Movie Reviews - 2017 postsThursday July 06, 2017
Movie Review: Baby Driver (2017)
I heard nothing but compliments from critics and friends before I went to see “Baby Driver” and I heard nothing but complaints from my wife on the way out. She hated the movie. Hated hated. She likes a good, stupid time at the theater as much as anyone but couldn’t get past the lead, Ansel Elgort, whom she found insipid, annoying, and with zero sex appeal. “Why would any woman over 12 even like him?” she said. “He’s a 12-year-old’s idea of sexy.”
Me, I’ve got mixed feelings. I found the character of Baby, particularly in the beginning, too insular and impressed with himself. He thought he was cooler than he was and the movie let him get away with it. He couldn’t just make a sandwich, he had to make a production out of making a sandwich. To me he was just another white kid lip-syncing to black artists, which, c’mon, what year is this? 1985?
Then shit went south for him and the movie improved a bit. But enough to justify a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Critics? Vinny? Sure, there’s tons of adrenaline, but is anyone smart driving this thing?
I hit the road and I’m gone
Written and directed by Edgar Wright, the man behind the Cornetto trilogy, “Baby Driver” is about an expert getaway driver named Baby (Elgort), who works exclusively for Doc (Kevin Spacey), an Atlanta gangster. Well, “works.” When he was young he stole one of Doc’s cars and he’s been paying off the debt ever since. After the cold open, he’s the proverbial one job away from getting out.
Baby got backstory: He was orphaned at six when his mom crashed their car into a truck. Baby was in the backseat listening to his new iPod, and he’s had tinnitus ever since. He relieves it by ... listening to an iPod while driving really fast. I think Wright posits a connection between his listening and his driving. The music gets him into a zone. He pumps himself up with his own soundtrack.
The heists, for all their planning, seem ill-planned. Basically three gunmen run into a bank wearing masks and carrying high-powered weaponry, then leave with money and the cops right on their tail. It’s up to Baby to shake them. He does. (Can I just applaud the Atlanta police in this movie? Baby performs sick, only-in-a-movie maneuvers, and a second later they’re on him again. Kudos.) Afterwards, money is divvied, Baby loses most of his share to Doc, but puts the remainder under the floorboards in a three-story walkup he shares with his deaf foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones, who is deaf), for whom he makes the aforementioned sandwiches.
The movie improved greatly for me when Baby begins to romance Debora, since she’s played by Lily James, who is both adorable and can act. They’re good together: flirty and sweet. The give good dialogue. I was surprised during their “Debora song” conversation that she wasn’t aware of T-Rex’s “Debora,” since, if you’re interested in songs with your name, well, there’s a little thing called Google. I did it on iTunes 10 years ago for my wife and found “Darling Patricia” by Owen Gray. And I’m old.
Debora, of course, is young, and her dream is the dream of the young: to get out. Specifically, to get on interstate 20 with a friend and some tunes, and head west and never stop. Her wish soon becomes their goal because that “last job” isn’t the last. It only meant the debt was paid, it didn’t mean Baby doesn’t work for Doc anymore. In this next job, a Post Office of all places, everyone makes stupid decisions that lead to third-act disaster:
- Doc has Baby case the Post Office. Seems an unnecessary risk to take with your reluctant getaway driver.
- Doc has the heist team, including the well-named “Bats” (Jamie Foxx), pick up the fenced weapons without telling them they’re dealing with corrupt cops. So when Bats sees APD (Atlanta Police Dept.), bullets start flying.
- Baby tries to get away from the others at 2 a.m., but is caught by Buddy (Jon Hamm) in the parking garage. Except ... Baby’s in a car at this point, and all he has on his side is a lame excuse. (“Going to get coffee.”) Why doesn’t he just spin out and away? Like every other time in the movie?
- Instead, Bats reveals Baby’s predilection for taping conversations, including myriad ones with Doc, to sample later for his own sad amusement. And Doc doesn’t kill him right there? And he lets him drive the next day? Simply because Baby says he will?
- When everything goes wrong, and Bats and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez, hot) are killed, and Baby is pursued by both a crazed Buddy and half the APD, he grabs Debora and goes for help to ... Doc? And gets it? And Doc gives his life helping him?
Throughout, the movie makes it seem like Baby has a plan, but he has no plan. He’s a stupid kid that has a lot of luck. That scene in the diner? Where Buddy, who lost his love because of Baby, asks Baby if he loves Debora, and Baby says yes? And Debora is only saved because a cop suddenly shows up looking for a restroom? How much serendipity does Baby (and Wright) get away with here?
What’s my number
But I wasn’t bored. I’ll give it that. I thought Jon Hamm was miscast and Kevin Spacey typecast, although I liked his “Monsters Inc.” line, as did everyone. I really liked Foxx, who was note perfect. I liked that there was comeuppance—that Baby and Debora seem to be getting away, heading west like in the dream, but then the blockade, the arrest, the trial, the prison term. I loved Lily James. Can’t say this enough. My new movie crush. Slightly awkward since I’m twice her age.
But 97 percent? I liked Edgar Wright better when he was satirizing movie genres rather than making them go vroom.
Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)
“The Mummy” is the second feature Alex Kurtzman has directed—after “People Like Us,” a small drama from 2012 starring Chris Pine and Michelle Pfeiffer—but it’s not far off from what he normally does. For most of this century, he’s taken existing intellectual property and turned it into zipped-up but dumbed-down action-movie franchises.
He gave us the screenplay for the first two “Transformers,” for example, then wrote and produced the first two rebooted “Star Trek” movies (the ones its fans didn’t like). He wrote the second Antonio Banderas/Zorro movie (the one that killed the franchise), the third “Mission: Impossible” movie (the one its fans didn’t like), and the second “Amazing Spider-Man” (the one that killed the franchise). He also wrote “The Island,” wrote and produced “Cowboys & Aliens,” and produced the “Now You See Me” movies. Almost all of his movies get rotten ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.
Now he’s the man behind the Dark Universe. Maybe he always was.
Fates worse than death
According to Kurtzman, Universal approached him in 2012 with the idea of producing a reboot of The Mummy. But in tossing it around, he began to connect it with other monster movies, and envisioned a whole universe of gods and monsters—similar to Marvel’s continuing universe (MCU), DC’s extended universe (DCEU), and Warners upcoming MonsterVerse (Godzilla, King Kong, et al.).
He talks about it all in this interview with denofgeek.com. Read the whole thing. It’s sad. He mentions the great horror movies he and Tom Cruise watched before or during the making of this one, including Kurtzman’s favorite, “The Exorcist”:
In the first 10 minutes of the movie, which is essentially a silent film, you are immersed in a world and filled with a deep sense of dread, without any real understanding of why. Friedkin builds this extraordinarily scary tone, and a sense that something really, really bad is coming...
We get that in “The Mummy,” too, but with a different sense of dread, a different kind of bad.
“The Mummy” starts in England, 12th century A.D., where a ritual among knights is underway; then, boom, it’s same place, modern day, and excavation for a new London subway system reveals their tombs. A voiceover by the unidentified Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) goes into a backstory, but not about the knights. Instead, we’re suddenly in ancient Egypt, hearing about a princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), and how, to maintain power, she sold her soul to the Egyptian God of Death, Set, then killed her father, step-mother and baby brother, and was in the midst of a ritual to transfer Set’s spirit into the body of her lover, making him a living god, when she was captured by Egyptian priests and mummified alive.
Only then do we cut to modern-day Iraq and our hero.
That’s a lot of throat clearing. Worse, most of it is unnecessary (12th-century England) or detrimental to the story. Seriously, shouldn’t Ahmanet’s story have been kept in the movie’s backpocket for a bit? Instead, we know it from the get-go. As a result, when devil-may-care soldier-of-fortune Nick Morton (Cruise), and his hapless partner Vail (Jake Johnson), ride down on a shattered Iraqi town, are shot at by (essentially) ISIS, and call in a surgical strike whose subsequent hole in the earth reveals an ancient Egyptian tomb, there’s no mystery for us. There’s no suspense or dread. We’re just waiting for our hero to get up-to-speed.
And man is the tone ever wrong. The movie not only stresses action-adventure over horror, it adds comedic banter. In Iraq. I can’t stress this enough. Our hero is an American who is trying to steal ancient artifacts from a country we already destroyed. And the tone is light comedy.
Hell, ignore geopolitics and focus on what happens in the movie. In the movie, Vail objects to riding down into this enemy-held village but Nick forces his hand by slitting open his bota bag of water. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” Nick says jauntily. Then they’re shot at, the airstrike, the tomb is revealed, and Nick causes the sarcophagus of Ahmanet to be released from a pool of mercury along with a shitload of spiders. One spider bites Vail and ... well, it kills him. Or it turns him into a zombie or something. He pops up, jaundiced skin, scabs, and one eyes turned white. He talks about “fates worse than death.” Guess what? He’s comic relief. The tone is jokey. As in: “Isn’t it funny what happened to Vail? Ha! Oh, Vail. You and your eye.” Then at the end, after all the horrors and battles, after Nick is fused with Set, the God of Death and resurrects Vail, they’re in the desert again, and Nick says the exact same line in the same jaunty tone: “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“Uh, maybe I lost it after you made me suffer a fate worse than death.”
It’s all inflated self-regard and lack of accountability. You couldn’t make a movie more infused with the reckless, idiot sprit of America if you’d tried.
Dracula, Frankenstein, and Nick
Anyway, to the rest of this crapfest.
As soon as the sarcophagus is removed, all sorts of bad shit happens. A sandstorm nearly overwhelms them, then the transport plane is destroyed by kamikaze crows and goes down over England. But Nick, finally a hero, gives the last parachute to archeologist/love interest/superblonde Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) before dying himself. Except, oops, he can’t die. Or he keeps dying—like Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow”—but because Ahmanet chose him to be the vessel for Set, there he is again, without a scratch. (Question: Couldn’t she have just chosen another lover for Set? And if she wanted the plane to go down in England, why the sandstorm in Iraq to try to stop the plane?)
In London, Nick is introduced to Dr. Jekyll (Crowe), who runs Prodigium, a secret society designed to combat supernatural threats. It’s this universe’s SHIELD and Jekyll is its Nick Fury. Except, being Hyde, he’s also a customer.
I liked Crowe, to be honest. I liked his Etonish Jekyll and Cockney Hyde. I liked Boutella as Ahmanet, and the way she hissed “Thief!” at Nick—although between this, “Kingsman” and “Star Trek,” will the girl ever get to play someone with an office job? Wallis wasn’t bad, either, despite her super-blondeness. I liked the scene of the plane going down—that was actually thrilling.
And that’s it.
I mean, does anyone get the limits of Ahmanet’s powers? Even from the sarcophagus she can summon spiders, crows, sand. She can control Vail. She can also literally suck the life out of men, leaving them shriveled corpses while she regains her bodacious form; then she commands these corpses, these zombies, to do her bidding. She does this with the knights/crusaders, too, so apparently it’s anything that’s ever died. Churchill. Shakespeare. Jesus. That seems like a lot of power. How did Egyptian priests ever mummify her in the first place?
And does anyone get the ritual that’s at the center of everything? By stabbing her chosen lover with an ancient dagger embedded with a giant ruby, she transfers Set’s soul—which, I guess, is in the ruby—into human form, and the lover/Set becomes “a living God.” In underground London, after many millennia, Ahmanet finally has everything to make the ritual work: the ruby is back in the dagger, and Nick, her chosen, is there, and nobody is around to stop her. But then Nick steals the dagger and—against her cries—destroys the ruby. Ha! He wins!
So ... what does he win?
Well, Set’s spirit is fused with Nick’s and he becomes superpowerful.
But ... wouldn’t that have happened anyway? If she had stabbed him with the dagger? Wasn’t that the whole point of the ritual? So why should two different paths lead to the same result?
Uh ... Maybe this way Nick is stronger? Maybe he would’ve disappeared otherwise and only Set would’ve ruled his body?
Yeah. Either way, Nick/Set is now superpowerful, so he sucks the life out of Ahmanet, returning her to shriveled, mummified form. Serious question: Since she is the mummy of the title, what exactly is Nick in all of this? How does he belong in the Dark Universe? The characters/stars involved include Frankenstein (Javier Bardem), Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Dr. Jekyll (Crowe), Dracula and Wolfman (TBA), and ... Nick Morton? Not exactly canon.
Anyway, after all that, Nick says “Where’s your sense of adventure?” like a moron, and he and Vail ride in the desert with a sandstorm in their wake, while, via voiceover, Jenny and Jekyll debate whether Nick is now more monster than man. We could ask of Hollywood the same.
Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)
Given the negatives the movie had to work with, it wasn’t bad. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine saved it. But it wasn’t all that.
What are the negatives, you ask?
- Wonder Woman’s idiot origin story—that Amazon island out in the middle of nowhere, with bows, arrows, ancient architecture, flouncy togas, and references to Greek gods.
- The fact that writer-director Zack Snyder—that idiot—already stuck Wonder Woman back in World War I (in “Batman v Superman”), then had her not do anything for 100 years. That had to be explained. We have to find out why she was committed enough to fight in the Great War, then disillusioned enough to lay down her arms for a century—including during some of the worst crimes in human history: the Holocaust, the rape of Nanjing, the killing fields of Cambodia—only to pick them up again because Superman was too stupid to stop Lex Luthor from creating Doomsday.
Director Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) and screenwriter Allan Heinberg (“Party of Five,” “Sex and the City,” “The OC,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) don’t solve the negatives. They just kind of smudge them a little.
I was in Europe when “Wonder Woman” opened, but of course I was aware of the buzz, the positive reviews, the 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Friends on social media raved: More like this! I took it all with a grain of salt but I still took it. Are high expectations problematic? If they are, let me temper yours.
First, the island. At least the Amazon warriors feel like real warriors rather than pretty girls walking around in flouncy outfits. At least the casting isn’t bad: Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen. But it’s still boring. Doesn’t help that Diana’s mom (Nielsen) knows only extremes. “No, Diana, you can’t train to be a warrior.” “OK, sure, train her, but train her harder than anyone’s ever been trained.” “No, Diana, you and Steve Trevor (Pine) can’t leave the island.” “OK, sure, go ahead, but you can never, ever return.”
For some reason, Mom also keeps Diana’s origin—that she’s the daughter of Zeus—from her. She’s a demigod like Hercules. Why the secret?
The answer requires backstory. Way back when, Zeus created humans. Then Ares, the God of War, made them, you know, the fuckups that we are, forever fighting. In response, Zeus created Amazons, warrior women to police the idiocies of man, but in response Ares killed all the other gods. So Zeus battled Ares himself—a bit late, really—and somehow “struck him down” without killing him. In the process, Zeus died, but he left the Amazons a “God Killer” to slay Ares when he returns. Throughout the movie, Diana (Gadot) assumes the God Killer is the sword housed in a temple on the island. Nope. It’s her. She’s the God Killer. And that’s why...
Wait, couldn’t her mother tell her she’s the daughter of Zeus without letting her know she’s the God Killer? And since she is the God Killer, why object to warrior training? Because Mom doesn’t want to lose her baby? Doesn’t that defeat Diana’s purpose? Not to mention the Amazonian one? Seriously, if the Amazons are supposed to police the idiocies of man, why the hidden island where they spend day after day, year after year, century after century, training? For what exactly? And if Steve Trevor can crash-land near the island, and the Germans can storm the beach, what exactly is preventing Diana from returning? Worse is the fact that this origin story proves to be true; Ares confirms it. Which means in the DC extended universe—the movies with Batman, Superman and the Flash—human beings are the literal creations of Zeus. Our origin story isn’t Judeo-Christian, it’s not evolutionary Darwinism; it’s ancient Greek. Shouldn’t the usual right-wing nutjobs be out protesting this? Martin Scorsese gets shit but Zack Snyder gets off scot-free?
Seriously, every attempt at solving the negatives in Wonder Woman’s origin just seems to lead to more negatives.
Here’s another reason why Diana’s mom shouldn’t have kept her in the dark, but it requires another backstory—a cinematic one.
In certain ways, “Wonder Woman” is similar to the 1978 superhero movie that started them all, “Superman” starring Christopher Reeve, in that our title character is both an innocent abroad and straight man/woman for the duration. In “Superman” the humor comes from Lex Luthor and his minions, and the cynicism from Lois Lane. It’s 1978 but Superman believes in our institutions; he believes in truth, justice and the American way. He also knows everything; he’s been educated. He’s innocent but smart.
Diana is the straight woman here—Pine provides the laughs—and she’s innocent, like Supes, but she’s not smart, she’s not educated. Sure, she knows every language but nothing of cultural mores or history. This leads to humorous bits—she doesn’t know flashing leg in post-Victorian England ain’t cool, for example—but doesn’t it diminish our hero? And what does it say of Amazon’s schooling? Are they paying any attention to the outside world?
The movie does improve considerably once Chris Pine shows up for beefcake/comic relief. Even better when we get to London and add his secretary Etta (Lucy Davis, Dawn of the original “Office”). They have good interplay. Of Capt. Trevor’s sidekicks, I liked Sameer (Said Taghmaoui of “La Haine”), could’ve done without the drinking, singing, unable-to-shoot Scotsman Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and kind of rolled my eyes when the Native American, The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), shows up. But this is the team that goes to the front to confront the movie’s villains, Gen. Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), whom Diana suspects of being Ares, and the supercreepy poison-gas specialist Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), who, in the midst of an Armistice promoted by England’s Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), is developing a poison gas that will win the war for Germany.
I’ll cut to the chase. Wonder Woman kills Ludendorff with the God Killer sword but it doesn’t stop the war. Everything continues. Man is corrupt, and for a moment she looks like an idiot. But then the real Ares appears—shock, Sir Patrick Morgan!—who crushes the sword, taunts Diana with revelations, toys with her as they battle, but ultimately is destroyed. The weapon we see in the first act—the powerful force generated when Diana clangs her bracelets together—goes off in the third, and it saves the day. This doesn’t stop man’s warlike tendencies either, though it goes unremarked all the same. I guess Diana is less innocent by this point.
The ending is mushy. Not as in “romantic,” as in “without clarity.” Throughout, Diana’s raison d’été is clear-eyed: Kill Ares, stop all wars. Capt. Trevor is good, the Germans are bad. By the end—even though Trevor is good and the Germans are bad—she realizes Steve, and the U.S. and its allies, are part of humanity’s problem, too. For a time she rejects him. But when he sacrifices himself to save thousands, she cries to the skies—like Supes in ’78—and then tears Ares a new one.
And her philosophy after all this? That’s the mushy part. The movie has to thread an impossible needle: give her a reason to be inactive throughout a horrible century without condemning all of humanity in the process. Here’s what they come up with: She decides that fighting doesn’t stop wars; only love stops wars. So she stops fighting to do something else. Like work a desk job in a secret room in the Louvre.
Here’s the exact voiceover:
I used to want to save the world: to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both—the choice each must make for themselves—something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know that only love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be. This is my mission now. Forever.
Or at least until “Batman v Superman.”
As I said, Gadot makes a fantastic Wonder Woman. She’s just a glory to behold even when she’s standing there: strong and tough and lovely. I laughed-out-loud when she threw a bully across a tavern and Sameer said, “I am frightened and at the same time aroused.” Raise a glass.
I also like her sprint across “No Man’s Land”—and the obvious pun therein—and her battle in the small European village, including 1) that slow-mo moment when she crashes with a German soldier through a second-story window, and 2) when she appears atop a demolished town-square clocktower, to cheers, after taking out a German sharpshooter.
But the above problems. Wonder Woman was created by a man with a bondage fetish (William Marston, Ph.D.), and her cinematic origin was switched to WWI by a man with a Great War/bustier fetish (Zack Snyder), and it’s tough for Jenkins and company to overcome all of this. In a way, Jenkins’ task is similar to Wonder Woman’s. Men created this shitfest and now a woman has to clean it up. Given that, Jenkins doesn’t do poorly.
Movie Review: The Fabulous Allan Carr (2017)
Yeah, this doesn’t quite work.
The titular Allan Carr (née Alan Solomon of Highland Park, Ill.) was a sweet, portly, caftan-wearing gay man known for throwing wild disco parties in the 1970s. He made a mint producing “Grease” in Hollywood and won a Tony producing “La Cage Aux Folles” on Broadway, but these were his hifalutin exceptions. Everything else he touched was either so-bad-it’s-good, plain bad, or kill-me-now bad.
Among his works:
- “Grease 2,” the sequel that bombed
- “Where the Boys Are ’84,” the remake that bombed
- “C.C. & Company,” Joe Namath’s biker-flick bomb
It gets worse. Riding high after “Grease” became the No. 1 movie of 1978, grossing the equivalent of $680 million domestic, Carr could do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted to do, apparently, was make a pseudo-biopic of the chart-topping disco group the Village People. That wish became, of course, “Can’t Stop the Music,” starring the Village People, Steve Guttenberg, Bruce Jenner, and—when Carr couldn’t get Olivia Newton-John—Valerie Perrine. Then Carr tapped Rhoda’s mom, Nancy Walker, who had directed nothing but a few sitcom episodes, to direct. It’s a movie so bad it actually inspired the birth of the Razzie Awards.
But “Can’t Stop the Music” didn’t kill his career. What killed his career was the 1989 Oscar telecast. Yeah, the Snow White one. For the opening number, for 15 agonizing minutes, an actress dressed as Snow White serenaded the celebrity crowd, Merv Griffin (for some reason) sang “Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," and then Rob Lowe (of all people) joined Snow White onstage for a “date” and a duet of the Ike and Tina Tuner classic “Proud Mary.” Hollywood was incensed and Carr never recovered. He survived “Can’t Stop the Music” only to be stopped by his music.
A doc that dealt more honestly with its subject, that maybe tried to delve into Carr’s nostalgia for ’50s America (not exactly a gay-friendly time), might have been worthwhile. But throughout “The Fabulous Allan Carr,” I felt director Jeffrey Schwartz propping up his subject. For “Can’t Stop the Music,” Walker gets the brunt of the blame; for the Oscar fiasco, it’s the critics—and the subsequent Disney lawsuit against the Academy goes completely unmentioned. The doc also implies that John Travolta was just a sitcom actor before “Grease,” when there was a little thing called “Saturday Night Fever” between the two, and Michelle Pfeiffer was “discovered” in a grocery store for “Grease 2,” when, c’mon, she’d been on TV and in B-movies for years. Read your Nathaniel Rogers.
Schwartz, who directed two admirable docs, “Tab Hunter Confidential” and HBO’s “Vito,” does have a tendency to gravitate toward schlock. Besides Tab, he gave us “I Am Divine” in 2013, and is currently working on “Goddess: The Showgirls Chronicles.” Is that why he seems to forgive Carr's schlock? Because he sees nothing to forgive?
There's due diligence. Schwartz interviews family friends, tracks down Valerie Perrine, gives us “Mad Men”-style animation to fill in the gaps in Carr's story. But he’s too soft around his subject. He wants us to like him too much. I think of a Franz Kafka line, “A writer is not a nice person.” Documentarian, too.
Movie Review: The Farthest (2017)
During the end credits, one of the talking heads/scientists questions the off-camera documentarian’s use of the word “she” to describe the two Voyagers that we sent into space in 1977 to collect data and send out a multilingual message of greeting, Mozart and Chuck Berry to other potential life forms. He says, no, we don’t anthropomorphize the Voyager spacecraft, adding, with a twinkle, “They wouldn’t like it.”
We need that twinkle because anthropomorphizing Voyager is part of what we, and this doc, have been doing for 90 minutes. It’s why the doc has such emotional heft.
12 billion and counting
“The Farthest” is a good intro doc for idiots like me who haven’t been paying attention. I mostly knew Voyager from its reincarnation as V’ger in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” I didn’t know both Voyagers were still out there. I didn’t know that in 2012 Voyager I became the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. I didn’t know what “interstellar space” was.
Distance is a big part of the anthropomorphization. We see (through digital animation) how far it’s gone, and we see (through actual photos it’s sent back) how far away we are, and we can’t help but feel a pang of ... loss? Concern? Solicitousness? It travels at 10 miles per second, to where no man has gone before, and it’s surrounded by the vast cold and not much else. It doesn’t even have close encounters with planets anymore: Jupiter, Saturn, and for Voyager 2, Uranus and Neptune. It doesn’t even have the company of the other Voyager: Voyager 1 is years ahead of 2 and on a different trajectory. Our greatest stories, from Iliad/Odyssey to “The Wizard of Oz,” are about going out and returning home, and the Voyagers can’t do the second. They can only send back messages. Increasingly distant messages.
That may be the thing that stunned me most watching this. How do we still communicate with these guys? How are we able to tell 2 to turn and take a picture of our solar system as it’s leaving it? I sometimes have trouble getting a signal from a router down the hallway and we can communicate with a spacecraft 2.7 billion miles away? Or, now, 12 billion miles?
And this is with mid-’70s technology! Each is the size of a gangly bus, and for each, its total memory is, according to one scientist, “240 thousand times less than in your smart phone.” You do a double-take. “Wait, did he say 240 or ... Really? 240 thousand? Whoooaaaaa.” You think of all Voyager has done despite those limitations, and all that we haven’t with the world at our fingertips.
We get a few pop culture moments. The Beatles, or one of its reps, apparently turned down the chance to be on the gold record we sent into the farthest reaches of space, which is why Chuck Berry is on it instead. (Are the Rolling Stones miffed they weren’t asked?) We see a clip of SNL psychics talking up the future news in 1978, one of whom, Steve Martin, says the big news story will be the four words we hear back from the farthest reaches of space, which indicate intelligent life elsewhere: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But there’s no “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” or other sci-fi incarnations here. It’s science.
I kept flashing on sci-fi, though. Ten years ago, I wrote a short history of alien-invasion movies for MSNBC, and what stood out during the research—the long hours watching those hokey movies—was the absolute paranoia of ’50s movies versus Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977:
At no point does anyone in Spielberg’s movie worry that the aliens might be less than kind. Sure, they kidnap our military pilots and small children, and they’ve obviously got superior technology. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!
The Voyagers, which were sent into space the same year “Close Encounters” was released, assumed benevolence, too. We not only sent our music and messages and photos, we indicated where we were in case anyone wanted to come visit. Can you imagine if NASA attempted that today? What Fox News would say? Or Rush or Drudge? One scientist/talking head says here, “There’s never going to be another mission like it. It’s the first and last of its own kind,” but I’m curious why. Why aren’t we interested enough to make it happen again? Because of the paranoia? Because there’s no money in it? Because in space, no one can hear you profit?
The long and winding road
“The Farthest” isn’t even an American documentary. It’s Irish. It’s written and directed by Emer Reynolds, who works as an editor in the Irish film industry, but who’s done a few documentaries over the years: shorts one, TV ones, one on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and now this. She’s a big science geek, and did a whistle-stop tour of the U.S. to interview our extant Voyager scientists. What she comes away with is glorious.
Reynolds gives us a lot of shots of the earth looking up from a deep below, and we get the computer simulations of the Voyagers, as well as the actual photos they took, but what makes the doc work—and cue John Ford, please—is the human faces of these scientists: their smarts, enthusiasms, and pure joy in the journey. That we sent this piece of ourselves out there, and it’s still going, and it will likely still be going when you and I and all of our loved ones are long dead. “Four billion years from now,” says one, “when our sun turns into a red giant, Voyager is still going to be trucking out there, through the stars. We’ll still be out there.”