The Martian Survival Tale

martian poster1

Director Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi offering, The Martian, is a sometimes riveting, but always entertaining survival tale taking place on the red planet.

Based on the novel by Andy Weir, It stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney a botanist who is part of an exploratory mission on Mars. A sudden sandstorm causes the mission to be aborted, but Watney is struck by debris and lost in the storm. Presumed dead, Watney is left behind Mars as his fellow astronauts leave the planet.

watney on mars

Miraculously, Watney survives the storm and makes his way back to his expedition’s habitat. From there he uses his skills and training to live on Mars by growing food, creating water, etc. His dilemma is how to stretch out his limited supplies long enough for an eventual rescue mission that won’t happen for four years. In the meantime, NASA discovers that he is alive and is able to establish communications. With the world now aware that Watney is marooned, all attention and resources are devoted to find a way to rescue the stranded astronaut.

ares 3 crewThe Martian is a well-put together, hard sci-fi yarn that thankfully uses real science to come up with plausible means for a human to survive on Mars. The film is bolstered by a smart script by Drew Goddard and heartfelt performances not just from Matt Damon, who is the centerpiece, but by the entire cast. The Martian literally has an all-star cast which includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Jeff Daniels and many more. They all turn in solid work and inject The Martian with needed humanity. This film unexpectedly has a human heart at its core, it isn’t dry or lifeless, and that is what makes it stand out. We see this many times with the scenes back on Earth and in the return vehicle as everyone scrambles and makes sacrifices to bring Watney home. The altruistic efforts certainly give one a pause to hope for humanity. Watney’s plight is shown to be in the film as some kind of unifying event for the world as seen by the large crowd scenes that hark back to the early Apollo missions.

It does have its issues though. It’s heart and emotion are assets, but sometimes they take away from other needed aspects. Many critics are praising its use of humor, but this colonistfilm isn’t some slapstick comedy nor is it that funny. For the most part, the humor works, but it also undercuts the tension that a film like this requires. This doesn’t mean that The Martian is without any thrills, several scenes are captivating and makes audiences curl in theater seats, especially the final act. However, it could’ve used more of a gritty survival aspect that was sometimes glossed over. While audiences saw how underweight he got from lack of food and detailing his efforts to create water, it should’ve have dwelled on his isolation and boredom a lot more. It would have been a bonus to see Watney act as an explorer and let us witness the barren beauty of the red planet. Perhaps he would’ve discovered the flowing water that NASA recently discovered in real life.

watney kneel

 

Complaints aside, The Martian is an enjoyable adventure that can be enjoyed not just by sci-fi fans but by general audiences.

Lewis T. Grove

Advertisements

Interstellar & Its Emotional Core

interstellar poster

Interstellar may be director Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious work to date. Is it his best? Maybe, it truly depends on any viewer’s taste. Regardless of one’s viewpoint, Interstellar is probably Nolan’s most emotional film rivaling The Dark Knight.

One criticism of Christopher Nolan as a director is that sometimes his films feel emotionally distant even though he tries very hard to connect audiences with his characters. This time, Nolan is able to make that connection thanks in large part to Matthew McConaughy’s sincere performance. Playing Cooper, a former astronaut turned corn farmer, McConaughy’s work is gripping and deep and he is able to keep his scenes from being too kitschy. The emotions he displays strike a perfect note.

 

INTERSTELLARIn an unspecified future, the Earth is slowly dying. Various crops like wheat and okra have gone extinct as pervasive dust strangles the world. As crops die off, humanity spirals towards extinction with dust invading everything. Dreams are long gone, replaced by a practical need to grow more food and to just survive. As a widowed farmer, Cooper longs for the days when humanity strived for the stars and a sense of adventure.

Eventually he meets an old colleague, Prof. Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway). They are part of the remnants of NASA and a secret mission to return INTERSTELLARto the stars. Fifty years earlier, a wormhole appeared near Saturn and several manned missions were sent into the wormhole since the wormhole leads to other habitable worlds. Brand hopes that these worlds can be colonized in order to save humanity. Cooper is recruited to join Amelia and other astronauts to voyage through the wormhole and follow up on data provided by earlier explorers on three potential worlds for colonization.

In the run up to Cooper leaving Earth and his children, Interstellar is the typical well-plotted-though-a bit-distant Nolan film. Yes, there are the teary scenes from his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and subtle disparaging remarks from his father-in-law (John Lithgow) about Cooper leaving his children behind without a guarantee of returning. These scenes do work but one has to wonder how Steven Spielberg (who was attached to the film originally) would’ve handled them. They probably would’ve had more emotional punch or they might’ve been overly sentimental.

INTERSTELLAR

Interstellar does pick up in leaps and bounds the moment Cooper and the crew of the spaceship Endurance first plunge into the wormhole. These moments are gasp inducing and afterwards a sense of danger and wonder is felt throughout the rest of the film. Nolan is also able to inject a feeling of moroseness and loss, especially when the effects of time dilation are noticed. Even more ominous are the moments when the Endurance crew explore two worlds. They seem genuinely alien and uninviting, and add a feeling of foreboding and lost time. Meanwhile, in the short time that he’s exploring, Cooper’s children have grown into adulthood and Murphy (now played by Jessica Chastain) has joined the project by assisting Prof. Brand as the old man struggles with a gravitational equation to allow humanity to leave Earth. As this is going on, the film engages the viewers even more and more.  Moments of high tension and eye-popping wonder fill the theater screen. The only drawbacks to Interstellar at this point are some pacing and narrative issues, as well as expository dialogue that flies by quickly. It dares audiences to keep up with  verbal examinations of quantum physics and other modern scientific concepts. The payoff though is huge.

black holeThat is because final part of Interstellar is unforgettable and daringly thought-provoking with mind-twisting moments. Nolan skillfully presents some far out concepts of physics and the nature of time and other dimensions that calls to mind Kubrick’s work in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Nolan departs from Kubrick in that while he is as analytical as Kubrick, the core of this film isn’t stark nor cold. Rather, Interstellar embraces human emotion as it rails against the cold, harsh nature of science and physics. Not only that, the film goes beyond and explores some ethical and philosophical concepts about species survival, love and the human connection. As a sci-fi epic, Interstellar is a sweeping, magnificent, though flawed, endeavor that pushes boundaries.

José Soto

R.I.P. Neil Armstrong

Today, we all lost a true hero and pioneer from the Space Age. Neil Armstrong, the first human to step on the moon, died at the age of 82.

Armstrong along with Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins effectively ended the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in July 1969 thanks to their efforts. Their manned Apollo 11 lunar mission captivated the world and for a brief moment brought everyone together. Many of us weren’t alive then or old enough to remember that moment but when looking at it, one can’t help but feel envious to not have experienced the excitement over watching that grainy black and white TV footage of Armstrong hopping onto the lunar surface.

To this day, his eloquent proclamation “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” still resonates and gives all of us pause at the ingenuity and determination of humanity. That risky landing still serves as a reminder of how we can do almost anything if we put our mind to it. While we haven’t been back to the moon since the 1970s, the legacy left by Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts serves a reminder of where we’ve been and how much further we have to venture into the final frontier.

As space buffs know, the Apollo 11 was an incredibly dangerous and complex mission. Read A Man On The Moon by Andrew Chaikin or watch the wonderful HBO mini-series From The Earth To The Moon to learn more about the herculean work it took to carry out the lunar landing. In fact, not many know that shortly before the historic mission, Armstrong nearly lost his life during training maneuvers. He was piloting a prototype of the Eagle lander. During a test, the lander malfunctioned and Armstrong was able to jettison away at the last second before it crashed. His cool nerves and fast reaction illustrate that NASA picked the right man to be the commander of the Apollo 11.

Neil Armstrong was a humble man who largely avoided the public eye especially in his later years. Instead he let his accomplishment speak for itself. Like his footprints on the moon, what he did will endure for ages.

José Soto

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

About an hour east of Orlando in Merritt Island, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex cannot be called a theme park or a museum but it has elements of both. Like any healthy attraction, it’s constantly evolving and offering something new for visitors. And coming soon, the Complex will be the home for the just-retired Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Even though the shuttle isn’t ready for viewing yet that shouldn’t stop anyone whether they’re a space buff or not from visiting the Complex. There are plenty of displays, exhibits and fantastic presentations. It’s hard to see everything the Complex offers in a single day visit. This was not so in its past and it’s a testament to how the place has grown as a viable attraction.

The basic admission includes the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Tour, IMAX presentations (many of which are in 3D), the nearby U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and the Complex’s grounds.

A popular attraction is the Shuttle Launch Experience, which simulates a shuttle launch for visitors. It’s a lot like the Mission: Space ride at Epcot only without the nausea, but it’s still a rough ride and according to many astronauts an authentic recreation of a shuttle liftoff. Next to the facility that houses the Shuttle Launch Experience is a well-detailed mock up of a shuttle called the Explorer. Visitors ascend a winding staircase to get into the craft’s hangar and further up for the cockpit.  And next to the Explorer are mock ups of the space shuttle’s external fuel tank and boosters, those and the shuttle make for memorable photo ops.

Other places to get photos include the Rocket Garden, an outdoor showcase of the rockets and capsules used during the ’60s. These include the Titan and Atlas rockets (plus a huge Saturn IB) and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules. In fact, visitors are allowed to climb into the claustrophobic. Nearby is the Early Space Exploration facility that features the actual capsules, artifacts and mission control consoles from the ’60s.

But the highlight of any visit is the KSC Tour. Although in-depth guided tours are available for additional fees, anyone can get a thorough visit with the KSC Tour. Buses at a terminal located off to the right of the Complex’s entrance plaza leave for the tour every fifteen minutes. A short ride will take visitors to the shuttles’ launch pads at the LC-39 Observation Gantry and even glimpse off in the distance the air force’s rocket launch pads. The next and final stop of the tour is a grand finale indeed. The Apollo/Saturn V Center boasts an overhead, mammoth 363-foot-long Saturn V rocket which rivals any giant dinosaur fossil display in a museum. There are also space suits, tools, a moon buggy and even a piece of moon rock that can be touched. Visitors can stay as long as they like in the Center before taking a bus back.

But the Complex isn’t just a place that looks at NASA’s past glories, there are many exhibits and attractions devoted to today’s space exploration. At the Astronaut Encounter Theater, visitors can meet and question guest astronauts. The Theater is also playing through December Star Trek Live, an engaging stage show featuring science facts and a time-travel themed storyline. Elsewhere, visitors can see up-close images from the Hubble Space Telescope or be part of Exploration Space: Explorers Wanted. An interactive, multimedia presentation on the possible future of space travel. There are even play areas in the Complex for children, a nature exhibit, an Astronaut Memorial, an art gallery and of course, souvenir shops.

To see everything at the Complex in one day is very difficult and not practical. So consider returning for a second visit. In fact, visitors who get their tickets validated when leaving can return for a second visit within a week. The admission prices are very favorable when compared to Orlando’s theme parks and the experience is much more educational and inspiring especially for future generations.

Article and Images by José Soto

Star Trek: The Exhibition at the Kennedy Space Center

The traveling exhibit Star Trek: The Exhibition is currently running through this summer at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as part of the Center’s Sci-Fi Summer. Showcasing the world of Star Trek, the Sci-Fi Summer program presents how the science fiction world of Trek helped to influence the development of our technology. It’s a great place to go if you are a Star Trek or science fiction fan not just because of the Trek-themed exhibits and attractions but because it melds that sci-fi aspect to NASA’s real life world. You get to see where we’ve been and how far we have to go.

Star Trek: The Exhibition features a scale model of the Enterprise, and the actual props and costumes used in the Star Trek shows and films. At the KSC, the exhibit is broken up into two different buildings. One where IMAX films are shown (and is currently presenting Transformers: Dark of the Moon in 3D) has a room dedicated to the original Star Trek series, though props and costumes from the Kirk-era films can be seen. The highlight is a well-detailed replica of the original Enterprise bridge complete with dedication plaque, consoles and the captain’s chair that anyone can sit on for golden photo opportunities.

At another building near the tour bus terminal is a larger exhibit room dedicated to Star Trek: The Next Generation,  as well as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. This exhibit displays a mock-up of the Reman Scorpion fighter craft seen in Star Trek: Nemesis and partial recreations of the Enterprise D’s sickbay and engine room. There are models,  numerous props and costumes worn and used by the actors and a Klingon chair that you can sit on (there are also captain chairs from the Enterprise B and D but those are roped off). Additionally one side of the exhibit’s wall has a mural with a detailed timeline of NASA and Trek history. The opposing wall displays the costumes. A nice touch to this exhibit were two actors dressed as Vulcans from the far future who stayed in character and interacted with visitors. The uniforms they wore were the ones worn by 29th century Starfleet officers as seen in the Voyager episode “Relativity.”

The KSC has Trek costumes and factoids peppered throughout the facility with several famous delta shield symbol on the grounds that act as arrows to guide visitors to Trek-related exhibits and attractions. For example one path lead sto the rocket garden where a floor painting shows how large the Enterprise ships are in comparison to the horizontally displayed Saturn 1B rocket. It’s staggering to consider how large the Trek ships are when you walk the length of the rocket. There was so much to see at the KSC that one could easily spend an entire day on the grounds. Continue reading