Of Love And Monsters

Love and Monsters was released last month through video on demand and had a limited theatrical release. Like practically every film since this spring, it too could not get a widespread theatrical release because of the coronavirus. It’s a shame since this extraordinary film deserves much more attention, though positive word of mouth might elevate it to cult status sometime down the road.

love and monsters dog

In a nutshell, Love and Monsters stars Dylan O’Brien as Joel Dawson, an insecure twentysomething doing his best to survive during a giant monster apocalypse, all in the name of love.

As told in the film’s opening segments, years ago, a giant asteroid threatening Earth was destroyed with missiles, but the fallout mutated Earth’s cold-blooded creatures into gigantic monstrosities that essentially destroyed civilization. Now what is left of humanity ekes out meager existences in underground shelters and bunkers, and do their best to avoid the bloodthirsty critters that have claimed the surface world.

Joel pines for his lost love, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), who was forced to separate from him years ago. Recently, he tracked her down at a colony over 80 miles away from his own and he decides to risk it all to reunite with her. The only problem is that Joel lacks basic survival skills and somehow has to find a way to make it through the deadly surface landscape without being eaten.

Along his voyage, he comes across a handful of memorable characters. These include a loveable dog called Boy, which quickly bonds with Joel, a broken robot Mav1s (Melanie Zanetti), and a scruffy but friendly survivor Clyde (Michael Rooker) and his spunky companion, a young girl named Minnow (Arianna Greenblatt). They help Joel out and teach him how to survive in the rugged landscape by using his wits and valuable survival skills.

Naturally, Joel and Boy face many dangers, some of which are genuinely creepy and tense, but he discovers his own potential as he grows during his journey. Sure, it seems implausible that Joel could have survived for years in the giant monster apocalypse without having basic survival skills, but his emotional journey was quite satisfying to watch.

Love and Monsters is such a pleasant surprise. It is not a dire, dark film, but it is still boasts its fair share of thrills. By the way, the creature designs are very imaginative and unique. The best way to describe the many monsters Joel and the others encounter is to think of those creepy pit creatures from Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong.

Yes, thanks to its lighter tone, Love and Monsters can be compared to Zombieland, though it is not as funny. Still, it does have a lot of heart, has charming characters and it is easy to tell everyone involved from the actors to the production crew to the writers (Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson) and director (Michael Matthews) gave it their all. The result is a satisfying giant monster film with a ton of heart.

In fact, the film strikes and inspirational tone with its message that although a situation may be dire, it is possible to overcome it and thrive. In some strange way, Love and Monster is somewhat relevant to our current situation by demonstrating the pluck nature of humanity will overcome obstacles, which in the film’s case are giant monsters.

José Soto

SpaceX Heralds Humanity’s Next Step In Space

On May 30, 2020 3:22 pm, EDT, the private company SpaceX successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center a crewed space capsule into space. The capsule, named Dragon, docked today with the International Space Station and made history as the newest generation of reusable spacecraft to enter service.

The Dragon is light years ahead of the old Apollo space capsules, the retired space shuttles and the Soyuz space capsules with its many automated and updated functions. For instance, its docking with the International Space Station was fully automated with its crew, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, seeming to be more like passengers though they are capable of assuming manual control if needed. SpaceX’s rocket, the Falcon 9, which launched the Dragon into orbit is also revolutionary in that it is resusable and successfully landed back on Earth after separating from the space capsule after the Dragon achieved orbit. The reusable feature of the Falcon 9 is literally something out of an old pulp sci-fi tale which featured vertical rockets taking off and landing.

The successful test of this spaceflight marks the first time a private company was able to launch and operate spacecraft with humans into space. This also heralds the next step into space exploration. As many know, the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, has an ambitious vision to turn humanity into a true space-faring race with plans to land humans on Mars during this decade and establishing a colony on the red planet. Yesterday’s launch of the Dragon is just the first step in Musk’s grand scheme.

But in order to get to Mars and beyond, Elon Musk and NASA had to prove the SpaceX program was feasible. After the space shuttles were retired in 2011, the United States had to rely on Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station until a replacement vehicle for the space shuttles were built. It was determined it would be more expedient and cost effective if private companies developed and built space vehicles and the result was the Commercial Crew Program. The idea was that competition between companies encouraged innovation and cost savings and would free NASA to focus on deep space exploration. At the same time, the Commercial Crew Program enables NASA to be less reliant on Russia and other nations as companies handle routine orbital operations, such as ferrying crew and supplies to the International Space Station.

Of course, this test cannot just be a one-off. The resuable spacecraft needs to repeatedly and safely launch from the Kennedy Space Center and return to Earth. There will be mishaps and setbacks, such as when the SpaceX prototype rocket, Starship, exploded on May 29 in Texas during a test. For now, SpaceX will concentrate on ensuring the Falcon 9 and Dragon can become a workhorse in the same way the space shuttles were. It is also certain that repeated success will allow SpaceX and NASA to push the boundaries and embolden both to return to the Moon and beyond.

It was certainly heartening in spite of recent crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and riots, humanity is able to demonstrate the ability to rise beyond such strife and take its place among the stars with these next steps.

Contagion: A Harbinger For Our Time

 

Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion has sadly become one of those quasi-science fiction films that became a reality. Of course, this relates to the coronavirus pandemic that has upended our global society.

The parallels between the film and what is going on right now are downright eerie and disturbing. However, there are distinct differences between Contagion and reality, especially later on in the film.

Infections

Contagion illustrated how the MEV-1 virus easily spread from China throughout the world as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) on a business trip in Hong Kong became patient zero, interacted with many people and infected them. Steven Soderbergh inspired direction discreetly showed how easy it was for the virus to spread as many shots lingered on surfaces touched by infected victims, which were then touched by others.

One way the film differed from reality is how quickly victims exhibited symptoms and the mortality rate. People infected with the fictional virus displayed harsh symptoms apparently overnight, though most likely this can be attributed to film editing. The timeframe shown in the beginning of Contagion has Beth Emhoff already sick when she arrived in the U.S. Careful observations showed that she had been ill for a few days, but we’re shocked when she dies horribly mere minutes into the film. These quick time jumps were shown of how other characters became ill and died. With the coronavirus the incubation period ranges from days to weeks and explains why the disease is more insidious and deadlier than the MEV-1 because many people are already infected but won’t show symptoms for some time. Meanwhile, they’re unwittingly spreading the virus. On the other hand, the MEV-1 virus had a mortality rate of 25 to 30 percent, which was dramatically worse than COVID-19. Imagine how much worse things would be if COVID-19 had that kind of mortality rate.

Deployments

A similarity between Contagion and real life is with the deployment of military and medical services to combat the virus and maintain order. The film turned out to be accurate in its depiction for how the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mobilized to study and combat MEV-1. We are seeing this played out in real time as scientists and doctors race not only to find a vaccine but at least some kind of treatment. Unlike the film and fortunately for us, the intense medical efforts have opened up promising treatments and even vaccine tests. In Contagion, these breakthroughs did not happen until long months had passed. But before anyone reading this starts celebrating, bear in mind that trials and tests need to be completed and we are looking at a vaccine being ready anywhere from a year to eighteen months at the earliest. So for now prevention is the best defense; that includes being as clean as possible and social distancing (which was mentioned in Contagion as means of slowing the spread of the virus).

Even more distressful is the way Contagion portrays the chaos and breakdowns as the fictional MEV-1 virus ravages the world. Thankfully, we have not seen the mass riots, looting and lawlessness that take place later in the film. But we must heed these important warnings of what we face if the COVID-19 virus is not contained and continues spreading. Already healthcare systems are on the verge of collapse in a several places like Italy or are severely strained in many others.

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Ad Astra Takes Us On A Visually Stunning, If Muddled Voyage To The Stars

poster ad astra

Ad Astra is a new sci-fi film starring Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride who is assigned to a top-secret mission to Neptune. A few decades from now, humanity has gained a foothold in our solar system with bases on the Moon and Mars. Years earlier, McBride’s father, Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut, went to Neptune on a mission to find intelligent life beyond our system. However, the mission apparently failed as Earth lost contact with the elder McBride. At the start of Ad Astra (which is Latin for “to the stars”), mysterious power surges from Neptune engulf the Earth and threaten all life in the solar system. Roy McBride is tasked to establish contact with his father, who is believed to be alive and somehow causing the surges.

brad pitt as roy mcbride

This may sound like a fairly simple plot, but Ad Astra is more complex and thought provoking than one might think. Directed by James Gray, who directed the pensive The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is just as reflective as Gray’s previous film as it chronicles Roy McBride’s long journey to possibly reunite with his father. The film is certainly not an action-packed fest, but more of a slow burn that for the most part engages the mind. There are arresting sequences that grab attention, such as a thrilling moon rover chase sequence involving pirates, and a claustrophobic visit to a distant space lab. In between these scenes, we are left to ponder Roy McBride’s ambivalent feelings towards his long-lost father and his own failings in trying to live under the shadow of his father’s legacy. In some strange way, McBride’s reflections echo Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the visual look of the film evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On the whole, Ad Astra is a mesmerizing watching experience. The space sequences are simply beautiful with magnificent special effects and photography. James Gray supposedly was insistent on making futuristic space travel as realistic as possible and it shows in this film. There isn’t any ludicrous technobabble and though humanity has expanded into the solar system, voyagers still contend with zero-g conditions and use rockets. The scenes on the Moon best echo 2001 in how commercialization and civilians make a voyage to the Moon feel a bit humdrum. It’s not gritty (that aesthetic is saved for McBride’s visit to Mars), but very average and comfortable as the Moon bases are littered with commercial properties like Applebee’s and D.H.L.

Clearly, the first half of Ad Astra is the most engaging as it presents us with a grounded travelogue of space travel in the future. But issues with the film’s plot and pace come up in the second half. The film requires constant attention, but it becomes a bit too ponderous and the payoff at the end doesn’t quite resonate, Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross try to present an important message and an intense spiritual journey, but the delivery is muddled and the payoff feels anti-climatic. There isn’t anything wrong with their message about ourselves, but unlike the stunning visuals of the film, it doesn’t have much emotional impact. What lessens the film’s flaws, aside from the visuals, are Brad Pitt’s charismatic performance. This kind of film demands a certain type of actor that audiences will want to empathize with and Pitt fills the bill perfectly. Other supporting actors have small but memorable appearances throughout.

Mcbride at space elevator

Ad Astra is the kind of film that is meant to marinade after viewing it. Anyone hoping for an action film or a thriller are better off seeing Rambo: Last Blood or It: Chapter Two. Others who are seeking a cerebral experience, or a vehicle for inner reflection, or just want to see an unforgettable and plausible look at our future will appreciate Ad Astra.

One Giant Leap: Apollo 11’s 50th Anniversary

It may be all too easy to conveniently forget or dismiss the historic anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing given the current mess our world is in. It is also just as easy to get caught up in all the problems, both petty to serious, we face, from hateful political tweets to nuclear proliferation, from celebrity gossip to climate change. Yet, the fact remains that fifty years ago, humankind observed and celebrated its greatest technological feat with the first manned landing on our moon.

Of course, everyone knows of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., the second man to walk on the moon, and Michael Collins, the command module pilot of the Columbia, which stayed in lunar orbit as Armstrong and Aldrin descended to moon on the lunar module Eagle. Their accomplishment was truly spectacular and took great courage considering the dangers they faced with relatively untested and primitive (by today’s standards) technologies. Neil Armstrong was always an understated, low-key person who quickly disappeared from the spotlight after his feat. This is part of the reason why not many know how suitable he was for the mission. In his career, Armstrong displayed a calm veneer and quick-thinking skills that were needed in the Apollo 11 mission. Before Apollo 11, Armstrong used these skills to improvise and save his life during dangerous tests and would do so again as the Eagle approached its landing spot. The astronaut saw as they approached the site that it was not a suitable place to land the Eagle, so he used his piloting and navigational skills to quickly find a new location with precious seconds to spare before the module’s fuel ran out. The mission was that close to failing but thankfully it was a huge success which momentarily united all of humankind.

Apollo 11 was one of the most significant milestones in our collective history because with this feat humanity was no longer Earthbound. We are now on the verge of becoming a spacefaring species thanks to the mission, which truly was one small step, but an incredibly important one. This is vital because by traveling into space we are taking steps to prevent our extinction. Of course, landing on the moon was just the beginning and as of now it will take much more for us to become a true space-dwelling species.

One downside to the Apollo mission is that it was fueled back in the ’60s by the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. was caught up in a struggle to get to the moon first, to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon by the end of the decade. And this was accomplished 50 years ago, but afterwards, both superpowers took their eyes off the ball. Instead of expanding upon the landing and establishing a lunar colony, both countries focused their space efforts much closer to home. As we made numerous trips to low Earth orbits to set up space stations and conduct experiments the public’s interest in the space effort quickly diminished. Many became downright dismissive and openly (and loudly) wondered what was the use of traveling to space when we had more pressing problems down on Earth.

While these critics have a legitimate point, they overlooked the long-range benefits of space travel and even the immediate ones. For example, after the Apollo program closed down in the ’70s, many of the technicians involved in the program eventually migrated to the computer field. Many of them were considered geniuses and many organizations involved with computers took advantage of this. They were able to use their expertise and knowledge to help drive the marvelous Computer Age that we live in. This is stunning when you consider that the computer that ran the Eagle spaceship was far weaker than any cellphone. As primitive as the computers were during the Apollo mission they paved the way for the computer renaissance today.

However, computers and other technological innovations are not the primary legacy of Apollo 11. Thanks to the efforts of the Apollo 11 astronauts and everyone involved, the imagination was fueled for many of today’s entrepreneurs who have an eye toward space. These include Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Robert T. Bigelow. They are actively improving and creating new space technologies such as the resuable Falcon 9 rocket–a true successor to the Apollo’s Saturn V, inflatable space habitats, and more. Private companies are now paving the way to fully return us not just to the moon but to Mars itself. So even though it may seem as if we had reached a dead end with the lunar landing 50 years ago, the fact is that there was merely a delay. We are on the cusp of the next great Space Age where the Space Race won’t be between nations but companies as they rush to reach the red planet. There will be mishaps and setbacks but in the long run these will be mere blips in our future history of being space dwellers.

Thus, 50 years later, Apollo 11 continues to impress and inspire countless of others who will carry forth our species into the stars. Collectively, we will always commemorate and celebrate this historic moment for our species because as Neil Armstrong himself famously said when he took his first step on the moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Walter L. Stevenson and José Soto