What are you watching while you’re cooped up inside, practicing social distancing? Here at the Star Rigger Ranch, we decided to binge on movies about infectious disease outbreaks. What fun!
We started with Outbreak, which was entertaining if totally unconvincing. With Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, and Morgan Freeman, it at least had actors you like to watch. Plus, it had the Star Trek medical-miracle feature: the ability to synthesize a vaccine/cure within about an hour of discovering the secret. You go, Bones! (And I see The Atlantic just published an article about it. Great minds…)
Segue to The Andromeda Strain, which really had that 1960s SF movie vibe going, talky and lecturing. It was mildly entertaining, but reminded me why I’d never bothered to keep a recording of it. In the end, the people do nothing useful; the bug mutates and becomes benign. (Oops—sorry—spoiler alert!)
Next up was The Cassandra Crossing, which had this going for it: It’s a train movie, and I like train movies. Otherwise it’s ludicrous, being based on the idea that if you’ve got a train filled with people infected by a plague, the obvious thing to do is to send it over a failing trestle so that it will plunge with a spectacular crash into an uninhabited ravine. That’ll show those germs! (Dusts off hands.) Next problem?
Finally we come to Contagion, by far the most realistic of the lot. Also educational, terrifying, and depressing. Good if you want to learn how this coronavirus thing could go. Bad if you’re looking for diversion.
For diversionary purposes, Outbreak is the not-very-satisfying winner. But what movies have we forgotten?
I saw Ad Astra on Saturday. I was really looking forward to it—a movie touted as a thoughtful film, possibly the best for depicting space travel in a realistic way since 2001. In fact, it’s a beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted science fiction movie… that ultimately makes almost no sense at all. Far from being realistic (or plausible, the director’s preferred term), Ad Astra is a Swiss cheese of logical gaps and science absurdities.
SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS!
Let me preface this by saying that Ad Astra has many strong points. It has great production values, and some of the world-building touches are nice. (Pillow and blanket on the shuttle to the Moon? That’ll be $125. Franchise fast food in the lunar city? That’ll probably happen. Pirates on the prowl between lunar outposts? Maybe.)
To its credit, the main thing this movie does right is the character building—specifically, Brad Pitt as an astronaut traveling to Neptune in search of his missing dad, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is suspected of being responsible for deadly energy bursts coming Neptune. The effects of solitude, both self-imposed and externally imposed, on each of them? Spot on. Fantastic performances. For this, I came away with the feeling that the movie was well worth seeing. For me, it was a failure but an interesting failure. I’ll probably watch it again.
Unfortunately, too much in the story is just dumb. For example, the notion that:
A search for intelligent life in the universe is best conducted from Neptune—why, we’re never told, because what we actually need is large detectors and telescopes, not distant ones—and that a negative finding there means that’s it, we’re alone in the universe.
A Neptune-orbiting antimatter reactor gone wrong would release bursts of world-busting energy directly at the Earth, and that the energy would magically intensify as it approached Earth (energy and radiation tends to dissipate, not intensify, with distance).
If you have a world-critical need to get from Point A to Point B on the Moon, and you know the intervening territory is infested with pirates, the thing to do is travel by lightly armed, open rover instead of… I don’t know, flying in a shuttle?
If you vent a compartment to space, the organisms inside will explode and splat on the viewports (they wouldn’t).
You would send a radio signal to Neptune and sit listening for an answer (the round-trip signal time is around eight hours).
If you need to get right now to a rocket that’s a mile away on Mars, and there’s an underground lake between you and it, definitely go underwater and pull yourself hand-over-hand along a cable, which wouldn’t take long at all.
If you need to get inside a rocket that’s moments from liftoff, and you’re coming up from beneath, you can expect to find an airlock hatch right next to the engines—and anyway, what’s a little smoke and fire to a tough astronaut?
The flight crew on a deep-space mission would carry guns as side-arms, because you never know when you might want to fire bullets inside a pressurized spaceship. And they would definitely abandon their stations during a launch (including the pilot!) to subdue a stowaway who poses no immediate threat.
I know you can come up with more. Talk to me about that tower in the opening sequence. It looks cool, but what is it, and what’s it for, and what’s holding it up? And near the end, what about that jump away from the station and through the battering rings of Neptune, and coming out right where you parked your spaceship (which you could not see through the rings)? Stop me before I go on.
When I attended the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop for writers, we screened the movie Armageddon, so that we could deconstruct the science mistakes afterward. I believe that Ad Astra may be a good candidate for that role. But I will say this: They got the far side of the Moon right, and didn’t call it the dark side of the Moon, even though it happened to be in darkness due to the Moon’s being at its full phase.
I have no wish to disparage a sincere effort by a filmmaker new to science fiction. But it appears to me that writer-director James Gray had a vision, but not the depth of understanding of his subject matter to pull it off. Or maybe he understood it, but misjudged where it was reasonable to take liberties. I acknowledge that this probably puts me in the minority of reviewers, many of whom seem to love the movie. God bless ’em.
But if you are an aspiring science fiction writer, study this movie critically. Appreciate the character-building, which is genuinely rewarding. And then learn the difference between cool looking and plausible.
For extra credit, go back and do the same exercise with Sunshine.
A week ago, we had a movie night/book launch party at my home, and we watched First Man, the excellent biopic about Neil Armstrong, which of course culminated (SPOILER ALERT!) with the successful first landing on the moon.
A few days after that, I watched First Men in the Moon on Turner Classic Movies, an oldie based on the H.G. Wells novel (how closely, I do not know). In this film, the first explorers traveled to the moon in 1899, and the story was rather different. The plot revolved around our hapless explorers finding a race of large, bug-eyed creatures called Selenites living in the moon, in a complex of caverns beneath the lunar surface.
Now I’ve just finished watching the recent Nova episode: Back to the Moon, about how and why we might—after 50 years!—return to the moon to stay. Most of the information was familiar, but something new I learned is that apparent sinkholes have recently been discovered on the moon—holes in the surface, possibly connected to subsurface tunnels and maybe even caverns! The upshot: One location real lunar settlers might pick to build their shelters is in existing tunnels and caverns beneath the lunar surface—just like the Selenites!
I’ve always been fascinated by submarines and all things underwater. Lately I’ve been reading a book called The Ice Diaries, by William R. Anderson & Don Keith. Anderson was captain of the world’s first nuclear submarine, Nautilus, when it completed the first trans-arctic voyage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, straight across the North Pole under the polar ice cap. That was in the summer of 1958. Captain Anderson tells a fascinating story of the work—and the setbacks—that went into this super top-secret mission. They sailed by special order of President Eisenhower, at a time when America was still reeling from the Soviet Union’s firsts in space and badly wanted a first of its own. (For you young’uns, this was during the Cold War, and these things mattered.)
Much of the passage was tricky to execute, because of the boat’s being sandwiched between shallow bottoms and down-plunging ridges and keels of overhead ice. Both posed a hazard to the boat, which was vulnerable to damage, especially to her periscopes and sail. It had not been built with this mission in mind, and her first forays under the ice cap had resulted in bent periscopes and a bashed-in sail. Little was known about these waters, inertial navigation was difficult close to magnetic north, and instrumentation for scanning overhead obstacles was still in its infancy. It was an impressive achievement! Here, from the book, is Nautilus returning to visit New York City.
That got me thinking about an old movie called Ice Station Zebra, from 1968, with Rock Hudson as skipper of a nuclear sub called upon to go under the polar ice. (In this case, they were to deliver some important people carrying guns to an outpost far up in the arctic.) Turns out I have a copy (I collect movies, probably more than I should), and I started watching it to see how the fictional sub sized up against the real one. The answer, to my surprise, is it sized up pretty well!
The sub in the movie looks a lot like the Nautilus, actually. (That’s a snapshot from the movie, above.) The scenes in the control room felt more realistic to me than I expected—not that I would know—and some of the instruments they showed for scanning the ice looked just like what Captain Anderson described in his book, including a monitor showing TV images from the sail. I’m going to guess that these exterior underwater shots of the sub showed it closer to dangerous ice than the real people would have liked to go, but hey, it’s a movie. As a film, it’s just so-so, but as a depiction of what that voyage might have looked like, I give it a thumbs-up!
I should ask my niece’s husband Steve about it sometime. He’s a real-life sub captain. I wonder if he ever went under the ice.
By the way, you can go aboard the real Nautilus at the Submarine Museum in Groton, CT. I’ve been; it’s very cool.