Category Archives: Science Fiction

Robot and Frank (2012), directed by Jake Schreier

A friend of mine recently wrote a book about his move to Israel and the many challenges he faced as a senior citizen in transitioning from one culture to another. As a senior, he felt a need to be productive, but his body told him that he could no longer function as a young man. However, he could use his memory and imagination to document his recent experiences, which he felt would be useful to seniors contemplating aliyah, emigrating to Israel.

I, too, found myself in a similar position. After teaching in Israel for five years, the Ministry of Education said I could teach no longer since I was well past the official retirement age. I was compelled, therefore, to find another way to earn money. And so I became a film critic, writing reviews for print media and on the Internet that connected Torah and secular culture. My role models were Abraham and Moses, biblical heroes who never retired, and twentieth century Torah luminaries like Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Moshe Feinstein, who never stopped teaching Torah.

Robot and Frank deals with the same issue that my friend and I experienced: how to be relevant as a senior citizen when you are no longer working a traditional job. Frank is a retiree living alone. His son, Hunter, who lives in a different city, tries to take care of him long distance, but it is difficult; so Hunter gives his dad a gift of a robot caretaker as a full-time companion who will serve both an aide and as a friend of sorts.

At first Frank does not want the robot; but over time they become buddies and Frank recognizes its value to him, particularly in regard to giving him an opportunity to use a skill set that he used as a young man. Frank, in fact, was a cat burglar who served prison time. Stealing gave him an emotional high and now he wants to experience this feeling again. He convinces the robot, who has no independent sense of morality, to assist him in his nefarious plans. For the robot, helping Frank regain a sense of self is technically therapeutic.

Things get more complicated as Frank begins to show signs of dementia. Interestingly, the book he enjoys reading at this time of his life is Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote, a story of a man out of touch with reality. It is only Quixote’s loyal companion, Sancho Panza, who enables him to function in a world that sees him as an anachronism. So it is that Robot enables Frank to remain meaningfully connected to the modern world.

As his robberies become more bold, the authorities begin to investigate and Frank becomes a suspect because of his past criminal record. Whether he goes to prison or a nursing home facility ultimately depends on the police retrieving information from the robot, who, although only a machine, has become humanlike, so much like a human that Frank is reluctant to wipe out his memory even when Robot reminds him, “I’m not a real person, Frank.”

Robot and Frank is a comedy, but it is also a serious meditation on aging. How will we deal with the inevitable transition from youth to old age, when our bodies will no longer work like they did when we were young? With what will we occupy our time? How will we find a sense of meaning and purpose when society marginalizes the elderly? The film provides no answers, but suggests that it is important to stay busy, to find an outlet for our creativity, and to use our imagination and our memory to inspire us as we get older.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Ready Player One (2018), directed by Steven Spielberg

I recently gave a talk on “kosher movies” to seniors in a New Jersey high school. In the Q&A after my presentation, one student asked why I did not discuss any superhero movie. The question reminded me that the cinematic points of reference in my talk were before the superhero craze in moviegoing. I was thinking of the past; the kids were thinking of the future.

Ready Player One is a story of the future, but rooted in the past. By exposing oneself to both past and future, our heroes learn that what links the generations is the human connection, not the artificial game, no matter how immersive it many be. Let me explain.

The story opens in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, in a place called “The Stacks.” It looks like low-income housing, constructed by using trailers stacked on top of one another, but separated by staircases and poles.

Wade Watts has no living parents and resides with his Aunt Alice in this run-down neighborhood. In this dystopian world, Wade, along with many others, escapes his dreary reality by entering the Oasis, a virtual reality world where people can find entertainments of all sorts and where they can be avatars, fictional representatives of themselves capable of extraordinary feats. Wade’s avatar is Parzival, a super cool dude who does not physically resemble Wade, who in real life is a brainy nerd.

This virtual reality of the Oasis world spans time. Once in it, a person can uncover the past as well gain insight into the future. These time shifts are both clever and humorous. There are memorable characters and scenes from cinema classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Moreover, a plethora of other pop culture iconic images and references inhabit the Oasis.

We learn that the Oasis was created by James Halliday and his friend and fellow scientist, Ogden Morrow. At his death, Halliday proclaims the ultimate challenge for his fans. He informs them that he has hidden an Easter egg, a secret, within the game that will be revealed after someone successfully completes three challenges. The reward: half a trillion dollars and total control of the Oasis.

Wade’s main competitor is Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of a nefarious high tech company that wants to sabotage Wade’s efforts to meet Halliday’s challenges. Sorrento wants to commercialize the Oasis and claim the reward money for himself.

After a number of visually immersive chases and battles, Wade and Halliday express their profound belief that the real world is more important than the escapism that the Oasis provides. That is the legacy they want to endure. Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the LA Times perhaps sums up the movie’s message best: “While on the surface, this futuristic film is a celebration of gamers, gaming and the pleasures to be found in immersive virtual reality, underlying it all is a heartfelt brief for abandoning all screens and enjoying the satisfactions of the real world.”

Mem Bernstein, a philanthropist, articulates this perspective in a message she delivered to a group of donors. To her, the legacy of real-world accomplishments is what really matters. She paraphrases the Ethics of the Fathers: “you are not expected to complete the task, but you should insure that there are others who will continue to work on it.” This is essentially what Halliday and Wade desire for the future of the Oasis in Ready Player One. It is okay to enjoy the fantasy world of the Oasis in the short term; but, in the long run, one should always remember to nurture the human connections that underpin it.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Ant-Man (2015), directed by Peyton Reed

As I was progressing in the early 1960s through Yeshiva University’s Jewish Studies Program designed for students who had not attended a Jewish day school, I asked a rabbi what would I accomplish after four years of intense Judaic studies in this new program. He told me that at the end of my academic program, I would be able to listen to a class in Bible or Talmud and understand it intelligently.

It was after that conversation that I decided to pursue ordination. I was not happy that, at the end of my studies, the rabbi’s assessment was that all I could do was understand a challenging class and not have some level of personal proficiency navigating original source material in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Little did the rabbi who spoke to me about my academic limitations realize that his comments inspired me to delve deeper into my studies in order to reach a higher level of proficiency. As the poet Robert Browning said: “man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

That desire to do more and be more than people expect energizes Scott Lang, an electrical engineer with a criminal record, to accept the challenge of saving the world. Moreover, once having saved the world, he will ultimately reunite with his beloved daughter, Cassie, who is now living with, Maggie, Scott’s ex-wife and her new husband.

Here is the backstory. Hank Pym, founder of a high tech company developing shrinking technology, resigns as head of the business when he realizes that his protégé, Darren Cross, wants to use the technology in weapons systems that are capable of destroying civilizations. The technology becomes useable through a special Ant-Man suit that enables the wearer to shrink to a tiny size and penetrate almost any obstacle.

Hank needs a thief to steal Cross’s prototype suit and chooses Scott to carry out the mission. Hank’s daughter, Hope, feels Scott is ill-equipped to execute this complicated task and shares her low estimate of Scott’s talent with him. Upon hearing it, Scott becomes more resolved to rise to the occasion and save the world from Cross’s evil plans. Hope’s negative assessment of Scott spurs him on to positive accomplishment.

Hank solidifies Scott’s determination to succeed by reminding him to take advantage of this opportunity for greatness: “Second chances don’t come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” Indeed, Scott realizes that no one but he can save the world at this moment and he rises to the occasion. Initially, he sees himself as inadequate; but at this moment he sees the infinite potential for good within him.

In The Ethics of the Fathers, the great sage Hillel says, “in a place where there is no man, be a man (2:6).” This means that sometimes one has to take charge when a situation calls for action. Someone has to stand up for what is right and often when catastrophe is right around the corner.

Consider, for example, the story of Moses who at first does not want to face Pharaoh to ask for the release of his Hebrew slaves. Moses claims he is a stutterer and not up to the task. God, however, reminds him not to define himself by his disability. Rather, define yourself by what your potential is, by what you could be and not by your present impediment. Scott Lang in The Ant-Man sees himself as a hero, and that mindset enables him to be heroic and save the day.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

F.R.E.D.I. (2018), directed by Sean Olson

My grandchildren recently asked me for a recommendation for a movie to watch. It took me some time to suggest a title or two since so much of what is out there is potentially corrupting.

When parents ask me for a suggestion, I invariably tell them to look at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website and consult the Parent Advisory section to determine if the film you are considering viewing for yourself or for your children is one which you are comfortable with from a personal and parenting perspective.

F.R.E.D.I. is one of those rare films that is kosher in the conventional sense: no foul language, no violence, no sex or nudity. Since my “Kosher Movies” website is designed for adults, my definition of a “kosher movie” is very broad. A “kosher movie” is one that has something meaningful to say about life, a film that may even help us navigate our own lives. It does not indicate whether a film is appropriate for children, so it was with pleasure that I watched F.R.E.D.I. and discovered a movie that I could endorse for teens.

The story begins in a top-secret laboratory in Bentonville, Arkansas. Dr. Andi Palmer is a scientist who created a robot, named F.R.E.D.I., in order to help people and improve their quality of life. Once she realizes that her boss, Grant, will use the robot to advance his own pecuniary concerns rather than improve life for the world, she decides to make sure that her boss has no access to her creation. Fleeing into the forest from Grant’s cohorts, she hides F.R.E.D.I. but does not have enough time to retrieve it after the chase.

A 15-year-old teenager, James Nash, discovers the robot named F.R.E.D.I. in a forest near his home. They soon learn to communicate with one another and a friendship blossoms. James decides to bring the robot home and F.R.E.D.I. gives James much attention. James needs attention because his father, a single parent, is constantly distracted by his business concerns and does not spend much time with his son. James begins to understand how important F.R.E.D.I. is when he observes the robot responding in a friendly and helpful way to human stimuli. Then he feels responsible to protect the robot from the corporate profiteers who want to exploit its powers.

Watching F.R.E.D.I. brings to mind a host of films that in my mind are “kosher“ for teens and that have something valuable to say to adults about navigating life. Here are some of my favorites with an indication of their kosher themes:

Searching for Bobby Fischer – why it is important to lead a balanced life;

Wonder – how we should treat those who are disfigured or disabled;

Toy Story 3– how anger destroys our ability to perceive truth;

It’s a Wonderful Life– why we should be grateful for what we have;

Raiders of the Lost Ark – why it is important to adjust to new realities even when things do not go our way;

E.T. – how we should respond to the stranger in our midst;

Hugo – how we should regard the contributions of the elderly who enrich our lives;

Karate Kid (1984) – how the power of concentration can turn the present moment into an eternal one;

Remember the Titans – how freeing ourselves from prejudice can enrich our lives;

Back to the Future – the value of time and how one moment can change our destinies;

October Sky – considers the question of who is more influential in the life of a child, parents or teachers;

A Little Princess –the importance of having a positive attitude and smiling in the face of adversity;

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale – a reminder for us to treasure acts of kindness.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

Divergent (2014), directed by Neil Burger

I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me how difficult it was to be the youngest brother in a family of five boys. All his siblings were clear-eyed about the future and had a career path in mind when they were teenagers. One wanted to be doctor, another a lawyer, another a college professor of English Literature, and another a high tech entrepreneur. Amazingly, four of the brothers achieved success in their chosen fields. My friend, the fifth and youngest, however, although very talented in many areas, had trouble deciding on a major in college. His indecision remained with him for many years.

Although he graduated college with a history degree, he was unable to make any career commitment until he reached 30 years of age. For most of his formative years, he felt that he did not fit in. He was divergent from the rest of his family.

Trying to fit in was important to me as a youngster as well, and this is the dilemma faced by the teenagers in Divergent, a science-fiction story that takes place in a future dystopia where kids, at age 16, have to choose which of five groups they want to join. The five factions are described by Beatrice Prior, the heroine of Divergent: “The smart ones, the ones who value knowledge and logic, are in Erudite. Amity farm the land. They’re all about kindness and harmony, always happy. Candor value honesty and order. And then there’s Dauntless. They’re our protectors, our soldiers, our police. Brave, fearless and free. My faction is Abnegation. We lead a simple life, selfless, dedicated to helping others. Because we’re public servants, we’re trusted to run the government. It all works. Everyone knows where they belong. Except for me.”

Joining a faction means committing oneself to that group for the rest of one’s life, assuming their social identity, and meeting society’s expectations for that cohort.

In order to determine what faction you are suited for, teenagers are required to take an aptitude test to see where one’s proclivities lie. Beatrice’s test results are inconclusive, suggesting she may be a good fit for Abnegation, or Erudite, or Dauntless. In brief, she does not fit only one category. She is divergent.

At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice opts for Dauntless and goes through an intensive training program in combat and control of fear, all the while doubting her choice. In the course of her training, she meets Four, another secret divergent, who is part of the Dauntless leadership. In the course of their training, they discover that one faction is planning to get rid of another. Will Beatrice and Four be able to stop them from attaining their nefarious goal?

Divergent is essentially about having the courage not to conform to the expectation of others, but rather being true to oneself. Jewish history is bound up with the story of non-conformists. Abraham is the most notable example. God tells him to leave his land, his birthplace, and journey to the land that God will show him. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “I want you, says God to Abraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new: a religion that will not worship power and the symbols of power—for that is what idols really were and are. To be a Jew is to be willing to challenge the prevailing consensus when, as so often happens, nations slip into worshipping the old gods.” Abraham was called ha-ivri, which in Hebrew means the side, because he was philosophically on one side and the entire world was on the other.

There is a folk saying that “dead fish go with the flow, but live fish swim against the current.” As it was with Abraham, so it is with Beatrice and Four, who challenge the status quo by asserting their individuality in the midst of powers that desire conformity. Their fight represents an actualization of the famous lines of poet Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled on/ And that has made all the difference.”

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

The Sixth Sense (1999), directed by M. Night Shyamalan

sixth senseI read chapters from Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, every day. So many of its messages resonate that no matter how many times I study it, I always find something new in it. For example, when I first read the maxim “if not now, then when,” I was a young man and the phrase encouraged me not to procrastinate when it comes to doing good deeds. When I read the same maxim as a senior citizen, the subtext of the line is mortality. The maxim reminds me that every day could be my last, so I should use every minute of life wisely preparing myself for an audience with the Divine. At the end of my life, I will have to give an accounting of my life to the Holy One, blessed be He.

The Sixth Sense is a mystery, but also a meditation on how we prepare ourselves in this world for eternal life in the next. It is a complex film that deals with death and ultimate questions such as how we should conduct ourselves in this transitory world. How do we spend our time? With whom do we spend our time? With family? With friends? With work? To what extent do we prioritize our time with family? Sometimes we are so busy doing good things that we forget to spend time with those whom we love and who want and need our attention.

Malcom Crowe, a child psychologist, is deeply concerned about his patients. Regrettably, he cannot solve everyone’s problems. One evening, an ex-patient invades his home and shoots Malcolm in front of his loving wife, Anna, and then kills himself. The film continues a year later with Malcolm in recovery mode trying to help a nine-year old boy, Cole Sear, who seems to have the same delusions as the patient who entered his home a year before.

This time Malcolm does not want to fail his patient, so he devotes all his time to trying to understand his psychosis. Why does Cole see dead people? How does he communicate with them? The more time he spends with Cole, preoccupied with the boy’s problems, the less time he spends with his wife, and their relationship suffers.

After many therapy sessions, Malcom begins to believe Cole when he tells him that he sees people who do not realize they are dead. Malcolm suggests that Cole’s ability to see ghosts may have a purpose: Cole perhaps has a mission to help the dead finish their mission on earth. This insight becomes the catalyst for Malcolm’s completing his own life’s mission.

The Sixth Sense suggests that there is a middle ground between life and death where we can still do things that affect our status in the next world. Judaism does not believe in such a middle ground. Rather, Jews are encouraged to maximize the moments in this world so that our existence in the next world is one of supreme spiritual pleasure.

The Sages in Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, maintain that one hour in the world of the living is more precious than all of life in the world to come. This world is the world in which we live and toil, and it is a world where we can do good actions. Once we leave this world, we can no longer perform good deeds.

Judaism believes that there is life after death. Our physical bodies may deteriorate over time, but our spiritual essence, our souls, which come from God, transcend the body. The fact that physical life has an end gives meaning to what we do on earth. Indeed, our spiritual existence after we die depends on the kind of life we led when we were alive.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, referring to a source in Kabbalah, writes: “As we bid farewell to the world, we are shown a film that contains scenes of our entire lives. We are witnesses to every moment of our days on Earth as they pass before us with incredible rapidity. And as we watch our own story unfold, there are times when we cringe with embarrassment; others when we smile with glee. What happens after death is that we gain the wisdom to evaluate our own life by the standards of Heaven – because we have finally glimpsed an eternal perspective.”

Moreover, he insightfully comments: “Death isn’t a destroyer; it’s a transition. As the chassidic Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk put it, death is just a matter of going from one room to another. And if we live our lives in accord with the will of God, we are certain that the place we are going to is ultimately the more beautiful area.”

The Sixth Sense deals with the transition from life to death and raises questions about how we lead our earthy lives and prepare for our spiritual lives after death. The film encourages us to leave a legacy of good deeds before we enter our eternal abode.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

For the Love of Spock (2016), directed by Adam Nimoy

for the love of spockIn the late fifties and sixties, I was a rock and roll aficionado and some of my favorite songs were what became known as “one-hit wonders.” They were great songs done by artists who basically produced only one hit song. Some examples: “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford, and “The Book of Love” by the Monotones. They were classics, but the vocalists had a short shelf life.

Reflecting about their careers reminded me of a line uttered by Leonard Nimoy in For the Love of Spock, a loving biography of the actor directed by his son Adam. Nimoy says that before Star Trek, the longest acting experience he had lasted only two weeks. He was a “two-week wonder,” and this created a financial uncertainty that influenced his career decisions throughout much of his life.

As a young man, he became enamored of the theatre and, against the wishes of his parents, journeyed to California to further his career goal of becoming an actor. He got parts in films, did live theatre, and, serendipitously, landed the role of Spock, the Vulcan alien who became a fixture of the celebrated Star Trek series. Although the show only lasted three seasons, it turned into a cultural phenomenon through many years of syndication, and gave Nimoy the kind of job stability that he yearned for since his early acting years.

The only downside to Nimoy’s luminous career was his performance at home as a husband and father. So immersed was he in his own career that he was scarcely available to his children. A chasm developed with his son Adam, in particular, who was going through his own adolescent crisis. For many years the two did not speak to one another. Happily, before Nimoy died, his son reconciled with him so that Nimoy’s final years were emotionally rich and rewarding. What is especially touching is hearing a letter that Leonard Nimoy wrote to his adult son in which he apologizes for not being there for him at challenging moments of Adam’s life, when he truly needed his dad to support him through addiction problems and divorce.

Dr. Miriam Adahan, a psychotherapist living in Jerusalem, encourages parents to be present in their children’s lives to help them develop ego-strengths during their formative years. How do we do this? Give children a smile, or word of praise, or express gratitude for the good things they do. Value the smallest acts of self-discipline that a child shows. Remind them of the wisdom of King Solomon who said, “No one gets even half their heart’s desires fulfilled (Ecclesiastes 1:13).” The assumption is that God gives you everything you need. It may not be all that you want, but it is all you need to grow and prosper.

The portrait of Leonard Nimoy that we see in For the Love of Spock is complex. The film is not hagiography; rather it gives us a window into the life of an artist who was multi-talented and craved success. But there was a price he paid in terms of family connections.

In truth, Nimoy did not have a close relationship with his own father, and that lack of a role model influenced his own lackadaisical attitude towards parenting. Interestingly, in spite of having little meaningful interaction with his own father, Leonard Nimoy still remembered his childhood fondly.

One memory, in particular, stands out and was the basis of one aspect of Spock’s character, Nimoy’s fictional persona; namely, the Vulcan greeting. Nimoy recalls going to the synagogue as a child and watching the descendants of priests utter their holiday blessing to the congregants while forming a “V” with the fingers of their hands. This became the Vulcan greeting that accompanied the phrase ”live long and prosper.” This phrase expresses Nimoy’s personal mantra and his life. Indeed, Leonard Nimoy lived long and did prosper.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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