The Sanctity of Martian Life: The Space Between Us

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It’s hard to be a teenager. Gardner and Tulsa would know best. Tulsa’s a foster kid, about to age out of the system. She’s counting down the days until she can be free. The only person who makes her feel less isolated is her email pen-pal Gardner.

Gardner feels the same way. Nobody understands him. He’s stuck in his room all the time. He doesn’t have any friends his age. The only confidant he has is a scientist and a robot. He’s completely isolated. It’s like he lives on Mars.

Wait-

he does… live…. on Mars.

The Space Between Us tells the story of Gardner, who, after his astronaut mother gives birth to him on Mars, is sent back to earth when he’s old enough. When he gets down to Earth, he finds out his body can’t survive on Earth for long. He’s told by the founder of the program that sent his mother into space in the first place, Dr. Shepard (Gary Oldman and his long, luscious locks, possibly the greatest strength of the whole movie), that he has to go back.

So Gardner escapes. He breaks out of the NASA facility and finds Tulsa (who for some unforgivable reason does not, in fact, live in Tulsa), who at first doesn’t believe him. But when she gets pulled along onto his fugitive adventure to find his father and experience Earth for the first time, they both discover what is so magical about our world.

The most glaring flaw in The Space Between Us is its identity crisis. The film is torn between being an interesting blockbuster, a genre-twisting space movie, and a Nickelodeon teen romance with a big budget. One minute, Dr. Shepard is talking about the importance of space and exploration. The next minute, Tulsa and Gardner are making out. Then, in the next scene, Gardner is reflecting on the importance of living life to the fullest and about the beauty around us. Then, the film steals from the Me Before You playbook with an on-the-nose song about mutual pining.

You could say this is brilliant screenwriting. Gardner is torn between what he is. Is he a marvel of modern science, or a boy who just wants to be normal? Maybe there is a bigger, deeper meaning to this flip-flopping picture!

Or, you know, it could just be bad screenwriting.

The film, to its credit, does a pretty good job with both of its identities. The Mars setting, despite shots seemingly ripped straight from The Martian, is nicely realized. The discussion about Gardner and the ethics of his situation are clearly explained. I can understand both sides. It may be a little talky, but creating a dilemma where I can empathize with everyone involved is sophisticated.

The film takes place in a distant future. It’s the optimistic future portrayed in The Martian, and after a few too many Hunger Games and Divergences, I’m happy to say I’d be content if that is where our future is headed.

As for the teen romance/ road-trip-for-freedom movie embedded in here, it’s impossible to dislike, unless you don’t have a heart. Or, you are are a NASA scientist. This is where Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson shine. They take two-day romances and make them feel real. I felt the chemistry even in the stalest of lines. Britt Robertson, in particular, is able to take a role that could have easily rolled into Mary Sue and unlikable territory and keeps it real. It’s what she did in 2015’s Tomorrowland, and she does it again here, and I’m continually impressed.

One of the best aspects of the film is its messages. The tagline of the film- “What is your favorite thing about earth?”- gets repeated several times by the characters. It’s got all the nuance of that pesky feather from Forrest Gump. Except, maybe during a time when a lot of people are feeling anxious and scared, remembering the wonderful things in life isn’t a bad thing.

The other message besides the obvious one is something I think is maybe even more powerful. The Space Between Us has a very compelling pro-life message. It starts right from the get-go. Gardner’s mother knows having her baby is a risk. Yet she chooses to have him, at the cost of her own life. Then the NASA scientists have a choice: risk the boy’s life in order to bring him to earth to do some PR, or leave him up there. Then throughout the whole movie, every single character’s mission is the same thing: Save Gardner.

As Gardner embarks on his road trip, he impacts every person he meets, because he  has a love of life that he spreads. His life is valuable, and so is theirs. I would go so far as to say that Gardner could be seen as a metaphor for special needs children. Life is precious, and it should always be protected. Often people like that are the ones that show it best.

That is a message we need. The film isn’t on the nose, or obvious about it. It may not have even had the intention of it. But a message that is more timely than, remember what is good in your life, is, remember who is worthy of life. Everyone. And we have to band together, like the characters in this movie, to make sure that we protect this right, for every single person around us.

For me, this message, and me being an absolute sucker for so many things in this film (the actors,  finding your father storylines, road trips) make it a lovely movie. Yes, it is flawed. Yes, it has an identity crisis. And yes, it is not the next Citizen Kane. But it falls in the same category as last year’s Now You See Me 2. It made me happy. It made me smile, and I would watch it again in a heartbeat.

So grab your moon shoes and enjoy this space-movie renaissance! See you at Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Alien: Covenant, Life, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Intelligent Life, and many more to come.

-Madeleine D

City Of Stars: La La Land

For this review, I’m going to use the IO9 format for reviews, a Q&A Style.

la-la-land

Oohh! La La Land! That movie I’ve been hearing a lot about!

Yep. The musical-romance starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a down-on-his-luck jazz musician and wannabe actress in L.A. Directed by Damien Chazelle of Whiplash. It just won a ton of Golden Globes.

Do you think it was a masterpiece? Truly the best film of the year?

Maybe. It certainly is one of the best films of the year.

You’re not just going to praise it?

No, I think we should discuss it and explore the nuances of it. I don’t believe in blindly accepting a critic’s every word.

That’s what I do with your reviews.

I’m the exception. You can trust me.

Okay, so first off, how is the music? Can Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling really sing?

They both do nice jobs with their singing! It’s obvious they are not professionals, but at least they are doing their own singing. After the film I went home and listened to the soundtrack again. I’m sure an original song nomination will come during the Oscars.

For someone who likes musicals too, it was hard after the movie to not want to get up and sing.  Maybe I left the theater humming. Maybe I did a little dance with my sister in the lobby of the theater. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

(There’s your shout-out, Eliza, I hope you’re happy)

Is the acting good?

Absolutely- the hype is valid. Emma Stone in particular is able to show her entire range, and everyone does a good job. It truly is an actor’s film, and I’m sure the academy will reward it for that, along with other things it sets bait for.

Sets bait for… wait, are you saying this is an Oscar-bait movie?

Well, to be fair, most movies that come out around this time are looking for an Oscar, and it’s no secret that everybody in Hollywood wants one. Why not try for one? But in La La Land’s case, there are two trains of thoughts on this.

First, director Damien Chazelle wrote the script for La La Land in 2010, before he thought he would have a chance in the business and before Whiplash fame. He wrote it out of love for old movies. Therefore the use of Cinemascope, allusions to films like Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the soft lighting, dusk-hour shots, and the underlying theme of sacrificing for your art, came from his heart. Those things came from his desire to make a film that is a modern masterpiece. And if he wrote and made the film because he truly loves it, then great!

But here is what bugged me as I watched it: First off, the Academy Awards love movies about movies and about working actors. The Academy loves to justify their own careers and flaunt their own success. And La La Land does that. Using the techniques that La La Land uses- obviously with the intention of replicating the masterpieces it is referring to- made me feel like I was being goaded at the whole time. The film seemed to keep on asking, Do you like me? Do you like me now? How about this? This is pretty cool. Look at this! Remember that old classic? We’re alluding to it here. Is it good? Do you like it?, knowing that the critical audience for this film- people who love old movies and musicals- couldn’t resist it.

So you don’t like that it tries to be a good movie? What’s wrong with you? Plus, it’s not just a celebration of old movies. It’s a romance between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and that appeals to the public.

Thinking back to other movies that I have liked this year, like Fences, Hidden Figures, Sing Street, Zootopia, and others, I think that all the stories of those films have an urgency and importance to them. They are fresh, have something to say, and have a message that can resonate on some level with everyone. La La Land lacks that. A story of two dreamers who are insecure about their dreams is something I’ve seen before. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have been in two other movies together before, although this problem has nothing to do with the characters- both Mia and Sebastian are flawed with full character arcs. But I’ve seen the crazy, tortured soul artist before, and a lot of movies take place in L.A. and romanticize it.

Now I should add, to be fair, maybe I didn’t “get” La La Land to its full extent because it’s a movie made to replicate the emotion of being in love, and to my parents’ enthusiasm, I’m young and have never been in love before. But the story seemed to service the technique and medium, instead of the other way around.

So, because you don’t love the ordinariness of the story, does that mean you didn’t like the movie?

Absolutely not! I said it was one of the best films of the year, and it makes my top ten list. With all that I’ve said critically, La La Land makes some of the best uses of the film medium I have ever seen. I would say the film almost shines more than its actors.

Something striking about the movie is how it uses the musical format to emphasize the main characters. Maybe it’s just me (although I sure hope not) but I sometimes have moments where I imagine there is a movie playing out around me, starring me. The spotlight goes on. Everything in the background fades out. There is a sweeping pan of my surroundings. La La Land replicates this feeling by actually doing it to the characters. It takes “being the hero of your own story” to a whole new level, in only a way a film can. By combining song, dance, acting, dialogue, camera angles, long takes, lighting, locations, and score, La La Land is an achievement in every meaning of the word.

Should I see it?

Absolutely. It’s a beautiful mix of many genres, so even if you aren’t a musical person, I think you would still enjoy it. The film is for the romantics, the cynics, and artists, the realists, and everyone in between.

It may not be the most thought-provoking or important of the films offered up this year. But its influence on film, particularly movie musicals, might be one of the most lasting, and the joy it conveys onscreen, along with the nuggets of truth and honesty, are too tempting to resist.

-Madeleine D

Dumbfounded White Faces: Hidden Figures

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Don’t you know that we’re able? Pharrell Williams sings in the soundtrack of Hidden Figures, based on the true story of the black women who worked at NASA leading up to John Glenn’s historic 1962 launch into orbit. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan all want to see their country win the space race as much as any other American, and they are prepared to use their skills to do it, no matter what roadblocks are put in their way.

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a genius mathematician, allowed to work with the core group of engineers and scientists leading the mission. Mary (Janelle Monáe) is working to become the first female engineer, and is attempting to cross the color barrier at a white university to do so. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is empowering fellow black female computers (mathematicians), while trying to achieve the title of supervisor that she deserves.

Don’t you know that we’re able? Yes, but how long will it take for that to translate into respect? For these women, it looks further away than landing on the moon.

Hidden Figures is a woven tapestry of the experiences of these women, from their work, to their personal lives, to their cultural and social experiences at the height of the Civil Rights movement, demonstrating the balance these women had to achieve, and presenting the challenges they faced, without ever making it seem so hopeless that it wasn’t worth it. The realness of the main women (powered even further by the strong performances from all the main actresses), from their mannerisms, to their relationships, and their simple desire to do good work, is striking. Watching multiple scenes with three women- women of color no less- laughing with each other, going to church together, raising their children and going to work side by side is something I have rarely seen in movies, or entertainment in general. It reminds me that the normalities of my life are the same ones the women who have and will shape the world have.

With the recent explosion of experimental and powerfully subtle biographies and historical dramas (Selma, Lincoln, Jackie, The Theory of Everything, Suffragette, The Imitation Game, etc) Hidden Figure’s on-the-nose-iness and guileless inspiration sometimes is jarringly amateurish. Moments like Mary Jackson telling a judge, “Sometimes you just have to be the first. I want to be the first so others can come after me,” make the film seem more like a TV movie- one that has a message and is afraid you might not understand it unless it says it out loud.

But then there are moments that encapsulate abundances of truth that shock you by their authenticity. Kirsten Dunst’s Mrs. Michaels telling Dorothy Vaughn, “Despite what you might think, I really don’t have anything against you people,” and Dorothy responding with, “I know. I know you believe you don’t.” Moments like Katherine walking into a white man’s room and the quiet that settles over it, as people look at each other, trying to navigate their social norms into this seemingly earth-shattering moment. Moments like a police officer pulling up to the three women when their car is broken down, and they immediately start having to question their own innocence, and then having to prove it.

These moments prove that Hidden Figures isn’t ashamed of being a heartwarming, honest, earnest, and truly inspirational film. It isn’t here for bravo or self-congratulations. It isn’t here to woo the critics (not to say it isn’t award-worthy, it just isn’t showy). It is audience friendly because it’s here to speak to the Black girl sitting in the theater; the White, Latina, Indian, Native American, Asian, any girl, sitting in the theater. It’s here to reach the boys and the men and the women and everyone who has ever felt unappreciated, or who has ever been discouraged from pursuing his or her talents and dreams. It is for the people who love America and want to make it better, and aren’t afraid to examine its past for the good and the bad.

That is what makes Hidden Figures a fantastic movie. It restores history to a disenfranchised group, confronts the reasons why that group has been disenfranchised, and sets the story straight. It does that all while being incredibly timely to now, without sacrificing its warmth, humor, toe-tapping soundtrack, and flawless performances.

Hidden Figures is for everyone, and celebrates the achievements of everyone who has worked hard and fought for what was right. That’s an achievement, and if the movie tells us anything, it should be recognized as such.

-Madeleine D