Polar Express and the Limits of Belief

Years ago, when first I tried to watch the 2004 Robert Zemeckis film Polar Express, I found the visual effects so bizarre that couldn’t sit through the film. But last year my young son watched the film on an Imax screen and loved it, so this year the family watched the film together at home.

I enjoyed the film more than I thought I would. To me, what’s interesting about it is how it sketches, through a strange dream sequence, the psychology of loss and anxiety. The boy at the center of the story worries that Santa Claus isn’t real and feels a sense of loss about that. It seems like, once the boy gets on the train to Christmasland at the North Pole, he should have an easy time getting there. But no. He finds himself atop the train, skiing down its roof with some weirdo ghost vagabond, worrying the entire train will crash or sink into water, riding a car detached from the main train, then wandering through a creepy abandoned toy factory looking for the “main event.” Watching the film might be the closest a toddler can get to the experience of an acid trip.

I still found the visual effects, computer animation based on live-action motion capture, totally bizarre and creepy. But in a way that enhanced the nightmare-like quality of the film.

Maybe the film is about learning to appreciate as myth a story one no longer believes is literally true. If so, I suspect that meaning goes over the heads of young viewers. Taken straight, the message of the story is that if you really believe something to be the case, the belief alone can make it the case. If you believe Santa is real, Santa is real. If you believe a silent bell will ring, it will ring, just because you believed it would. And this carries beyond the dream sequence to when the boy is awake.

What is a secular, science-minded parent to do with this? Obviously it is dangerous to think that wishing alone will make it so. If you wish something is so and then work to make it so through natural processes, great. If you appreciate the significance of a myth, great. But if you want a silent bell to ring, you can’t just believe it will ring. You have to do something, depending on the problem, to fix the bell or fix your hearing. As it is, thematically, the film’s a mess. I guess, by negative example, the film offers an opportunity for parents to discuss with their children the dynamics of myth and the nature of perception.

You know what would have made this a great film? In the film there’s a lonely and poor boy who gets on the train and finally makes friends with the main character and another girl. Well, in the end we’re just supposed to believe that Santa Claus alleviates the boy’s poverty and family troubles, at least for the day. What would have been a great ending is if the main boy had recognized the true spirit of Christmas and talked his parents into visiting the boy (he could have been planted in the story prior to the dream sequence) and inviting him on a genuine holiday adventure.

As it is, the film ends with the main boy ringing some damned bell like some drooling moron. Lame.

But, as I mentioned to one of my friends via social media, he just needs to believe that the film is good.

Image: Noël Zia Lee

In Defense of Rudolph

Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t like the 1964 television film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Actually it’s not entirely clear to me that she’s serious; her article is so strange I wonder if it’s tongue-in-cheek or satire. But it seems like Flanagan probably is serious so I will respond as though she is.

In my view, Rudolph is one of the greatest films of all time.

Continue reading “In Defense of Rudolph”

Hurting the World’s Poor in the Name of Helping Them—Poverty, Inc.

The vast sums of money transferred by the governments of wealthy nations to the governments of poor nations do not help the world’s poor, for the most part. Rather, such foreign aid serves to prop up corrupt dictators, finance a giant network of Western nonprofits, disrupt local markets, and keep many of the intended beneficiaries dependent and poor. Even private aid often has deleterious effects. Or at least Poverty, Inc., a 2014 film by Michael Matheson Miller of the Christian, free-market Acton Institute, plausibly argues those points. Continue reading “Hurting the World’s Poor in the Name of Helping Them—Poverty, Inc.

The Martian Presents a Hopeful Future for Humanity

The Martian is a tense action-drama focusing on the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney to stay alive on Mars after he is left behind in the course of a near-future mission.

The Martian Film

Readers of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (which I reviewed for Objective Standard) knew that the science presented in the film would be highly realistic. (The major exception is the opening dust storm, which, as Weir has granted, is much more powerful than is possible in Mars’s thin air; Weir strayed from the science here for dramatic effect.)

We knew that the story would be a tense action-drama focusing on the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney to stay alive on Mars after he is left behind in the course of a near-future mission.

We also knew that the characters, particularly Watney, would be colorful and engaging.

What I did not know is whether the film would be very good. On one hand, it’s directed by Ridley Scott, and it stars Matt Damon and a superb supporting cast, so what could go wrong? On the other hand, lines such as Watney’s remark, “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this” (added by screenwriter Drew Goddard, not Weir), could have come across as hokey in less talented hands. Was this film going to bring Weir’s enthralling tale fully to life or paint it by numbers?

I loved it. The film version of The Martian surpassed my hopes, which started out pretty high. I had been excited about the film since I first heard about it after reading the novel. In some ways, the film improves on the novel, as with its better-developed ending.

True, after an intense opening sequence, the film progresses a little slowly. But it builds steam as it develops its characters and reveals the enormity of the challenges that Watney faces. This is not your typical high-explosion, constant-motion (but ultimately meaningless) action flick; it is a story that is both exciting and deeply human.

Matt Damon is excellent. He nails the intensely emotional scenes as well as the funny ones. All of the lines, many of which a lesser actor would have bungled, come across as authentic and in-character—even the pirate jokes.

Among the supporting cast, standouts include Jessica Chastain as the mission commander who plays a pivotal role in the rescue effort; the always-outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA official; Mackenzie Davis as a young NASA satellite operative who first discovers Watney is still alive; and Donald Glover as an innovative astrophysicist who hatches a plan to bring Watney home.

Also, Sean Bean has a nice role as the earth-stationed flight commander—and he doesn’t even die!

Both the Martian landscapes and the scenes in space are gorgeous. Watching this film, it’s easy to imagine yourself on Mars.

I love Watney’s determination and his sense of humor under enormous pressure.  But mostly I love The Martian‘s glimpse into the future of space colonization that we humans are destined to have—if only we choose to strive for that future. This is probably the most enjoyable film I’ll watch this year—and it may the most important film of the era.

Related:

Three Sci-Fi Reviews: Edge, Martian, and Trek

edge-tomorrowThe Fall 2014 issue of the Objective Standard features my reviews of the following works:

Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman, starring Tom Cruise.

The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir (soon to be a film).

Star Trek: First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes, still my favorite Trek film.

I loved all three of these works. Check out my reviews (the second two of which are partly behind a paywall, so feel free to subscribe to the journal).

That’s Captain China to You

captain-americaA Chinese film reviewer for Douban.com wrote of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the hero’s enemy “is the very country he loves and protects. To love one’s country isn’t the same as loving one’s government: This is the main draw of Captain America.” This translation comes by way of Warner Brown’s article for Foreign Policy (via Edward Gresser via James Pethokoukis). (I checked the original in Google Translate, which produced a bit of a jumble, but the translations seem to roughly square.) Of course, Captain America’s enemy in the film is not the “country he loves”; it is instead a corrupt group controlling the country’s government. By defeating that group, Captain America saves his country. Hopefully that message is appealing to Americans and Chinese alike.

Nicole Perlman’s Marvel-ous Adventure in Writing Guardians of the Galaxy

Image: Ewen Roberts
Image: Ewen Roberts

Boulderite Nicole Perlman has exactly one credit to her name at IMDB, but it’s for co-writing Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that made $94 million its first weekend. Not surprisingly, she how has an announced second credit, for Black Widow. Time has out a remarkable article on how Perlman broke into the “guys’ club” of sci-fi script writing. Congratulations to Marvel for recognizing her talent. What caught my eye is that Perlman has also written biopic screenplays about Richard Feynman, Neil Armstrong, and the Wright brothers—I hope somebody funds those films, because I’d love to watch them.

See Guardians of the Galaxy

Image: Mingle Media TV
Image: Mingle Media TV

How could a movie featuring a talking raccoon, a walking tree, a green lady, a overly-literal hulk, and a guy named “Starlord” be any good? The latest Marvel outing makes such a film work with Guardians of the Galaxy by blending silly humor with heartfelt drama and plenty of action, featuring great actors, and hiring a great effects crew. Sure, the premise is a little thin—the story revolves around a small magical rock—and the universe is sometimes mind-numbingly complex. But at its heart Guardians is a buddy film, and the friendships work. The Associated Press reports the film will earn an estimated $94 million on opening weekend. Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak told the AP, “[F]or Marvel to have four films this year [including Guardian] open with over $90 million is amazing. It’s unprecedented success.”

Go See Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dark Knight Rises, is extraordinary, showing that a “comic book” movie is capable of intellectual and adult themes as well as stunning action sequences. These are real people, some of whom happen to wear masks, not caricatures. I highly recommend it; indeed, I intend to see it at least one more time in theaters.

I do recommend that you watch the first two films first, as the final film continues aspects of those stories. Particularly, the first film, Batman Begins, sets up the “League of Shadows” conspiracy, while the second film, The Dark Knight, explains why Batman took the blame for another’s evil. (I’m very glad that the third film rectifies that injustice.)

I am glad to see that many have resisted naming the recent atrocity in Aurora in a way that invokes the film. Neither the film nor any of its creators deserve that association. Indeed, one little way of giving the perpetrator what he wants is to make that association; he obviously targeted the release of the film for symbolic purposes. We ought not fulfill any of that thug’s wishes.

I’d like to thank the Westminster Police Department for having an officer at the local theater. “We want people to know they can come out and have a good time,” in safety, one officer said.

Christopher Nolan, director of the film, writes on the web page for the film:

Speaking on behalf of the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to express our profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community. I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.

Thank you for the sentiment, Mr. Nolan, and thank you for your fine works of art. Please keep doing what you do best: make great art.