Sunday, January 27, 2019

Silent Running (1972)

The last time I saw this movie was somewhere in the early 80s.  It was the first and only time I saw the movie, though I had grown up with a couple cues off the soundtrack.  Some movies I see once and I've forgotten them a couple weeks later.  Some movies I see once and they stick with me for thirty plus years.  Silent Running is one of the latter.

While Silent Running isn't one of my favorite movies, it's a movie I appreciate and I'm glad I rewatched it for the Robots in Film blogathon.

Rather like Wall-E, it's set in a future where nothing green grows on earth anymore.  To preserve the last natural vegetation, several giant space freighters were sent into space, each carrying several greenhouse domes, each preserving a different type of natural environment.  For eight years, the ships have been in orbit out near Saturn.  Then the order comes from earth -- detach and nuke each dome and return home.  They need the big spaceships for other purposes, and no one needs the forgotten forests anymore.

Our protagonist in this story is Lowell, played by Bruce Dern.  He finally gets to play a good guy, though some could argue that Lowell comes a bit unhinged.  And maybe he does.  Your opinion may vary depending upon how much you love the natural world and how far you'd go to protect it.  But I personally love Bruce Dern in this movie, and I love his character.  I have to admit I relate pretty strongly to his passionate caretaker character, who ends up disobeying the nuke orders quite violently to save his favorite dome from destruction.  Where the other crew members rotate on each year and take care of the running of the ship, Lowell has been with the ship caring for the domes the full eight years.  Bruce Dern is perfect for this role.  Watching his horror at the irreplaceable loss as the other ships gleefully jettison and blow up their own domes one by one is heartbreaking. By the time they come for his dome, you know he has to act.

And that brings us to the robots in this movie:  Drone 1, Drone 2, and Drone 3.  Or as Lowell renames them:  Dewey, Huey, and Louie, in that order.   They are basically maintenance robots, designed to keep the giant spaceship running.  But, they're also reprogrammable, and once he's alone on the giant ship, Lowell reprograms them to do all kinds of new stuff to help him survive.  He programs them to perform surgery, to play poker, and, most importantly, to care for the garden.  The robots are boxy, a bit awkward, have no mouths or eyes or any human features, but they quickly take on personalities after he reprograms them, and they appear to convey what they're feeling to some extent.  They feel the loss of Louie, they consult each other during a poker match.  It helps that Lowell talks to them as if they're human.  Huey, Dewey, and Louie are crucial to the plot of this movie, and I love the ending of this film.  The three robots are acted by real people, which accounts for their unique movements and the more human emotions they engender. 

The title of the movie does indeed come from submarine talk, as Lowell attempts to fake his ship's destruction to throw off the other ships and goes silent so he can escape with the last precious dome.  When that ultimately fails, he's forced to take even more drastic measures to preserve the dome.

This movie plays a bit dated now, the montages with the sung songs really jar by today's standards, but the effects, the cool design of the ships, the diverting go-kart-like vehicles, and robots are quite great.  I watched the making of extra on the DVD, which I really enjoyed.  This movie was made on a tight million dollar budget, as an experiment, in a quick 32 days.  They filmed it on a decommissioned aircraft carrier, Valley Forge, redressing the carrier to look like a space ship instead of a naval vessel.  It looks pretty fantastic, particularly the use of the giant aircraft hangar, which in the movie is a storage area and a homemade racetrack for their all terrain vehicles.  (One of the memorable scenes I have never forgotten.) The spaceship in the movie is also called Valley Forge.  The aircraft carrier gives the spaceship halls and rooms and control room a real feeling that I doubt constructed sets would have achieved.

I have had a life-long attraction to botanical gardens.  My favorite part of any county/state fair was always the garden area.  Something about waterfalls and ponds and trees in an enclosed building always fascinated me.  There was a Bank of America building in North Hollywood that we used to go to back in the 70's that had a mini botanical garden behind glass, with a waterfall and trees, and I was utterly entranced by it as a child.  Best part of going banking with my mom was just getting to visit that little garden.  I remember it to this day.  So, I love the geodesic domes in this movie, each with its own set of trees, plants, water, animals...  Right up my alley.

My thanks to Quiggy and Hamlette for hosting this Robots in Film blogathon!  Check out the other entries to read more about other robots in movies!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Wall-E (2008)

**Minor spoilers follow**

Wall-E is one of my favorite Pixar movies.  It ties with Up for the number one spot, and I can’t choose between the two.  What puts Wall-E up at the top of the list is not just the beautiful animation and the fantastic storytelling (done with almost no dialogue), but Wall-E himself.

I am very fond of my action heroes, and a lot of grey area characters, and, admittedly, a lot of villains.  Wall-E is none of those.  Wall-E is the sweetest, gentlest, most romantic, na├»ve, generous, genuine, and most helpful character ever.  He is probably the nicest fictional character I’ve ever loved.

This is the magic of Wall-E.

Wall-E is one of the most amazingly wonderful characters ever created.  The fact that he doesn’t really speak, that his character is conveyed strictly through his physical appearance and actions, just makes the beauty of his character even greater.

The quick synopsis:

It is the future.  Earth has been evacuated and abandoned to mountains of trash and dust storms, but one lone little robot carries on with the job he was programmed to do:  clean up the trash.  Wall-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter- Earth Class.  He’s a little trash compactor.  He trundles around, compacting trash into neat little cubes and stacking those into towers.  One day, a spaceship arrives and drops off a probe, Eve (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), designed to look for vegetation, and Wall-E’s life is changed forever.  He falls in love with Eve (whose name he can’t pronounce, and he calls her Eva), and he follows her into space, to the giant starliner Axiom, one of the spaceships that humans have been living on for the last 700 years.

The first half hour of the movie is my favorite.  We follow Wall-E around as he does his job.  He may be alone (except for his pet cockroach), but he finds beauty in everything.  He marvels at a glimpse of the night sky, and films it on his internal recorder.  When he stows away on the departing spaceship, the first thing he does in space is ooh and ahh over the view.  When he locates where Eve is stored, the first thing he does is point out at the sky to share that beauty with her.  He takes in all the sights in space with genuine awe at their beauty.

Wall-E is also a collector.  As he compacts trash on his daily rounds, he collects all manner of things that appeal to him.  His home is full of his found treasures.  His biggest treasure is a video tape of Hello Dolly, that he watches and re-watches in the evenings.  He has an internal recorder, and he records the things he loves the most, like the clear night sky, and bits of Hello Dolly, particularly the part where two characters hold hands to express their love.

Then Eve arrives.  Where he is terrestrial and boxy and low tech, she is sleek and shiny and high tech, and she flies and soars with elegant grace.  She is beautiful, and Wall-E falls in love just about instantly.

He follows her around, makes her a statue (and is crushed when she rejects it), joyfully shows her all the treasures is his home, shows her his precious Hello Dolly video.  He takes care of her when she shuts down, and, unwilling to lose her, he desperately follows her into space.  All this is conveyed with almost no dialogue.  Wall-E says Eve’s name, but other than a couple words, he conveys everything he’s feeling with physicality.  And his heart is worn right on his sleeve.  Wall-E is one of the most expressive and heart felt characters I’ve ever seen. 

But as much as I love that first half hour, a lot of the Wall-E’s true strengths come out in the rest of the movie.  Because Wall-E changes every single character he meets for the better, with the exception of the two bad guys, and for those, he serves as a catalyst to action.  From Eve to M-O to the door-opener robot who learns to wave a greeting, to the two big Wall-A load lifters, to the host of damaged robots, to the captain, to John and Mary.  Wall-E greets everyone he meets with warmth and compassion and wide-eyed-optimism and joy.  Wall-E cannot even conceive of bad people.  And each one who meets Wall-E discovers they can break out of their programmed lives and start really living again.

And that is ultimately what this movie is about.  It’s about living.  Living your own life.  Taking control of your own life.  Following your dreams with joy and open hearts.  Everything on the Axiom is run by robots.  Even the literal paths the robots are allowed to traverse are designated lines on the floors.  Until Wall-E shows them they don’t have to keep following a line in the ground.  Wall-E doesn’t try to change anyone.  He simply greets everyone with joy, offers open friendship to all, and points out the beauty and love in the world.  That example is all that’s needed to open the eyes of those he meets.

Even when Wall-E is grievously damaged, his first reaction when M-O approaches is to hold out his hand and introduce himself.  He doesn’t ask for help, he simply says the equivalent of hello, happy to meet you.

In the commentary on this film, the director, Andrew Stanton, says that the theme of the film was that irrational love can conquer life’s programming.  The rest of the story was conceived in service of that theme, and was not meant to be messag-ey in any other way.  As a writer, I understand that.

I talked with a lot of people when Wall-E first came out who found negative takeaways in this movie.  Some got stuck on objecting to reading in an environmental message, etc., or they got hung up or offended by depiction of these futuristic people, but that misses out on the wonder and joy and happiness of watching a truly nice character change the world in his quest to find love, happiness, and meaning in life.

This has been an entry for the Robots in Film blogathon. Follow the link to read the other entries in this blogathon.  I will also be reviewing the 1971 film Silent Running.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

2018 Favorite movies - revisited

Naturally, since I made my list of favorite 2018 movies before the year was over, before the Christmas movies came out, my list changed before 2018 ended.

Conclusion:  it is really a three-way tie between Ready Player One, Avengers: Infinity War, and Bohemian Rhapsody.  I honestly cannot pick one over the other.  All three were seen multiple times in the theater, all of them leave me revved up and bouncy-happy coming out of the theater.  I wouldn't change anything about any of them.  All three were shared with family who loved them just as much as I did, so there are many memories, and hours of conversation about each of them.  Music is infinitely important to what makes a movie a favorite movie, and the scores to all three have been listened to repeatedly.  Obviously, the movies earlier in the year have been listened to more, but Bohemian Rhapsody, being Queen, kind of gets a pass there, as that is music I've listened to for even longer, though I've discovered some new songs.

Which makes 2018 one fabulous year for movies for me.  It is rare to have not one, not two, but three movies of that calibre, that captured my heart so completely.

I was reviewing the movies I streamed on Amazon Prime and Netflix last year (which was a LOT), and oddly, I did not discover anything there that grabbed me.  There was only one movie viewed from a streaming source that I wanted to own on DVD, and that was Macbeth (2015).

2018 was definitely a year for theatrical movies for me, not small screen.