Contact

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This film, based on the late Carl Sagan’s novel about a young scientist’s efforts to make contact with intelligent life beyond our world provides a sharp contrast in tone to slam-bang shoot-’em-ups like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” Sagan, a scientist who consulted on the space program and hosted public television programs about the universe, raises important questions about the connection (and sometimes obstacles) between science, business, politics, and notions of God. If he does a better job of asking them than answering them, that is at least consistent with the scientists creed that the only sin is to be afraid to ask the right questions — and to be open-minded about the answers.

The movies’ heroine is Ellie, played by Jodie Foster. Devastated by the loss of her parents by the time she was eight, she yearns for contact with extraterrestrials, but shies away from contact with anyone on earth. Having been hurt by feeling, she relies entirely on science, on what can be proven. After a one-night-stand with Palmer Joss, a charismatic divinity school drop-out (Matthew McConaghey), she leaves, to continue to listen for whispers from the universe, despite short-sighted bureaucrats who cut her funding. When she finally hears something, the government steps in (including President Clinton, appearing courtesy of the same kinds of computer tricks director Zemeckis used in “Forrest Gump”). The message is to build a machine, apparently to be used to go to the source of the message.

Joss turns up as an advisor to the President who is assigned to the panel that will select the person who will make the trip. He does not believe that Earth should be represented by an atheist. And he does not want to lose Ellie again. Ultimately, she does make the trip, and finds that she is profoundly changed by it. She finds herself asking others to believe what she says without evidence, on the basis of faith. This is a thoughtful movie, and it provides a good opportunity to discuss how we know what we know, whether on the basis of faith or on what we can prove. Kids may want to talk about whether the reactions of the people in the movie to evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence are what they would expect. Why do some people object so strongly to communicating with creatures outside our world? What do scientists think about God and what do theologians think of science? What is the role of government? What do they think of the way the extra-terrestrials shaped their communications to reassure Ellie?

NOTE: Parents should be aware that there is one episode of sabotage that results in violence, in addition to the one-night-stand (Ellie and Palmer shown in bed together), and some strong language.

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Based on a book Drama Romance Science-Fiction

Galaxy Quest

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is one of the funniest movies of the year, hilariously but affectionately skewering television sci-fi, its stars, and its fans. Not since William Shatner told Trekkers Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz to “get a life” back on Saturday Night Live has there been such a sublime look at this world, reminding us, in these days of Adam Sandler and the Farrelly brothers, that intelligence and humor are not mutually exclusive. The fast, funny, and fresh script takes a terrific premise and unreels it in a tightly constructed farce that is filled with surprises. Perhaps the biggest one is that we really come to care about the characters.

Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, and Sigourney Weaver play former stars of a cheesy “Star Trek”-style show that ended nearly 20 years ago. Their only paying jobs are appearances at conventions of fans and store openings with their co-stars. A group of aliens who received the television transmissions of the program’s reruns and thought they were documentaries comes to Earth to ask for their help.

The TV stars find themselves on a real-life replica of their television series spaceship, lovingly constructed by the aliens to replicate every detail from the show. And they find themselves in a real-life confrontation with a lizard-looking tyrant named Sarris, trying hard to remember lines and plots from old episodes to help them defeat him.

The people behind this movie have watched a lot of Star Trek. Rickman, who played a character somewhere between Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock, stares glumly at his alien gill make-up in the mirror and murmurs about the time he got five curtain calls as Richard III. Sam Rockwell (very far from his role earlier this month as the evil prisoner in “The Green Mile”) plays an extra who was killed on one episode, worries that he’ll be killed for real on this mission, because “my character is not important enough for a last name.” Tony Shaloub, as the Scottie equivalent tries to reassure him: “Maybe you’re the plucky comic relief!” The responsibility assigned to Sigourney Weaver, the Lt. Uhura equivalent, is repeating everything the computer says (and wearing a low-cut uniform).

After a string of slob comedies, it is a special joy to see one that is so sharply written and performed. Acting! Satire! Dialogue! Plot! I remember those! I’m just glad someone else does, too. If movies got curtain calls, I’d give this one five. (Be sure to check out the brilliantly designed “unofficial” website at http://www.galaxyquest.com/galaxyquest)

Parents should know that there is some cartoonish sci-fi violence, some of it rather gross, and one sad death, a character gets so drunk he passes out, and is then very hung over, and there are mild references to Allen’s character sleeping “with every Terakian slave girl and moon princess” on the show.

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Comedy Satire Science-Fiction

Mission to Mars

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Director Brian DePalma is known for movies that have two qualities — striking visual flair and frustrating narrative incoherence. If you are the kind of person who talks about the plot on the way home, this is not your kind of movie. But if you would enjoy seeing an old-time “Flash Gordon”-style movie with 21st Century special effects and computer graphics, you just might want to see it twice.

The movie takes place in 2020. Don Cheadle plays an astronaut who leads a team to Mars to investigate the possiblity of colonization. But on an expedition a huge tunnel-like dust storm kills the rest of the team, and communication with the space station is cut off. Four of his colleages, played by Tim Robbins, Jerry O’Connell, Gary Sinese, and Connie Nielson, go on a rescue mission.

Trust me, that’s really all you want to know about the plot, which makes “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” seem like rocket science. It even makes “The Day the Earth Stood Still” look like rocket science. But the pictures are pretty.

Parents should know that characters are in peril and there are a number of tense moments and several deaths, one graphic. Creationists will also be upset by the way the plot develops.

Families who watch the movie will want to talk about the choices made by the characters, including one who commits suicide to save the lives of others, and about the prospects of space exploration and colonization. And it is worth pointing out to kids who watch today that they are the same age as the characters in the movie, who would have been children back in the year 2000. Point out the brief home movie footage showing two of the characters circa 2000, around 11 years old, and already dreaming of going to Mars, and ask kids what their dreams are, and help them think about what they will need in order to get there.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy “2001,” and might even get a kick out of the first big-budget outer space film, “Forbidden Planet,” with Leslie Nielson long before “Naked Gun.”

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Action/Adventure Fantasy Science-Fiction
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