Wednesday, December 28, 2005

DVD Review: The Island

You know how some heavy metal songs start out slow and ballad-like and then suddenly the power chords cut through the quiet and the rockin' and the rollin' begins. That's Michael Bay's new sci-fi movie on DVD, The Island. It's a slow and thoughtful concept movie and a fast and frantic action movie all rolled into one.

The first 20 minutes or so set up the concept. Why are all these people dressed alike and why are they living pampered lives in an enclosed and antiseptic habitat? Why are they all so childish? Why can't Scarlett Johanssen be touched? What's up with that?

Then suddenly the movie changes from being a "film" into being a Michael Bay movie, with the running, and the jumping, and the fighting, and the chasing, and things blowing up. Very exciting!

There are some great chase scenes in this movie. Special effects have come a long way or somebody has invented really cool flying motorcyles. With mounted machine guns and missiles! Yes!

There's something for the brain, too, in the movie's themes of what it means to be human and the morality, or not, of treating human beings as tools for the benefit of others. Something for contemporary society to think about. Can you say "embryonic stem cells?"

And then there's Scarlett Johanssen. Something else to think about, but in a different way. Ewan McGregor is very good, as always. Has he ever just phoned it in? Not so far. Steve Buscemi, sorry to say, does. Besides McGregor and Johanssen, Sean Bean puts in a convincing performance as the bad guy. Credit has to go to all the actors playing the sheltered clones. They do a very fine job of portraying childish adults. It's disconcerting to watch at first until it's revealed why the characters behave the way they do.

Rent the DVD. It won't be a waste of time or money.



Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Lights On Mars.

One day a human habitat on Mars may be decked out in Christmas lights much like in this image. Santa's gonna have to get a pressurized sleigh and reindeer spacesuits.


PS: We received this image in an email. We lost the email and so are unable to credit the photo at this time. We will post the credit as soon as we can.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Movie Review Of Aeon Flux

For a movie based on a series of confusing short animations from MTV, Aeon Flux is a very watchable science-fiction movie with an intelligent theme. The story takes place in a dystopic future where all humanity has died off except for 5 million people who live in the walled city, Bregna, under the dynastic rule of the Goodchild family. Aeon Flux is an agent for a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow the repressive government and kill the ruler, Trevor Goodchild. But things are not all that they seem.

The movie has several strengths. It is blessed with a very watchable lead duo in Charlize Theron, as Flux, and Marton Csokas, as Goodchild. (Both actors are from the southern hemisphere. There must be something in the air down there.) They and Jonny Lee Miller make the movie as the three primary actors. The movie's theme, revealed in full at the end, is a mature reflection on the meaning of mortality. The plot's twists and turns and the slow revelation of the true nature of life in Bregna make for thoughtul viewing. Finally, the overall vision and feel of the movie, as important elements in any science fiction movie as acting and story, are credible.

There are a few weaknesses. It appears billed as an action flick but the action feels more like filler for the interesting story and theme. Pete Postlethwaite and Frances McDormand are wasted in supporting roles although their presence in the cast lends credibility to the movie. The costume design leans toward high fashion and is almost silly at times. Postlethwaite's costume especially is as ridiculous as any costume from the movie Zoolander. It's so ridiculous, in fact, it detracts from the emotion of a moment between him and Theron near the end of the movie. Finally, although the movie attempts to hide the mystery at the core of life in Bregna, it is not that hard to figure it out about halfway through.

On balance the movie is worth seeing in theaters. And although it's based on something else, it's not a remake and it tells its own story --- unlike a certain blockbuster starring a really big monkey. Support original movie making. See Aeon Flux while it's still in theaters, but make it a matinee.



Monday, December 19, 2005

Cycling To Mars And Back?

Buzz Aldrin continues to develop the idea of cycling to Mars and back. His latest description of the procedure is published this month in Popular Mechanics. In space, cycling does not mean Lance Armstrong, Astronaut. Cycling in space refers to a transportation system in which "cycling space ships" fly in permanent orbits between Earth and Mars taking astronauts between the planets. Astronauts ride the cycleships from planet to planet after rendezvousing with them using shuttles launched from the Earth on one end and Mars on the other. It's a sophisticated system that has the potential for providing permanent transportation between the planets. Read Aldrin's article (here) and forward the link to David Broder (here's why) when you're done.



What Does David Broder Know?

President Bush gets a lot of grief. Some of it is reasonable but some of it isn't. The unreasonable variety includes criticism of his so-called plan to send humans to Mars. It's unreasonable first because his Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) is not a plan to send humans to Mars, it's a plan to send humans back to the Moon and establish a permanent base there. The Vision's secondary goal is to send people to Mars. But the VSE is more visionary than that because its ultimate goal is to send humans throughout the Solar System to stay. The criticism of the VSE is unreasonable second because sending humans to Mars is a logical next step beyond the Moon for human exploration of space. If the human space program doesn't intend to go beyond the Moon we might just as well scrap it.

The latest swipe at sending humans to Mars came this weekend in David Broder's column, in which he advocated the President adopting Senator Lamar Alexander's plan to increase funding for basic research and more science teaching jobs.
This [Alexander's plan] is a large order, but much more practical than Bush's earlier promise of a manned mission to Mars. Alexander quotes his mentor, the late Bryce Harlow, an Eisenhower aide, who taught him that "everything that comes to the White House is important, but only a few things are presidential." This, says Alexander, is presidential. And it's there for Bush's taking.

As described by Broder (here), Alexander's plan to increase funding for basic science research and to hire more science teachers sounds worthy. We would not necessarily call it "presidential." Stripped of flowery rhetoric Alexander's plan is mostly a program to increase funding for teachers, which is more gubernatorial than presidential, but whatever.

The point is that the President's VSE is a worthy plan as well. Moreover, the VSE is a science program, a jobs program, an educational program that will teach more about space, and like Apollo, it has the potential to inspired uncounted numbers of people for years to come to pursue careers in science.

What Broder's column demonstrates is "the tyranny of either-or thinking." Just because it might be a good thing to spend more money on basic science and science teachers, doesn't mean it's a bad thing to spend money on sending humans into space. It's only a bad thing if one thinks in "either-or" terms. The issue should not be whether we fund one or the other, but how we can fund both.


The Space Launch Revolution Sputters

In disappointing news, SpaceX had to scrub their Falcon launch today. They intend to try again next year. (Click here for details.)


Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Space Launch Revolution Continues.

SpaceX plans to launch their Falcon rocket on Monday, December 20th, at 11 AM, California time. SpaceX is the space company founded by PayPal's Elon Musk to develop an inexpensive family of launch vehicles. Monday they will launch a satellite for DARPA and the Air Force into an orbit just a bit farther out than the space station. For more information about SpaceX go to their website here, and to their press release here for more about the launch. Our fingers are crossed for a successful launch.

The photo below of the Falcon at the Marshall Islands launch facility was released by SapceX. It's an understated image. Most of the images of SpaceShipOne seemed similarly understated. The most revolutionary things happening in the private space race look rather ordinary, which is fitting since the goal of this new race is to make space travel as common one day as air travel is today. Would that it were today.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Aesthetics In Space

(Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

If space exploration does nothing else for humanity its contribution to art is worth the expense. This Cassini photo of Saturn's moon Dione is a great example of the beauty we discover in the universe by sending spacecraft into the solar system. (For more information click here for caption page from JPL.)


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