them, even in its loudest moments: the choice of respecting the reality of total silence in space contrasts dramatically with enclosed-space scenes where dialogue and music stress the action. The emotional impact provided by the environment of the two visited planets is undeniable: first the water world, with its immense ocean and huge (very huge!) destructive waves that provides both a dramatic twist and a nerve-wracking situation; then the frozen world, with its endless wasteland and the crushing sense of devastating loneliness. The Earth as we know it is indeed the product of a series of serendipitous occurrences, and those visits to extra-terrestrial environments brought more clearly home the awareness of both the uniqueness and the fragility of our home.
Despite these stunning visuals, though, my attention was focused more by the human factor in the story: the four people leaving for the mission are ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of humanity, accepting the heavy burden of separation from their loved ones and the added load of relativity with its accompanying difference in time-flow. When an unforeseen circumstance stretches that time into decades, it’s impossible not to identify with Cooper’s despair at the knowledge of the unsurpassable gulf stretching between himself and his family, or to remain detached when he tries to reach out to them through impossible odds (I know this last sounds cryptic, but to say more would be a spoiler…).
Interstellar, however, is not immune from flaws. The human factor I mentioned above is unfortunately diluted by long-winded speeches that give you little about the person represented on screen, rather favoring a sort of stereotype that clashes with the wide scope of the movie’s story: so we are presented with the bold, selfless astronaut; the great professor’s daughter; the expendable scientists, and so on. While I understand that some tropes are unavoidable, I would have expected more from these characters: in particular I would have expected to be surprised, and not to anticipate a few behavioral patterns even before they appeared… Strange as it might sound, the best developed characters are the two robots assisting the Earth explorers: their role was probably created with light comic relief in mind, and yet at times they come across as more human and relatable than their flesh-and-blood counterparts.
Story-wise, the stated need to maintain scientific accuracy, translates into detailed explanations that often slide into info-dump: one such case is that of the scientist explaining to Cooper (who is an astronaut, for pity’s sake, and should already be aware of the concept!) the theory of wormholes through the classic example of Point A and Point B drawn on a sheet of paper, whose ends are superimposed to exemplify the shortcut offered by the phenomenon. I understand how the creators wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, but I can’t shake the feeling that one of the factors coming into play was the… lack of faith (for want of a better word) in the viewers’ ability to take mind leaps and accept such wonders without need for extensive footnotes.
The same fate befalls the first part of the movie, where we spend almost an hour on the conditions of planet Earth: again, I gathered the impression that the authors wanted to drive the concept home beyond any possibility for doubt. Even the less sci-fi-oriented spectators would hardly need so much time devoted to the subject, and therefore those scenes seem to slow the pace of the story, making it appear unnecessarily heavy and heavy-handed.
Authors – no matter the medium they chose to express themselves – should have more faith in their audience and its inherent ability to reach out and fill the gaps, because that kind of exercise is fun and entertaining. It’s extremely gratifying when viewers/readers become aware of the author’s trust in their powers of understanding, as is equally frustrating when they realize they are being spoon-fed.
These flaws notwithstanding, I can honestly say that Interstellar is not a total waste of time: if nothing else, it’s worth watching to build your own opinion about it, considering the highly diverging reviews expressed on the subject. It could have been better, granted, but it could have been much worse…
My Rating: 7,5/10
I have been meaning to re-read this short story since I saw the promising news about an upcoming movie based on it: the very fact that Harlan Ellison and J.M. Straczynski will renew their creative cooperation from the times of Babylon 5 – one of the very best science fiction series ever – gives me great hope and not little expectation for this movie.
The story is a classic: in a future world where time – and being on time, always – represent the one law whose transgression can mean death, a mysterious rebel tries to put a monkey wrench into this perfectly oiled mechanism. Not with impassioned speeches or acts of terrorism, but with pranks – and so he styles himself as Harlequin, the ultimate jester, hunted by the dreaded Ticktockman, upholder of the establishment and Master of Time.
The story appears fresh and actual even now, almost fifty years after it was written: it made me think about how Ellison’s writing style feels timeless, as do many of the topics he developed in his works. Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman, is one such example: time does indeed rule our days, either when we try to keep our busy schedules or when we wish for some free time of our own, the latter being such an elusive beast….
In this future dystopian world Time and punctuality have eaten humanity’s soul, robbing it of every joy that makes life worthwhile: there are two such examples in the course of the narration, and though they are polar opposites in mood, they give a clear picture of the society. The first concerns a woman receiving a dreaded Termination Notice from the Ticktockman: she desperately hopes that it’s for her husband (as it indeed is), because she’s terrified at the notion of losing her life – to the point that she wishes that fate on her spouse, or even on one of her children. As long as it’s not her. This chilling little detail speaks loudly about the way the totalitarian rule of Time has changed people. As does the other snapshot, the one about a medical convention whose participants laugh in high amusement at the Harlequin’s antics, as if they had forgotten the simple act of laughing, or the meaning of it.
I’m curious to see how the upcoming movie will portray all this, and much more: considering the involved parties, I have high hopes about the outcome.