The Ship Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: A Review of Passengers

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This review contains spoilers!

In the realm of inferior movies there is a special category reserved for movies that are unsatisfactory despite their captivating and deceptively convincing trailers. Passengers is a new addition to this category, for despite its adrenaline-filled trailers that bombarded TV screens several weeks before its release, it leaves its audience with a bitter aftertaste that makes one think, “I could’ve written a much better space-romance than that.”

As the space-romance begins, the viewer finds themselves instantly thrown into a tumultuous story aboard the starship “Avalon,” which is flying through space on autopilot, navigating cosmic debris and asteroids. It is one of these asteroids that breaks through the defensive shield causing the ship to “rock”—already a rather unconvincing plot detail considering that the ship seems to have flown seamlessly for 30 years—and wakes Jim Preston from his hibernation pod.

Considering this is yet another space movie featuring Chris Pratt, one might expect him to be somewhat akin to Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy: clever, quirky, quick on his feet. However, when creating Preston’s character, it is as though the producers forgot all these things, resulting in him being, conveniently, an engineer that lacks a personality. His role does not go far beyond attempting to break open the door to the command center and to ultimately assume roles as a welder, botanist, jeweller, and stereotypical I-will-save-the-world hero. The only backstory he receives is that he could barely afford the ticket, but decided to leave Earth in an attempt to start a new life.

After Preston struggles over the course of a year with being alone on the ship and even contemplating suicide, the movie comes to what is the biggest and most problematic aspect of the movie: Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora Lane. It isn’t so much the fact that Aurora is, like Preston, a monochrome character, or the fact that she’s yet another example of a writer who writes to achieve fame (and also happens to be from New York, and have a rich and well-known writer for a father). The problem is more in the way in which she appears in the plot.

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This is where the biggest source of anger and disappointment lies. The trailers present Passengers as a romantic story of two people who happened to wake up together and find themselves trying to save the spaceship, and in doing so, fall in love. In reality however, it is Preston who “wakes up” Aurora Lane by meddling with her hibernation pod.

Preston’s explanation for this is the inability to cope with his loneliness—his only other constant companion being the robot bartender Arthur—and despite how horrible his actions are, one can understand the motivation behind them. However, the way in which he specifically “chooses” Aurora—by accidentally coming across her pod, finding her attractive, looking up an interview with her and declaring that she is the woman of his dreams—raises eyebrows and exasperates.

This development overshadows the rest of the movie, and drastically changes the atmosphere. The viewer is put in the position of judging Preston’s decision. We’re left wondering when he’ll tell her, and then choosing sides when the truth comes out, and ultimately imposing a “final verdict” depending on which character’s side they choose.

However, even the morality issues of the movie are overshadowed by the scientific inaccuracies, despite the absolute frequency of the moral dilemmas. It is a movie that exasperates not only those of science and engineering backgrounds but even general viewers having some knowledge in the field. Examples, such as flying past a burning planet, catch the eye of an audience who know that in real life the ship would be pulled towards the planet by its force of gravity.

Other glaring errors in logic are difficult to forgive even in a sci-fi fantasy movie: scenes such as Aurora floating in a water bubble and not drowning, or Preston surviving a massive flame without even minor damage to his space suit. It goes without saying that some semblance of scientific law and common sense is appreciated. For this reason, scenes like the ending lose their sentimental touch, instead provoking a stream of questions like “wait, what is that tree growing on? And how are all these animals surviving?”

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The one positive of this movie, which can also be interpreted as a negative by some, is how easily it opens up the debate on morals and what constitutes romance (although the faulty science still looms in the background as another big topic of discussion). While Preston is easily criticisable for his decision to awaken Aurora, one can counter by saying that she got the adventure she was hoping for, a bigger one than spending a 240 days in hibernation flying to a space colony. The way the viewer interprets the movie is a demonstration of their thought processes.

The movie is viewed differently by different age groups. Teenagers and young adults might see it as a destruction of dreams and the snatching away of possibilities, similar to the way in which Aurora often accused Preston of doing so. Some adults, however, will argue that it is a movie that counters the ‘dream big’, ‘dream without limits’ ideology by showing that not all people can have their dreams fulfilled; a fact that is very much a part of reality and that which is still reluctantly acknowledged by the entertainment industry.

What I got out of this movie is that capitalism is scary, business comes first and foremost, and that if I were in the movie I wouldn’t get onto the Avalon even if they paid me. (Also that writers aren’t always weak and can actually swing sledgehammers or beat-up the jerks that ruin their lives.) Other than that, Passengers was a source of disappointment and emotional discomfort, with a bland storyline, shallow characters, a “romance” that is neither believable nor right, and an ending that makes one reach for a pen and paper and yell “I can do better!”

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

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Star Wars: the Force Awakens—We’re Home

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It’s been nearly ten years since the release of the almost universally loathed Star Wars prequels, and over thirty since we first witnessed the Star Wars that generations know and love. When Disney revealed that they are making a new trilogy, with new filmmakers, of course we were nervous. But the release of The Force Awakens proved those nerves to be unfounded. J. J. Abrams and company have not only given us a return to form for the galaxy far, far away, but they have delivered a movie that in the Star Wars series might only be outshined by The Empire Strikes Back.

From the opening shot of the movie, Abrams reveals what kind of ride we are in for: one that reverently loves the original trilogy and is going to deliver a new twist on a familiar world.

Just to get it out of the way, yes the original cast are back. Carrie Fisher slips in as General Leia in what is more of an extended cameo, along with C-3P0 and R2-D2. Yes, Luke Skywalker is in the movie. That’s all I can say about that.

Harrison Ford is also back as Han Solo, alongside Chewbacca. Watching them feels like coming home. Ford is fantastic as a grizzled, older Han. At no point while watching do you think “look, it’s Harrison Ford in a costume” the way you did when watching the fourth Indiana Jones movie. He is Han Solo. He slips back into that role, and he owns it. That really is Han Solo strutting around the Millennium Falcon.

But this isn’t just two hours with the cast of A New Hope in their old age. The new characters of The Force Awakens are incredible, and I’m happy to admit that within the first half an hour I was sold on following the adventures of this new generation.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is the first new character we meet. He’s described as the best pilot in the Resistance, and he knows it. Isaac brings a swagger and charm to the role so easily that if I look him up in the dictionary I’d expect the word “likeable” to be written next to his name. His is a character we don’t get enough of, and I hope that he makes a bigger return in episode VIII.

The real stars (pun intended) of the show, are John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey. A Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn is a dorky, lovable guy just trying to get along in the universe and escape the villainous First Order. Finn is all-around just a good guy. His chemistry with Rey, Poe, Han Solo, and even Chewbacca will make you smile, and it’s worth mentioning that Finn is funny. Many of the films best laughs come from him, and it’s hard not to love how much John Boyega clearly enjoys being in Star Wars. But Finn is not alone; a lot of his best material comes from the chemistry and clear friendship between him and Rey.

Simply put, Rey is amazing. Between her, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max’s Furiosa, it is a refreshing year to be a fan of great female leads in science fiction movies. A scavenger on the planet Jakku, Rey is both fierce and kind. She charges through the movie with an emotional and physical fervor that the Luke Skywalker of yesteryear never quite managed. A silent introduction of her sliding down a desert sand dune, buzzing around on a speeder, and watching the sun set through a dusty rebel pilot’s helmet sets the tone for the character without a word. Her reaction to seeing a forest after spending her whole life in the desert pulls at heartstrings, her friendships with Finn and Han Solo make you cheer, and when Rey gets down to battle, you’re on the edge of your seat. Without the friendship and capability of Finn and Rey this movie would have been great, but with them it’s damn near perfect.

Also, the new droid of the film BB-8 is surprisingly lovable. I was ready to find him just as annoying as the infamous Jar Jar, but no. BB-8 is great. He bleeps and bloops lovably and capably along. I’d happily accept a BB-8 of my own. I’d call him buddy.

Of course, you can’t talk about Star Wars without talking about villains. The shiny Captain Phasma does far less to deserve her spotlight than Boba Fett ever did, First Order General Hux is appropriately Naziesque, and Supreme Leader Snoke isn’t really enough of a presence to justify a real opinion.

This leaves the weight of villainy on the shoulders of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. There was always a threat of delivering a villain who was just not as good as Darth Vader (something Lucas’s prequels fell prey to each time), but The Force Awakens cleverly circumvents the issue. In fact, the long shadow cast by Vader’s image is one of Kylo’s principle motivations. Kylo Ren is different kind of villain, and it works. When he meets our heroes for the climactic lightsaber duel (I don’t consider saying there is a lightsaber fight a spoiler), he delivers the dynamic exciting clash between the dark side and the light that Star Wars must always have.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without spoiling the movie, but I can talk about the structure. The plot of this movie is simple, coherent, and easy to follow. Yes, there are elements and beats we have seen before. This is a movie that needed to convince us that Star Wars is back, so there are certain things it needed to do. This is not a criticism, because while The Force Awakens is nostalgic for the original 1977 film, A New Hope was in turn nostalgic for Flash Gordon and the Westerns of the 1950/60s. Star Wars was always nostalgic for something, so the reverence shown in this film was rightly placed. I went into a movie theater to see Star Wars, and that is what I saw. I couldn’t be happier.

Yes, there are small problems, but hey, nothing is perfect! The fact that I only really find issues when I go in to nitpick (one interaction between Leia and Chewbacca didn’t ring true for me) means it was a pretty good ride.

One word of warning: if you walk into The Force Awakens expecting a completely original plot with nothing you’ve ever seen before, you’re going to be disappointed. J. J. Abrams has come on record to say that A New Hope is his favorite Star Wars movie, and it shows here. But for me, I went in to watch Star Wars, and by gods, Star Wars is what I got.

In fact, after two hours, if I’d walked out and been told the next one was playing right away, I would have happily walked right back in and taken my seat. Ladies and gentlemen and variations thereupon, here are my thoughts on The Force Awakens summed up: Star Wars is back. It’s the best it’s been since Empire.

May the Force be with us all!

-Contributed by Benjamin Ghan

Lost in Translation: A Painfully Honest Review of Interstellar

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(Image from avforums.com)

 I am, quite obviously, not Neil deGrasse Tyson or Chris Hadfield. I’m not  a physical sciences major, or even a huge sci-fi person for that matter. And for those sins, I apologize. Academically, my physics knowledge fails to extend past high school— to be precise, I am quite certain that I missed 99.98% of grade 12 physics. Although I would like to think that I could fabricate an eloquent soliloquy on my intimate thoughts about Interstellar’s artistic execution of theoretical relativity and the very spiritual nature of the fifth dimension, I would be deceiving myself. Frankly, I was perpetually attempting not to drown in the sea of physics jargon. I managed to stay afloat because I could, at least, follow along with the bigger picture.

The film attempts to reconcile the audience’s incongruent levels of physics knowledge by explaining each scientific concept along the way, but still I found myself fumbling from theory to theory. And so I found it difficult to be wholly absorbed by Interstellar because I was desperately trying to figure out the feasibility of the science while simultaneously endeavouring to appreciate the artistic direction of the film. That being said, I was very impressed with their conceptualization of a spherical black hole—though whether my fascination was due to the actual cleverness of the idea or to my utter unfamiliarity with physics, I do not know.

 

The imaginative facets of Interstellar were undeniably spectacular; the cinematography captured space beautifully and the manipulations of sound and silence were brilliant counterparts to the visual elements. Nods are worthily due to Matthew McConaughey who, as a man caught between space and time, made us feel just as torn, conflicted, and terrified.

 

To even begin to address the black holes and alternate galaxies, however, I had to request the assistance of my science major significant other. Here’s what he had to say about the film: “a perplexing juxtaposition of humanity’s minute existence with equally misunderstood physics concepts.” Although he was not as helpful on the science front as I had anticipated, he does make an apt observation about how infinitesimally small  we are in the universe.

 

This led me to think that, perhaps then, we should think about Interstellar as a narrative that effectively makes us feel microscopic—not only through its manifestations of boundless expanses, but also because it makes us painfully aware of just how little we truly know about what the universe is like. We may be able to conjecture through mathematical equations, works of literature, or movies, and yet a literal and metaphorical gap inherently dwells between hypothetical constructs and the reality of existence itself. In the space between fact and fiction, then, is the perpetual wrestle between delineating the two and allowing the imaginary to filter through our consciousness as genuine, believable possibilities.

Interstellar did not transport me to another dimension. There were even times I felt myself slipping away from the film, but the confusion I felt during the most harrowing moments led me to ponder my finite life on the only earth we may ever know. And that’s pretty damn impressive.

 

 

(Image from avforums.com.)

 

For a more scientifically grounded analysis of Interstellar, see Neil deGrasse Tyson’s breakdown here: http://www.salon.com/2014/11/19/neil_degrasse_tyson_explain_the_science_behind_the_ending_of_interstellar/

 -Janice To

Elements of a Fourth Dimension

In “Everyone Needs a Couch”, Tanker, a bankrupt writer, is commissioned by an amorphous “cross between an octopus and a camel” to write a story about teleportation. The only requirement is that it must be “scientifically possible.” Jumping at the chance to pay rent, Tanker takes the job. Inspired by the sofa his girlfriend was kind enough to cleave in half before leaving for a job off-planet, the billion-dollar teleporting couch industry is born—as is Suzanne Church’s couch teleportation universe.

The universe is then continued in “Waste Management” from Lorna’s perspective, the girlfriend who originally cleaved the couch in half while leaving Tanker, his insensitivity, and his empty bank account. With Lorna’s perspective Church creates an interesting take on mechanical engineering applied to orbital lodging satellites (both biped and multiped excretions must be taken into consideration).

The couch teleportation universe is the dominant motif within Elements. All twenty-one of the stories are very brief; so brief, in fact, that Elements could be labelled a collection of speculative flash fiction. What gives the collection consistency and cohesion are the common elements Church weaves through the stories, supporting the collection’s title.

The classic elements of science fiction are of course present—teleportation and time travel underlie and bond many of the stories that would otherwise seem unconnected. “Everyone Needs a Couch” and “Jelly and the D-Machine” introduce these classic elements of speculative fiction through the teleporting couches and time travelling treehouses, respectively.

Nature’s elements are also present. Water is the literal common element throughout several of the opening stories. It is present in the warm steam between the ice and fire courting lovers of “Courting Ice”; the slushing coolers that preserve the flesh of fallen soldiers for transplantation in “Coolies”; the power of the storm man in “Storm Child”; etc. Even in the teleporting couch universe, water is pointed out as a commodity on Deslot (a planet renowned for the quality of their tequila), in the cowardly invertebrate aliens called Drips and the leading protagonist Dree Waters. Church’s water theme certainly allows the short and sometimes choppy stories to flow.

The subject of the collection’s title, Elements, is present in the chemistry of several images, such as the metal wire coils that run through a stove, teapot, or heater. However, the needle, whether it tattoos or inoculates, is also a running motif, and recalls how the club in “Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop” is named “Conduct.” The metal stylus, a heated or sharpened filament, is another theme that pierces through and joins the meat of Church’s stories, stitching the different stories of Elements together.

Perhaps one of the best attributes of a collection of speculative fiction—as opposed to a single work of speculation—is that it encourages the reader to speculate on the connections between stories.

CBC literary prize recipient Caroline Adderson recently discussed the difficult relationship between the novel and the short story collection. Disliking the distinction, which she feels isolates and unnecessarily constrains the work, she wrote Ellen in Pieces, “a novel in which you follow a traditional story curve, but each chapter is a standalone short story”. Such a format liberates both the meaning of the short stories individually and collectively as elements of a larger work. Church’s Elements follows this format, as she connects the stories using the same universes, that of the teleporting couch and possibly others, but maintains their independence and imaginative integrity throughout.

Together, with all three uses of “element”, Church creates a thematic work that transcends its individual parts. The running themes and the different interpretations of the title are bookended by the ultimate elements—life and death. The protagonist of “Coolies” survives the grenade that kills his daughter, but his life afterward is plagued by endless guilt. In the last story, “Soul-Hungry”, two dead souls find life in the afterworld through their love—though they continue to eat the souls of the living.

Most if not all of the stories of Elements were published individually before being compiled into a single book. As a collection of work there is contrast and, in comparing some, incompatibility. Still, in a very unlikely way, just as a severed couch could teleport through space missing half its stuffing, Elements is a balanced and fruitful work of speculation.

-Helen Picard