Movie Review: Captain Phillips (Come For Tom Hanks, Stay For The Pirates)

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At the beginning of Captain Phillips we see Tom Hanks (playing the role of Captain Richard Phillips) preparing for a job assignment that will take him across oceans to the other side of the world. We know that his job is to deliver packages, and we see that he’s leaving his loved ones as his wife drives him to the airport. We also have a pretty strong suspicion that this won’t be an ordinary trip for him.

And as soon as we process all of that information we think, “Wait a sec, I’ve seen this exact movie before. It’s called Castaway. Why are they re-showing Castaway under the guise of a new movie? And how quickly do I have to sprint to the ticket window to get a refund?”

But not to worry, fellow moviegoer, because this is nothing like Castaway. In this movie Tom Hanks isn’t accompanied across the ocean by a benevolent, inanimate volleyball, but rather four Somalian pirates hellbent on cashing in on a big payday.

Captain Phillips is an action/thriller based on true events that occurred off the Somalian coast in April 2009. If you remember that time period, it seemed like we were constantly hearing news about American ships getting attacked by Somalian pirates. This movie focuses on the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship captained by Phillips that was bringing to Africa, among other items, water and food supplies to the 3rd world countries.

As alert to the pirating in that part of the world as Phillips and his crew were, their security and escape tactics fail at the worst possible time when four armed Somalians chase down their ship and ultimately board it. At that point it’s a virtual stalemate between Phillips and his captors. The Somalians control things in one sense because they have guns pointed at Phillips and his crew. But they need help and cooperation from that very crew because they don’t know anything about the super-sized ship they just boarded.

The cat and mouse game escalates from the ship to a lifeboat, and Phillips finds himself in the middle of it all as he becomes the asset the pirates are looking to trade in exchange for millions of dollars.

Hanks’ performance was solid, and I’m sure it’ll generate plenty of Oscar buzz, but I walked out of the theater even more impressed by the actors who played the four pirates. And when I learned that none of them had ever really acted before, I was floored. My hunch is that when you see the movie, you’ll agree with me that the actor who plays the leader of this group steals the show and might find himself with some Supporting Actor nominations during awards season.

What the movie does really well is establish the desperate motivation for these pirates’ actions early on. Even though what they’re doing is wrong, you understand exactly how it could come to this.

I also appreciate that the people making this movie fought off every urge to turn the main character into an action hero or superhero. It would have been so easy to fall back on the tried and true Hollywood template of “main character singlehandedly saves the day by vanquishing the bad guys with borderline superhero powers.” They showed restraint and kept Phillips grounded in reality the whole time.

You should see this movie if: You love nonstop tension/suspense enough that you have no problem literally being on the edge of your seat and white knuckling it for nearly two hours. You enjoy Tom Hanks as much as I do, and you’ll basically see any movie starring him. You want to see some unexpectedly great acting performances from some first time actors. You enjoy “based on a true story” movies.

You should not see this movie if: Holding your breath and having your heart constantly pounding are not physical reactions you enjoy experiencing from movies. You hate Tom Hanks. You had a family member actually involved in a pirating situation and don’t want to relive those awful stories or memories. Thrillers are not your cup of tea. You only care for movies that have a big love story and/or lots of humor. Your fear of claustrophobic spaces is so intense that even seeing something like that in a movie will cause you to hyperventilate. You are a jerk who doesn’t like good movies.

On the Ross Watchability Scale (RWS), I give it a 7.5 out of 10.

So if you’re deciding on a movie to see in the theater this weekend, I’d still give the slightest edge to Gravity over Captain Phillips. But that’s purely because Gravity is a movie you must see on a big screen, preferably in 3-D. That being said, Captain Phillips has the better story.

Movie Review: Gravity (A Must-See in 3-D)


So what’s the deal with that movie where Sandra Bullock is floating around in space? You know, the movie whose previews have given us nothing beyond “Sandra Bullock is lost in space.” The one that George Clooney’s rumored to be in even though you never see him in the previews or on any of the movie posters.

For my benefit and yours, I went to check it out this week in my favorite time slot: Tuesday afternoon, where I’m joined at the theater only by retired people and criminals trying to duck out of the public spotlight for a couple hours.

The movie is a sci-fi/thriller called Gravity. It stars Sandra Bullock as a bio-medical engineer making her maiden voyage into space to fix part of the Hubble Telescope. If a movie about things gone wrong in space automatically makes you think of Armageddon, then Bullock would be playing the Ben Affleck role. And that means George Clooney is channeling his inner Bruce Willis, playing the old grizzled veteran making his last expedition and helping the scared protege get through a rough first experience.

Gravity is actually nothing like Armageddon, so please don’t be scared off by that comparison. One blockbuster that I’ve heard people comparing it to is Castaway. That makes a little sense because both films start off with an unsuspecting person getting stranded in an unknown, almost unsurvivable place. But the similarities end there. While Castaway overwhelms us with the human side of the story—Tom Hanks’ primal struggle for survival on an uninhabited island with no companion and no real hope of returning to his loved ones—Gravity overwhelms us with the brilliance and tension of being lost in space.

To put it another way, we don’t care as much about the characters and what’s in store for them if they get home safely in Gravity as we do in Castaway.

Instead we focus on the in-the-moment plot. Is the satellite debris going to hit their shuttle? Does the escape pod have fuel? What happens when her oxygen runs out?

And the best use of 3-D I’ve ever seen…we focus a lot on that too. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the best 3-D movie I’ve seen from a visual standpoint. Yes, better than Avatar. It’s just the perfect movie for that technology. If you have the option to see this movie in 3-D and you choose not to, I hope you regret it for the rest of your life.

You should see this movie if: You loved Apollo 13. You enjoy suspension-filled thrillers. You are OK with a little “odd couple buddy adventure” mixed into your serious movie. You’re obsessed with all things Sandra Bullock. You seek out movies that are visually captivating. You appreciate a movie whose broad subject matter can be whittled down and focused on just the important 90 minutes. You want to see 3-D used on the exact right movie.

You should not see this movie if: Getting a full cavity search sounds more pleasant than sitting through a sci-fi space adventure. You couldn’t care less about 3-D and the visual aspect of a movie. You have it out for Sandra Bullock and think she probably drove Jesse James to cheat on her. You know you’ll obsess the whole time over which plot points are realistic and which aren’t (for example: Is it realistic that an astronaut would be able to use a shuttle’s backup landing thrusters to propel her nearly 100 miles to a very specific landing spot on the Chinese Space Station? I don’t know and I don’t care).

On the Ross Watchability Scale (RWS), I give it an 8 out of 10. Without the 3-D component, it might merely be a 6 out of 10.

Speaking of 3-D, it turns out they accidentally showed us the first 20 minutes of Gravity in 2-D, but no one had spoken up or complained by the time a theater employee announced that they were restarting the movie in 3-D. How does no one in a group of 30 people complain about this screwup? You’d think people had to notice it. There’s a pretty big difference between the two viewing experiences. What’s my excuse? Well I hate admitting this, but when I was growing up I could never do those “Magic Eye” optical illusion things. I’d stare at them in the mall for hours and would eventually start crying when I couldn’t see the 3-D image like all the other kids (it was always a stupid fucking dolphin in the middle of the poster). So even though those first 20 minutes of the movie looked off to me, who was I to speak up? The guy who can’t even see a hidden image that most 3rd graders can figure out was going to complain about not being able to see the 3-D movie? And risk being told that it is, in fact, in 3-D already? No thank you.