Most fans of science fiction and fantasy love envisioning other planets and distant forgotten lands, encountering aliens and monsters, imagining combat with Excalibur or lightsabers, and thrilling to action and suspense. But these significance of these overlapping genres runs deeper. Imaginative storytellers have mapped out countless imaginary environments in which we can ponder lasting dilemmas of the spirit and the intellect. In recent years, filmmakers have seized upon this context with renewed vigor, more interested in the human experience than in extra-terrestrial adventure.
Signs turns a typical alien-invasion premise into a surprisingly intense story of one man's argument with God. Minority Report makes a futuristic cop thriller into a contemplation of freewill, predestination, and the ethics of "pre-emptive military action." The latest Star Wars episode raises questions about how love and duty can conflict, and the way that hate can lead to violence and self-destruction. In Tolkien's saga of the One Ring, The Fellowship of the Ring offers parables about humility, friendship, courage, greed, the value of the environment, the corrupting nature of power. Harry Potter's adventures examine how we use the talents we have been given, and the difference between ability and choice.
This week, we can add two more to that list: Solaris and Treasure Planet. Like Signs, Steven Soderbergh's Solaris is about a man who has lost his wife, and it takes an unexpected confrontation with an alien intelligence in order to bring him peace and resolution. Like Fellowship and Potter, Treasure Planet gives us a small hero caught up in a big quest where he learns courage and virtue.
These films are playing an important role in a year when more realistic films both are preoccupied with characters who have lost their moral compass in a chaotic and threatening world. Just look at the plots now playing: 8 Mile's rebellious hero lacks a firm foundation at home, at work, or in the neighborhood, so he learns to rely solely on himself. Far From Heaven's heroine is betrayed by her husband and her friends, abandoned to a lonely yearning for honesty and virtue. El Crimen Del Padre Amaro deals with disillusioned youth struggling with corruption in the Catholic church. Frida's artistic heroes wallow in debauchery until the wages of sin teach them hard lessons.
Next month introduces a host of angst-plagued protagonists. The upcoming Gangs of New York looks back on a man sticking up for the oppressed as bigotry and violence rock the streets of early America. The shadow of September 11 darkens the days of The Guys. King Lear agonizes again in the context of a gangster film called My Kingdom (starring the late great Richard Harris.) And About Schmidt casts Jack Nicholson as a depressed retiree who finds only emptiness as he looks back on his life. Morvern Callar is about a woman failing to cope with her boyfriend's suicide. The Hours looks at Virginia Woolf drowning in depression and despair. Max gives us young Hitler torn between his mediocrity as an artist and his promise as a political leader. In the Cannes-award-winning film from Roman Polanski, The Pianist, a musician escapes from the Holocaust into music. And Adaptation, perhaps the darkest of them all, introduces us to a screenwriter trying to write a script about passion, while he is drawn into the black hole of his own life's emptiness.
To name a few.
Why are we looking more and more to fantasy? Is life on Earth so bleak that our best hope is for a benevolent extra-terrestrial intelligence? It may seem so to some. But I would argue that what makes some science fiction and fantasy appealing is the way that in alien environments, we can recognize those truths that will follow us everywhere, into any situation. We take comfort in locating the familiar in an unfamiliar context, and that helps us return home and see the same order in apparent chaos. In metaphors like alien intervention and magic, we catch glimpses of a Higher Power, a Divine Benevolence, an invisible Design (or Designer) causing all things to work together for good.
Treasure Planet mixes Disney animators' work in traditional drawing and in digital invention. They sketch a whole new take on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure, making it an interplanetary thrill-ride for the family. Young Jim Hawkins jumps aboard a ship that, at times, bears a striking resemblance to Captain Hook's pirate ship. There, he makes the acquaintance of a cantankerous captain named Silver who is questing for buried treasure.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls the movie "a rip-roaring thrill ride of a movie that will excite young and old alike. Both [Silver and Jim] set out to find riches, adventure, and personal glory only to discover something that proves to be far more valuable and rewarding." As a caution, he adds, "The very young may want to sit this one out, however. The action is loud, frenetic and full of life-threatening situations which may be overly frightening to them."
David DiCerto (Catholic News) praises the film's animation and story, which "explores the complexities of father-son relations, the alienating repercussions wreaked by severed bonds. The film's timeless theme of empowerment through the realization of one's true self-worth is much needed for a generation lost in space." But DiCerto is not entirely satisfied. "Unfortunately, eclipsing [Disney's] acumen and artistry are the omnipresent merchandising efforts sure to accompany the film's release. This strategy that dominates much of Disney's corporate thinking is ironic, given the picture's strong message of valuing personal relations over material gain."
The film opens Friday, and Film Forum will offer more reviews next week.
They are not new questions, and Solaris is not a new story. Author Stanislaw Lem wrote the novel on which it is based. And film buffs are already well aware of the 1972 film version made by the greatest Russian filmmaker and, according to some, the greatest filmmaker of all time: Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky's film is a rewarding epic, but it also requires subsequent viewings, and a lot of patience, because of its complex tapestry of plots, themes, and mysteries. It's 165 minutes long, while Soderbergh's film tells a simpler version in only 95 minutes. Thus, this new take might seem more like a lost Twilight Zone episode or a more cerebral Star Trek.
But it is remarkable how much Soderbergh accomplishes in that short space, and just how artfully he pulls it off. Solaris is the most subtle and abstract commercial American movie of the last few years. Many viewers will find it hard going, vague, and frustrating. Those who love it owe some credit to Tarkovsky and Lem, whose work clearly inspired much of Soderbergh's vision. But Soderbergh deserves some measure of applause as well for his courage in re-inventing a challenging work of art for a larger audience after stumbling with the frivolous, star-crowded Oceans 11.
Here's the premise: Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a therapist psychologist sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris after he receives a vague message of distress from the ship's commander. Upon arrival, Kelvin first interrogates Snow (Jeremy Davies), a confused, deranged young crew member who has no answers to Kelvin's questions. Questioning the ship's captain (Viola Davis) further confounds him. It is only when he is visited by an entity resembling his dead wife (Natasha McElhone) that he realizes why the crew is going mad. Each of them has a visitor supposedly dead and buried back on earth, but seemingly alive here in the far reaches of space. We are drawn into Kelvin's state of mourning and near-madness as he debates whether to rid himself of this somewhat alien presence or to embrace her as the resurrection of Rheya, his lost spouse. This leads to questions about the planet Solaris itself, whether it is the manifestation of an alien intelligence or some embodiment of God Himself.
Much of the film was familiar to me, as I have long been a fan of Tarkovsky's strange and spooky film. Soderbergh's version is somewhat disappointing by comparison. As we catch Kelvin's flashbacks of a dreamy courtship and a troubled marriage, Kelvin's relationship with the "original" Rheya seems more like infatuation than love. Clooney and McElhone look like movie stars rehearshing David Mamet dialogue instead of human beings going through the daily struggles of a real marriage. Thus, I did not find Kelvin's grief and struggle as compelling it was in Tarkovsky's work. Further, Jeremy Davies overdoes the Dennis Hopper weirdness in his role as a deranged survivor.
Still, I am very impressed with Soderbergh's courage to let so much go unsaid. His restraint giving us wide open spaces for thinking about what's going on. I am also impressed by Clooney's performance, which broadens his already impressive range. (This is the same guy who goofed his way through O Brother Where Art Thou?) I am also excited to see audiences given yet another science fiction flick that focuses directly on the question of God's existence, the possibility of His benevolence, and the way the romance of a man and a woman reflects the relationship between humanity and the Divine. In a world still grappling with acts of terror and the pain of mourning, Solaris joins Signs as a work of art that can point in the direction of the answer. Those who do not have the patience to hear the truth being preached might instead catch glimmers of truth in the work of subtle and skilled storytellers. That's something the greatest parable-spinner of all knew very well.
Critics are bound to debate whether this is a meaningful film or the pretentious ravings of a snob.
Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "Initially intriguing, the mysterious premise gradually gives way to a sluggish pace and dreary tone that become oppressive. Clooney and McElhone do their best to convey emotional turmoil, but the vagueness of the dialogue and the chilly visuals eventually distance the viewer. However, some may find this somber meditation on grief, regrets and mind games to be a bracingly different addition to the sci-fi genre."
Mainstream critics go to even further extremes in their summations. Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) says, "Solaris teems with ideas (perhaps too many) about illusion and reality that Soderbergh handles with spare, unhurried grace. Solaris is a mind-bender in the best sense of the word: The spell it casts follows you all the way home." David Poland (The Hot Button) agrees: "I don't like to jump all over the 'masterpiece' thing after one viewing. But Solaris has been with me every day since I saw it. In the face of a lot of rageful movies, something as pure as Solaris is a heartful respite to a tender place. And in the pantheon of great movies, Soderbergh's Solaris will soon takes its place."
But Ed Gonzalez (Slant) calls it "a prolonged grief counseling session with a minimalist sci-fi backdrop. Solaris is burdened by an overly facile Psych 101 discourse that's every bit as heavy and pretentious as his purposefully inscrutable Full Frontal." Todd McCarthy (Variety) says, "Despite its undeniably pure and earnest intent, Solaris is equally undeniably an arid, dull affair that imposes and maintains a huge distance between the viewer and what happens onscreen, and never successfully negotiates the paradox of being a study of the deepest emotions that doesn't engage the heart for a moment."
Another ponderous movie about ethics and virtue is already in the box office Top Ten this week. The Emperor's Club is as traditional in its structure and style as any film currently playing, and it is drawing cheers from audiences even as it divides critics.
Director Michael Hoffman's movie stars Kevin Kline as Mr. Humbert, a teacher of classics at a boy's school. Humbert's responsibilities extend beyond the classroom; he's also busy enforcing strict codes of behavior that encourage unruly boys to become virtuous and educated men. While most such movies make a hero of the boy who dares to break the rules and "seize the day," Mr. Humbert dares to teach his students the value of structure and formality and the damaging results of straying beyond the rules. Thus, the film looks a lot like Dead Poets' Society in some ways, but thematically it works as its opposite.
The "rebel" is Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the young son of an arrogant and cruel Senator. Bell is a spoiled brat who thinks he owns the world and plans to introduce his "oppressed" fellow students to the wicked pleasures of pornography and playing with "bad girls." Humbert takes it upon himself to teach Bell the error of his ways, but in doing so he himself is tempted to break the rules. Thus we watch the consequences of these choices play out in both characters' lives, leading to a surprisingly bittersweet conclusion.
Ken James (Christian Spotlight) raves, "The Emperor's Club … raises questions about situation ethics, morality, and right and wrong. It's the perfect film for teachers, students, and parents who wish to start discussions that can influence one another for good." He calls it "a marvelous piece. Each of the cast and crew members I spoke with talked of the passion that brought everyone together to help see this project to completion."
Perhaps talking with the cast and crew about their passion increased James's estimation of the film. Watching it without such privileges, I found the film ambitious in its storytelling and bold in its determination to buck the trend and teach the value of obedience, discipline, and virtue. But the film was so busy hurling platitudes and preachy lessons at the audience like a hail of mushy snowballs that I was left cold and eager for the ending. In Kline's unnecessary and annoying voice-over narration, he says, "This is a story without surprises." He might have added that it is also heavy-handed and sentimental.
Further, Hoffman's stodgy direction stifles the skills of Kevin Kline, failing to make him an engaging central character. Young Bell is such a barrel of "rebel" clichés that he seems nothing more than a plot device included to teach us lessons. The short story on which the film is based, "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin, reportedly a more rewarding version of this story. My full review is at Looking Closer.
Mike Hertenstein (Cornerstone) compares Canin's story to the film. "The original short story … has everything The Emperor's Club lacks: nuance, irony, freshness, and a subtle and complex interplay of the ideal and the real. Michael Tolkin's screenplay strips every bit of character and thematic shading, creating cardboard saints and villains."
He also compares the underlying Romantic philosophy of Dead Poets' Society with the Classical perspective favored in The Emperor's Club, and the way that the quality of the two films greatly differs. "Dead Poets is much more artful. Emperor's Club, on the other hand, is entirely bereft of both heart and head. The film predictably demonizes Romanticism, but unlike Dead Poets, the portrayal of its favored point of view is entirely unconvincing: smarmy, conventional symbols without conviction, originality or life - a great argument, in fact, for ditching class and sneaking off to the woods to make barbaric yawps."
Gerri Pare (Catholic News) is more impressed: "This is the rare movie that is centered on ethics. Issues of personal and professional integrity couldn't be more topical at a time when polls indicate many students are willing to cheat, most employees call in sick when they aren't, and corporate leaders have knowingly misled their investors and employees. The movie may look dated but the moral issues are timeless. And it has much to recommend it in addition to its important message."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) is enthusiastic, calling it "brilliant! Kline gives a masterful performance that is truly Oscar-worthy in one of the best films this year! Parents, this is a story that will resonate with your pre-teens, your teenagers and even your young twenty-somethings (as well as with you). So make this an opportunity to take your adolescent or teenager to see this movie and discuss it with them afterwards. Ask what he or she would do if faced with the same dilemmas and find out if they know a fellow classmate that behaves like Bell."
Sister Rose Pacatte (The Tidings) says the film "is not your typical teacher-school-student film, because the hero, is, at best, flawed. The audience wants him to be perfect, but he is not. If you like well-acted films that ask more questions that they answer, if you are a seeker or lover of wisdom, or both, then by all means see The Emperor's Club. It will give you much to talk about. The film presents a large canvas on which to exercise one's ethical and moral imagination, where philosophy and divine revelation can meet."
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) offers excerpts from an interview with Michael Hoffman, whose father was a revivalist minister.. "If there ever was a film that was perfectly suited to Michael Hoffman this is it. Interestingly enough, it is about a scholar who loves classic literature, just like he does. Additionally, the underlying story is the Biblical story of Paradise Lost, a story that his Methodist grandfather preached many times."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) writes, "Club is worth seeing. It has some light-hearted moments, doses of ancient proverbial wisdom, a good musical score by James Newton-Howard and fine performances. Most of all, its themes of ethical behavior and virtuous living have perhaps never been more relevant to a culture."
Movieguide's critic doesn't think the movie is preachy enough. "While the final message of the movie is of a redemptive nature and applies Godly principles, it misses the mark by not even giving lip service to the One who personifies the Truth so highly valued." Thus he says it "should be approached with some caution."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) calls it a "frustrating near-miss" but he disqualifies it because the rebel is portrayed as … well … rebellious. He says it "contains amazing lessons about life. It esteems honesty and integrity. As good as this film is at times, it trips over its toga by including senseless profanity, sexual slang and abrasive misuses of Jesus' name."
Mainstream critics argued over the film's strengths, but most agree that it relies to heavily on sentimentalism and sermonizing. Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) says, "Hoffman sprays on the tears like a toxic mist. Avoid like the plague." But Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) says, "Kline does a welcome, restrained job. Emile Hirsch … makes an excellent son of privilege; Harris Yulin channels the chutzpah of LBJ to steal his scenes as a senator for whom ethics are frills for sissies."
For those seeking action instead of academics, James Bond is back to save the world once again. Die Another Day is being celebrated by mainstream critics as the best Bond film in many years, high praise for director Lee Tamahori. But religious press critics are as dismayed as always by Bond's womanizing and violent measures.
This time, Bond is betrayed and abandoned by his colleagues and left to fend for himself as a conflict rises between North and South Korea. He is helped by a mysterious woman called Jinx (Halle Berry, in a role that may inspire the first Bond spin-off franchise). The usual players return, including Judi Dench and John Cleese.
Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "With Tamahori at the helm, the action and intrigue unreel at a furious pace, with death-defying stunts so preposterous one can only laugh and go with the flow. It's unquestionably mindless escapist entertainment, but entertain it does. It is of concern that all the mayhem and explosions are made to look exciting but, since it appears much more fantastic than realistic, it isn't as objectionable as gritty, in-your-face violence."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "The movie may be a rush, but at what cost to fans who continue to have Bond's warped values (namely that promiscuity is cool and merciless bloodshed heroic) pounded into their psyches?"
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) tells parents, "This is an adult movie with mature sex scenes and themes, so don't go thinking it's kid friendly. Overall, Die Another Day is an entertaining, action-packed 'popcorn' movie. This may not be the best Bond film ever made, but it definitely feels like the longest and most exhausting one with a complicated plot, plenty of incredible special effects, non-stop action and amazing stunts—and of course, the very cool Brosnan in a role he was apparently born for."
Michael Medved says, "Tahamori brings a refreshing approach to this venerable series by offering action scenes that emphasize character along with eye-popping stunts. This James Bond flick could never (and should never) qualify as gritty realism, but for all its adventurous and exotic elements it never tilts over into outlandish self-parody.
Movieguide's critic is impressed by "great direction by Lee Tamahori, fantastic stunts and wonderful-looking special effects." But he adds, "This movie is not a film for impressionable youngsters, or teenagers, however! Like all Bond films, it tells young boys, "If you are smart, strong, handsome or pretty, resourceful, and willing to take huge risks, then you will be rewarded with the three G's - Girls, Gold and Glory.""
Mainstream critics hailed this as a step-up from the franchise norm. Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) calls it "the savviest and most exciting Bond adventure in years, and that's because there's actually something at stake in it. No, I don't mean the fate of the world (as if there were doubt about the outcome of that), but the fate of James Bond himself."
Friday After Next continues the popular comedy franchise that began with Friday. This time, the central characters have moved out of the family house and are in their own place. When their house is robbed on Christmas Eve, they call up their cronies to track down the villains.
Gerri Pare (Catholic News) calls it "haphazardly directed," and laments, "The indulgent depiction of recreational drug use is not funny given the reality of how many lives have been disastrously affected by substance abuse. Nor are the racial epithets and the stereotyping of African-Americans an enjoyable element of this crude comedy."
Mainstream critics also wrote it off. Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) says, "It's Christmas in the hood, and there are two or three funny ornaments on the tree, but not nearly enough of them to free the third entry in the Friday series from that drab, been-there-smoked-that feeling known as obligatory sequelitis."
Debbie Mils (Catholic News) is impressed. "Using a narrative voiceover and other storytelling devices, Miller carves out three very real portraits that are both fascinating and painful to watch as she digs deep under the skin, into these women's uncertainty and their pain. None of the women portrayed is a role model. Each is very flawed and human. Nevertheless, within each woman's story there is a hope, coming from within and through a sense of family, that keeps them striving for a better life. Some may find the frank sexual content disturbing, although it can be seen as the filmmaker's effort at honest, deglamorized portraits of women."
Movieguide's critic calls it "quite engaging. Miller obviously has the gift of telling an engrossing story. The last story is so touching, it may redeem the whole movie for some viewers."
Mainstream critics are impressed by Miller's convincingly complex characterizations. Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) says, "Just because a movie is delicate and humane doesn't mean it's not an adventure. Miller, adapting a trio of short stories from her 2001 collection, creates portraits of three highly distinct women, and virtually every second we spend with them tingles with discovery."
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets continues to win fans among Christian film reviewers and pastors.
Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily), pastor of Burgaw Baptist Church in Burgaw, North Carolina, offers his review of the film. "The movie helps us see the growing role of Harry Potter as deliverer and savior of his people. Harry knows it is not important what people think of him. What matters is doing what he was sent to do, which is delivering the people. And in the end, those relationships aid him in his hour of need."
Roger Thomas (Ethics Daily) writes, "Is this film worth all the praise and attention? Most definitely. The effects … are better. The acting, especially among the young actors, has more depth. The sets and costumes are a wonder to behold. Visually, this is a stunning piece of filmmaking."
Both pastors address the widespread condemnation of the Potter saga within the church.
Parnell adds, "I am amazed at the negativity that Harry Potter gets from Christians. For many Christians, the use of magic signals Satanic overtones. Yet watching the movie and allowing the metaphor to speak, one can see classic Christian symbols. The idea of salvation is evident here. There are scenes of peril that could upset younger children, so it is best not to allow those under eight to see this movie. But for older children still moved by metaphor and its magic, this is a wonderful movie. It shines in its story and its portrayal. It can help parents talk to their children about the nature of fame (which has become a national obsession) and its consequences. There is also the opportunity to speak to the idea of being who you are in spite of others' opinions."
Thomas says, "In a day when Christians should be screaming for investigations of corporate scandal and decrying religious leaders who spout hate speech and intolerance, much can be discerned about those who choose to focus their time and energy on the protest of one of the most imaginative and creative fantasies of this generation. As for those who see the Harry Potter series for what it truly is—great entertainment, first and foremost, filled with lessons about friendship, courage, loyalty and love—there is only one choice. See Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as soon as possible."
That other fantasy saga continued to draw raves as well. I applauded the new DVD Extended Edition of Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptation The Fellowship of the Ring last week. This week, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) offers his own rave review. "For the new expanded edition of the film, Jackson didn't simply splice in some thirty minutes of additional footage, but reworked the film to incorporate the restored material as effectively as possible, even including new musical material written and recorded by composer Howard Shore for the new version. Far from feeling padded, the new version of the film actually improves on sequences that felt rushed or incomplete in the trimmed theatrical version. Given the richness of the source material, there's virtually no fat even in the deleted scenes, and Jackson's economy of storytelling remains very much in evidence. Some of these newly restored scenes add so much to the film that you wonder how Jackson was able to cut them in the first place. Of course a four-hour theatrical release would have been prohibitive, but still the choices of what to cut and what to retain must have been agonizing."
Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "In ancient Israel, the prophets often were called upon to show Israel its true identity. Perhaps if Amos had a camera, he would have been very similar to Michael Moore. Israel, like America, much preferred its own image of itself. But God (and God's prophets) called Israel to face the facts of their errors and their failings. Looking in that mirror was never easy. Looking in the mirror Moore forces us to look into is not easy either. But perhaps by looking we may begin to see ways to bring ourselves back to what we should be."
Next week: More on Solaris, Treasure Planet, and other new releases.
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