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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 6, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Rogue Nation, Mr. Holmes, Space

You already know if you're going to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. You have not been waiting for my review. I know this, because the movie already made $121 million worldwide over its first weekend.

But just in case you're one of the few who are waiting to decide whether it's worth paying for this movie in the theater, here's my answer:


First, the movie is rated PG-13, but it does not, as far as I remember, make use of its one permitted F-word. In fact, it is free of swearing and nudity and even sexual innuendo.

Rogue Nation is filled with intense action, and a lot of people die. That's why it's PG-13. But there's no gore -- nothing designed to horrify. So while you shouldn't take a six-year-old, and few nine-year-olds are ready, anybody who's in eighth grade or above can cope with this movie.

In other words, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is not a James Bond film. It's not a comic book film. It's not sci-fi. It's not fantasy (well, mostly). It's meant to be a genuinely exciting story, and it achieves that aim.

Second, even if you've never seen any other Mission Impossible movies or TV shows, that's fine. This movie is completely self-contained.

Third, Tom Cruise gives his normal performance -- which means that he is engaging, real, and totally committed. So committed that he actually does stunts that I wouldn't even want a stunt man to do.

The guy clinging to the side of the airplane is really him. He also holds his breath underwater for a long, long time.

In fact, I would be convinced that he died while acting in this movie if I hadn't seen him making the rounds of the talk shows.

Mostly because of his religion, Tom Cruise has taken a lot of heat from people who can't tell acting from applesauce. But regardless of what you think of his personal life, he is one of the finest actors of our time. Period. Other people have won Oscars for their performances in films that only worked because of the believability of Tom Cruise.

He classes up every movie he's in. Knight and Day could have been awful. It was wonderful because Tom Cruise was completely convincing in the lead.

Edge of Tomorrow had pretty good monsters and a script that managed to make a time-shifting story clear. It had a fine supporting cast. But here's why it's probably the best sci-fi war movie ever: Tom Cruise made us believe.

Fourth, the supporting cast is amazing. I could say "Jeremy Renner" and stop right there, because Renner is close to being in Cruise's league. But it also has a wonderful, believable cast all the way down the list.

People we glimpse for only a few moments before they're killed are very good in their six seconds of face time. Everyone from thugs to conspirators to agency heads to prime ministers is played by a very good actor who delivers everything the story requires.

Fifth, this movie takes place in a world that more-or-less corresponds with reality.

OK, there is one completely fake thing -- the "masks" in which one actor pulls up a mask, revealing one of the other actors underneath.

Let me reassure you, this cannot actually be done. In the real world, masks all reduce the ability to make the full range of facial expressions. If you doubt me, look at what makeup artists create on Face Off.

Plus, voices and physical movements are very, very hard to fake. (Rogue Nation even depends on this fact as a major plot point.)

But the actor-removes-mask-to-reveal-other-actor bit was part of Mission Impossible from the beginning, and in this movie, they at least try to earn believability by showing a 3D modeling process that we can pretend to believe would produce an authentic-looking mask.

Apart from the masks, though, the events in the movie could happen. Which, for me, makes it way more enjoyable than even the best of the comic-book movies.

Sixth, nobody stops in the middle of life-on-the-line action to have sex. This falls in line with my experience of the real world.

Seventh, this script is smart because it was written by one of the smartest writers ever to work in Hollywood, Christopher McQuarrie. I haven't seen everything he's written, but I saw Edge of Tomorrow, and I saw The Usual Suspects, and I saw Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. (He also wrote Jack the Giant Slayer, but you can't win them all, and besides, it had its good points.)

Just get off the fence and go see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Smart, exciting, realistic, clean, well-made, well-acted, well-written movies should be rewarded at the box office, and that means getting off your couch and driving to the theater and plunking down money that says: Make more like this, please.


Here's how good Ian McKellen is as an aging Sherlock Holmes in Mr. Holmes, which opened the same weekend as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and made a whopping $2.4 million.

McKellan has to play Holmes as a man in his 90s, and he is superb. He handles the anxiety of memory loss, the struggle against feebleness, the frustration, and the continuing intelligence and inner strength to perfection.

But there are also extended sequences in which McKellen must play Sherlock Holmes in his early 60s.

The difference between 93 and 63 is almost as great as the difference between 63 and 33. Though changes in the skin make it nearly impossible for an actor above 60 to play a character under 40 years of age, it's only slightly easier to bring off the difference between the 60s and the 90s. But McKellen -- and the makeup artist and cinematographer -- bring it off perfectly.

McKellen himself is 76, so he's playing both upward and downward in age. What matters most, though, is not his superbly nuanced age acting. It's simply his human acting.

I've loved Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes in the TV series Elementary, and until now I would have called him the only truly believable Sherlock Holmes, ever. (Sorry, Robert Downey, Jr., Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the dozens of others who have played Holmes. It's simply true.)

Now, though, having seen Mr. Holmes, I have to say that the heart and soul of Sherlock Holmes have been rendered most human and comprehensible in this film. Better than in the books.

Maybe there's something about a movie with a good script about a character in his old age. Certainly in Robin and Marian, Sean Connery, then only 46, played old Robin Hood (with Audrey Hepburn as old Maid Marian) better than anyone else has ever played him.

But Mr. Holmes is not about what a good actor Ian McKellen is. It's about two mysteries:

The case, thirty years ago, that led Sherlock Holmes to quit his career as a detective -- but which now, as his memory fades, he cannot remember well enough to complete the memoir he's writing.

And the case, on the grounds of the country house where he has lived in retirement, of bees being killed in the hives that Sherlock Holmes tends.

What drives the movie is the case of the bees, because his housekeeper's son, Roger, played brilliantly by the gnomic young actor Milo Parker, is enlisted as Holmes's assistant beekeeper.

Moreover, Roger has also been sneaking into Holmes's study to read what little he's written about that thirty-year-old case. His questions prompt Holmes's memory, so that his ability to recover that pivotal story is enhanced because of the time he spends with Roger.

The relationship between the old man and the young boy is a beautiful thing, and is also completely believable. Moreover, Roger's mother, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), is quite properly suspicious of the relationship, since it seems to be raising Roger's hopes above his station in life.

The revelation of why Mrs. Munro wants to get her son away from the life-path that Holmes seems to be leading him toward is a powerful one, and by the end of the movie we love her as we love Holmes and Roger.

In fact, it's a mark of the success of this story that we love pretty much everybody.

Mr. Holmes is based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. I read the novel, and I enjoyed it, but the experience was marred by a bit more artiness than is conducive to compelling storytelling. Cullin couldn't forget his literary references and concentrate fully on the story he was telling.

But Jeffrey Hatcher, the screenwriter who adapted the novel, brought the story to a new level. As far as I can remember, he is faithful to the book. But the literary references now become part of Sherlock Holmes's world -- the fame he has to live with.

And, unlike the book, the movie has me so emotionally engaged that I wept several times before it was over -- sometimes in sorrow, sometimes in sympathy, sometimes in gladness.

So Holmes is a movie to admire as art -- writing, directing, acting, cinematography -- and also a story to experience for the love and joy of it.

Movies like this are not meant to make Mission Impossible money. But Mr. Holmes is just as worthy of a moviegoer's money. No, there's no death-defying scene where a guy clings to the outside of a plane as it's taking off. Instead, there are life-fulfilling scenes like the one where Holmes tries to learn compassion -- so he can tell a life-saving fiction to a friend.

Rated PG, this movie may be too slow and hard to follow for all but the brightest children. But after a summer of comic-book puerility, it is exactly the antidote that grownups have been waiting for.

Go see it on a big screen, where the lush English countryside, the beautiful architecture, and the exquisite detail created for the interior of Holmes's house can all be clearly seen.

Reward this movie for its ambition to be a thing of beauty and truth, and for its success on both counts.


A few weeks ago, when reviewing the novel The Martian, I pointed out the irony that we got such an excellent other-planet survival story at a time when America had decided not to have a space program. I gave a short list of things we should be doing in space, but left with a note of despair.

Here's why my despair was not irrational. Support for the space program must survive in the shadow of a statement often made by politicians, pundits, and civilians throughout the life of the space program:

"Why are we spending billions on space travel when we have so many problems that need solving here on Earth?"

Now, this sentence is useful, because when spoken at a party, it provides a quick and easy self-identification of a person so stupid that he is probably ineducable, so you should go join a different conversation. And when spoken by a politician, you have just identified a lying demagogue.

This is not because the space program is "good," so opposing it is "stupid." That's the illogic that dominates Leftist groupthink in America today.

No, I'm talking about the internal logic, the implied syllogism of the statement. It depends on several obviously false assumptions:

1. Money spent on space does not help solve problems on Earth.

2. Problems on Earth can be solved with the amount of money now spent on space.

3. The important problems on Earth can be solved with money at all.

4. If that money from space were available for Earth-based spending, it would be spent wisely and productively.

You see how far we have already traveled into fantasy land.

But the real poison, the demagoguery, comes from this obvious implication:

5. If the other party supports the space program, they do not care about the problems of people here on Earth.

With that sentence, you can guess which current American political party always uses this specious argument -- it's the party that wants you to believe they have a monopoly on compassion. (They also have a track record of making things worse by throwing stupid money at every problem while claiming success at every stage, regardless of actual results.)

In case you think I'm being partisan here, let me point out that the other party has a much-more-frequently stated sentence that is identical in its illogic and stupidity: "No immigration reform until the border is secure!" (Never mind that the right kind of immigration reform would make it infinitely easier to secure the border.)

But let's get back to the exploration of space. To me, it looked like the space shuttle disasters had succeeded in dissolving public support for the space program -- the speakers of that stupid sentence had finally won. Certainly NASA is operating at its lowest budget level ever.

The only space flights that make headlines are astronomical probes launched many years ago, like the Pluto flyby, and the attempts by private entrepreneurs to launch manned space vehicles.

It's easy to forget that leading NASA administrators never wanted to send manned probes to the moon or other planets, and not just because of the depressing effect when lives are lost in mission failures.

It's because the need to equip space vehicles with life support and human bodies makes them far heavier, far more complicated, and far more limited in where they can be sent and how long they can stay.

Especially now, as robots and computers are getting more powerful, more flexible, and more portable, and solar cells and batteries are becoming more efficient, it is possible to accomplish far more, for a much longer time, with unmanned voyages than with manned ones.

The machines are machines, of course, and can fail, and without a human on the scene to accomplish all sorts of clever fixes, a particular mission can fail completely because of -- for all we know -- a fleck of dust in the wrong spot.

But this works both ways. Humans can also introduce errors, and usually do, despite the best possible training. Failure with an unmanned expedition does not leave wreckage and dead bodies to be photographed by passing satellites.

And before I leave the topic of human resourcefulness, let's remember that in The Martian, author Andy Weir never has the hero, Mark Watney, pull a rabbit out of his hat. He is the mission botanist, and he has been supplied with precisely the materials and training that allow him to create his own life support system. None of the other astronauts could have done what he did.

Humans are resourceful, yes ... but they can only work with the materials and tools that they have within their reach. If you are stranded on a desert seashore with not a single tree that you can get to, you are not going to build a boat out of rocks and sand.

Now, let me make one thing clear: I may be a science fiction writer, but as I was growing up, I never had dreams of space flight or being an astronaut. I barely had dreams of operating a car. So I have no sentimental attachment to the idea of space travel, either for me or anybody else.

Therefore, if we now sent forth only robot- and computer-controlled space missions until we actually had a mission that only humans could accomplish (for instance, establishing a human colony in some off-Earth location), I would be perfectly happy. I don't give a rat's petoot if human footprints are ever left on the Moon again -- or any other planet. Mere tourism is not a reason to risk lives and spend billions.

But there are things that must be done in space. First, we have to be able to identify all large objects that might someday collide with Earth. Second, we have to have the technology to divert or destroy any such objects.

These two objectives are a matter of survival, but since we don't know whether the next collision with a large object is five years -- or five thousand or five million years -- in the future, it is prudent but politically useless to spend serious money right now to create a collision-avoidance system.

By the time we find out we should have spent the money, and didn't, nobody will care about the next election. In the brains of politicians, why should they ever spend money on such a project? (Unless it will be built in their state or be named after them.)

There's a third objective to space travel, and it requires even more longterm vision than saving life on Earth from collisions with large objects. It is a simple idea, one that every dandelion and oak tree already uses with great elegance.

Dandelions build their seeds with simple kites attached, so that when the seeds are ripe, any breeze can break apart the sphere of seeds and then carry the individual kites wherever the wind happens to blow them -- mostly into suburban lawns.

Oaks need a little collaboration. Their acorns are heavy, and drop straight down, so that their seedlings would try to grow up in the shade of the parent tree. Either the shade will kill the young saplings, or they'll grow tall and kill the parent tree.

So oaks put a nutritious nut around each seed. The nuts of many kinds of oak tree taste bad because of the tannin they contain, but they are as nutritious as any other kind of nut. Low-tannin white oak acorns taste great and squirrels usually eat them on the spot; but the tannin in red oak acorns leads to their being carried away and buried for later consumption.

When squirrels bury an acorn, they may plan to dig it up later, but hawks and other predators plan for the squirrel to never return. Thus the "stored" acorns can easily become planted seeds.

(A side note from an article I read -- http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/11/981126102802.htm -- is that red oak acorns concentrate the tannin at the bottom of the nut, near the embryo. Squirrels respond by eating only the top part of the nut and discarding the rest. Thus the squirrels get a meal -- yet the acorn embryo still gets carried and planted far from the parent tree.)

My point is that both dandelions and oaks thrive, as a species, because they disperse their seeds as widely as possible. Individual oaks can die in a blight or a drought or a forest fire, and dandelions can be dug up or poisoned by lawn-owners -- but because they've already dispersed their seeds, the species goes on.

Human beings may survive on Earth for another twelve thousand years (the time since the last ice age ended and agriculture began) -- or twelve million. But we could also be wiped out by unpredicted astronomical events, and if the human species on Earth is gone, it's gone -- unless we have viable, self-sustaining colonies on other worlds, orbiting other stars.

This is not a project for Congress to decide today. But the capability, if it's possible at all, will emerge from research and practice in space exploration for other purposes.

But, as far as I knew, the United States had essentially killed space exploration except for a few relatively cheap probes.

Then I got a letter from a reader of this column who works for JPL -- Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena -- which is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology. He refers to JPL as "the premier robotic space exploration group in the world," and he knew information that simply hadn't reached me, dependent as I am on wretched American science-and-technology reporting.

Here's his refutation of my depressed outlook: "The future of space exploration has never been brighter."

Knowing that such a statement needs to be supported, at least by examples, he went on to say, "Within the next ten years, we will retrieve an asteroid, and put it in orbit around the Moon, to be rendezvoused with by astronauts."

"We are testing landing systems that will allow us to land significantly larger items on Mars's surface -- the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD)."

"We continue to develop ionizing propulsion technology that is allowing us to reach ever faster speeds" for spacecraft.

"We have a plan in place for a settlement on Mars in the mid 2030s." This is an essential precursor to any kind of colonization outside the Solar System.

"We continue to improver our materials science technology which will allow us to increase the output from our radioactive thermoelectric generators." This will counteract the diminution of available solar energy the farther you get from the Sun.

"Our discovery of exoplanets is proceeding at a rate even the most optimistic could never have imagined." This, too, is vital for the dispersal of the human genome: It isn't very practical to launch a colony without a target planet in the goldilocks zone (the distance from a star at which water can exist in liquid form on the planet's surface -- where, in other words, conditions are "just right").

My correspondent said that he personally was glad that NASA was no longer expending its efforts on a shuttle program. He's content to let SpaceX and other private groups take over most of the low-Earth-orbit arena, while NASA concentrates on much more difficult and remote objectives.

In other words, NASA may be far less funded than it was in the days of tossing astronauts into space, but the projects are lighter, less complicated by life support and human limitations, and therefore cheaper.

I should have known this -- and would have, if I wrote the kind of science fiction that depends on being aware of the latest advances in space travel and exploration. But I have known, since my career began, that there was a whole tribe of excellent science fiction writers who were enthusiastic about every aspect of space travel and practically lived inside JPL's underwear.

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and the whole group of "hard-science" sci-fi writers have that kind of story completely covered. So I've spent my efforts in the much softer science of human evolution, especially the evolution of societies and cultures and the interplay between culture and genetics in shaping human traits.

It's a field where even the best-informed scientists indulge in a lot of speculation which, so far at least, is untestable. That means it's still fun and I can spin plausible sci-fi stories with little fear of being contradicted by actual data.

And since my real-world influence now stands at less than zero, because I've been made untouchable by the American Inquisition, I haven't regarded myself as someone who can contribute to public support for the aspects of space travel that I regard as essential.

I'm only writing this much about the American space program because my friend responded to false statements I had made in ignorance -- and I figured I owed it to you, having misinformed you, to correct what I said before.

(Of course, to an American Leftist, my false statements were "lies," because they don't distinguish between an honest mistake and a lie -- hence the idiotic slogan "Bush Lied, People Died.")

I do hope that I have this much influence: If you have ever said or been tempted to say, "Why spend the money in space when we have so many problems to solve here on Earth?" now you know better. And if someone else says it around you, you can answer them with a simple analogy, like this:

"Why spend so much money on fixing the car when we always need groceries?"

Or, "Why spend so much time on roof repair in the summer, when the lawn and garden need to be watered and weeded?"

Or, "Why spend so much money on the kids' college expenses when they can borrow the money and repay it out of their own future income?"

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