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AniMaytion Month: Rock and Rule/Strange Frame

Last year about this time I spent some posts focusing on works of science fiction, and this spring I’m kind of doing it again by default, except that this month, my particular interest is in animated productions.

And, in addition to that, I find myself in the position of having recently encountered two animated features that are, at best, cult classics in terms of notoriety, and both of them involve people in a post-apocalyptic scenario saving those they love through the power of rock and roll.

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Chronologically, the first one is 1983’s Rock and Rule, produced by Canada’s Nelvana Studio – the first English animated film produced entirely in this country, I gather. In a time after global war has left the world populated by animalistic humanoid mutants, Angel and Omar are a couple who dream of making it big as musicians. Angel has a real talent but Omar is selfish and insecure about his own success and they quarrel over exposure for their own songs. Angel is sought out by Mok, a sorcerous former superstar who tempts Angel with going solo. Mok has been searching for a special voice that will enable him to achieve a new kind of power – a horrible demon summoned from beyond. However, I would never have known this movie existed if it hadn’t turned up in the YouTube suggestions while I was watching the other one…

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In 2012, an award-garnering indie film called Strange Frame: Love and Sax came out completely under most radars. Centuries after the polluted Earth has been abandoned and humanity has colonized the rest of the Solar System, hereditary debt bondage and genetic engineering to make you better at a given job are the norm. Parker, a runaway middle-class saxophonist on Ganymede falls in with a debt-slave rebel, Naia. The two become a couple and form a subversive band. When Naia catches the eye of a recruiter for a big music producer, Parker finds herself turfed out as Naia becomes a brainwashed, sanitized superstar. Joining up with the crew of a DIY spaceship, Parker formulates a plan to defy the big fame machine, recover her beloved and get away from it all.

First off, it should be made clear that neither of these movies is meant for kids. I gather that it was a popular misconception that Ralph Bakshi made Rock and Rule; the use of rotoscoping does give that impression, I suppose. The movie sure isn’t shy about suggestive clothing – club dancers wearing the bare (ha, ha) minimum, the villain half-naked in a robe and Angel forced into an outfit on par with the Princess Leia slave bikini – and there’s a scene of Omar and Angel making out very energetically. Strange Frame meanwhile takes place in a Blade Runner-esque grungy future where fetishistic clothing is commonplace and Parker and Naia have sex two or three times in the run of the story – it’s not pornographic by any means but it is still pretty steamy. Plus the monster Mok summons in Rock and Rule is fundamentally disturbing.

Rock and Rule‘s voice cast aren’t big names, as far as I know, except for Catherine O’Hara in one scene. That said, the singing voices are quite big. Well, to be honest, the only one I knew was Iggy Pop, and that’s only because of the time he was on Deep Space Nine. He and one Lou Reed lend their voices to musical numbers by the villainous Mok, the singer Robin Zander does Omar and Deborah Harry does Angel’s singing.

Strange Frame, by contrast, first caught my eye precisely because of its cast: Parker, the heroine and narrator is voiced by Claudia Black, late of Farscape and Mass Effect 2, Naia is played by Tara Strong, Grenman, the captain of the DIY ship – the delightfully named Lone Mango – is Ron Glass, and Chat, the band’s drummer, is Alan Tudyk. Given the general look of the thing, two Firefly and one Farscape actors make perfect sense, really. Cree Summer, Tim Curry as the villain, and George Takei as the villain’s overseer round off one heck of an ensemble.

I can certainly understand why somebody thought that Rock and Rule was Bakshi’s doing. You can tell from how they move that the characters are rotoscoped over live performers at least some of the time, and the attention to detail is pretty impressive. Whoever was animating Mok’s face certainly cared about their work. It’s got more movement in it than some whole characters. It seems to be set in the far future with a new civilization having arisen long after the old one. Omar and Angel make out in a car that looks abandoned in a sort of campsite, the nearby big city is called Nuke York and features such as Mok’s airship, his power plant base and the hovering-shuttle transit system suggest islands of advanced technology in a sea of used future – Blade Runner again splattered across Mad Max, as it were. What’s kind of weird is the halfhearted way the characters are made to look like animals. If TV Tropes is to be believed, most of the main characters are meant to look like dogs, but they resemble dogs to about the same extent that Arthur resembles an aardvark. Angel just looks like a regular gal with a button nose if you don’t look too close. Mok is supposedly meant to be a cat, but I don’t see it at all. He looks like Count Dracula as played by Steven Tyler. Overall, the effect isn’t ‘these are cartoon anthropomorphic animals’ so much as ‘these are humans but something about them is weirding me out.’ That said, the animators pushed the boat out on the demon. It doesn’t stick with cliched demon imagery. Instead it goes the Eldritch Abomination route of depicting something that seems unused to having a physical form, and is in a constant state of hideous flux.

Strange Frame‘s animation is made in a style of stop motion with paper cutouts. It incorporates bits of old live-action movies and CGI-distorted live images for some of the backgrounds and vehicles. The character design is eclectic to say the least. The various genetically engineered persons create a colourful cast. Reesa, Grenman’s first mate, looks more like a hybrid of monkey and bat than a human; the three ‘Muses’ who advise Parker include a catgirl and a lady with ram’s horns; Atem, the band’s bassist looks like a werewolf and Chat the drummer has four arms. Parker is easily the most normal-looking. The grungy, orange-tinted scenery, megacity setting, corporatocratic society and whacky-tending-to-racy clothing styles evoke Blade Runner, Transmetropolitan, or Warhammer 40K Hive Worlds. The way ancient spare parts get used to build ships, and how some ships are built using hollowed-out asteroids as hulls was particularly nifty. The combination of digital and physical media – or appearance thereof – is reminiscent of the Neil Gaiman movie Mirrormask.

Neither film is a musical exactly, but music is nonetheless a key part of the story. Rock and Rule is, as I said, a bit of an all-stars lineup of its time. Lou Reed’s villain song for Mok is fun enough. The original Canadian version and American redub of this movie are apparently markedly different, because I found a standalone clip of Iggy Pop’s contribution, but in the original version’s upload I watched, it’s barely audible above the sound effects of our heroes dashing to the rescue. I’m innately wary of any story where somebody’s voice or talent is supposed to be earth-shattering, especially when it’s as literal as here, because it’s hard to find a real talent that lives up to that much hype. But to my pleasant surprise, Angel’s song, ‘Send Love Through’ – later reworked by Deborah Harry into the single ‘Maybe For Sure’ – is written and performed so well that you really could believe that it has the power ascribed to it. Certainly, it’s now been stuck in my head for over a week.

Music in Strange Frame is superb. The songs of Naia’s that get spotlighted are catchy, especially the one she composes in the first act. The only disappointing thing is that you feel like you’re only hearing portions of them. Strange Frame doesn’t seem to have a soundtrack album. The background music is also catchy as hell, with Jazz, electronic and other influences evident. The saxophone’s presence, as Parker’s instrument, gives the music real drive and emotion. The big chase scene at the end is especially good. The sci-fi sound effects are first rate, too. As before, some of the busier scenes might make it hard to notice what’s going on. According to the Wikipedia page there’s a Roger Waters song in the movie, but don’t ask me where.

Rock and Rule‘s story is, if nothing else, pretty original in concept, and the way that a quarrelsome couple can come together to vanquish evil through song is oddly moving, if a little cheesy. The only drawback is that the characters evolve by the flick of a switch, rather than gradually. Omar is hot-headed and selfish, storming off in a huff when Mok seeks out Angel’s solo talent, but we don’t really see enough of their life to know why she puts up with him. I think the relationship is meant to be seen as passionate but creatively fractious, but without enough context it almost looks abusive. It still drives a theme of your loved ones and your art being more important than your ego. Omar pulls a big damn heroes moment more because it looks cool in the movie than because it seems true to the character, while their other two bandmates actually make a rescue effort we get to witness. And that doesn’t actually accomplish much, except to get their drummer, somewhat an audience surrogate, into position. Omar’s character arc, such as it is, is served by Angel, despite her nominally being the main character. She doesn’t really have an arc. She doesn’t fall for Mok’s enticements of solo success, he kidnaps her. She stays much the same. Though it is cool that she’s a positive example to those around her, and she’s an active and intelligent character, it does seem like she’s doing a lot of the emotional labour here. Mok is a villain I like. Complex he ain’t, but cunning, grandiose, petty and diabolical, and the theme of fundamental goodness drives his downfall as well as the demon’s. But the plot has a sense of being rushed from point to point.

Strange Frame‘s plot is a lot better organized, with Parker’s narration keeping you on top of things. That said, some of the plot is communicated visually without being spelled out, but it comes across more as ‘we want you to interpret this’ rather than Rock and Rule‘s ‘we don’t have time to explain this properly’ vibe. Exactly how the villains’ evil plot works is a little unclear. They make an android duplicate of Naia but still keep her squirrelled away in stasis – I interpreted it as using the android as a conduit for her talent while locking away her rebellious personality. The other bandmates kind of fall by the wayside with little ceremony. In contrast to the sense that large chunks of plot and character are missing in Rock and Rule, Strange Frame seems to have a lot of plot elements that don’t go anywhere. I gather the original plan was to make a series out of it, and there are threads tending to indicate that. The parallel narrative with the AI installed on the Lone Mango barely interacts with everything else. It sort of reminded me of that ‘castaway’ metaplot thing in Watchmen. While the villain is vanquished, his overseers, represented by the voice of George Takei, are never seen, named, nor called to account. The rescue plan seems to go a little too easily, and the big chase scene seems oddly unimaginative, albeit visually enjoyable. That said, the ending, while open-ended, is positive and satisfying, and the movie defies the increasingly infamous Dead Lesbian trope!

It might be obvious by now that I like Strange Frame more than Rock and Rule. Strange Frame‘s dialogue and voice acting are excellent, funny, heartbreaking, and clever. I had to laugh at Claudia Black bringing us a whole new set of sci-fi fake swear words after her tenure on Farscape. The story’s better constructed, and the characters are more varied and interesting, with almost everybody in it a person of colour (when they look human) a sexual minority, or both. I like the setting, a future civilization spanning the Solar System, like the Expanse or Cowboy Bebop. I like the artistry of the animation, which is quite unlike anything I’ve seen.

I’m not saying I don’t like Rock and Rule. Apart from its Canadian background, it’s still an great archetypal story, however haphazard, and its animation style gets me in the nostalgia somewhat. The imagery is quite imaginative. Despite the comparisons to Bakshi, I actually thought some of the scenery was akin to Studio Ghibli’s style. It’s just that if I had a choice of which one to push to friends, Strange Frame would be – and indeed, is – first in line. I recommend it first for story, characters, voice acting, progressivism and general weirdness. Rock and Rule‘s weirdness seems more unintentional than Strange Frame‘s. For music though, for me, it’s a dead heat, I’m glad to say, and it feeds this weird fascination I have with stories about fictional bands I was previously feeding on a diet of Jem and the Holograms.

You can rent Strange Frame on YouTube and Rock and Rule has been running the bootleg circuit so long I don’t think anyone cares anymore, so it too will pop up on YouTube time and time again, so check them both out, if you like.

Meanwhile, in the interest in getting that song out of my head, here it is in a fan-edited video so you all have to hear it too…

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in animation, Movie

 

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Suicide Squad: Still Breathing

As a kid watching comic-based animated universes, my loyalties always leaned slightly more to DC than to Marvel. Mainly, it was down to the DC cartoons being better produced and less subject to meddling censors, I think.

In the Cinematic Universe department, however, I’ve rather felt my sympathies sliding the other way. Marvel has consistently demonstrated its ability to tell meaningful stories with complex characters like Tony Stark, Loki, and Black Widow.

By contrast, DC’s Cinematic Universe was kicked off by Man of Steel, which told a by-the-numbers, rather grim tale of what has traditionally been one of the most spectacular and starry-eyed characters in comic book canon. It was, in a sense, an early symptom of the general bleak pessmissm of a lot of popular fiction these days, as if the showrunners didn’t believe that Superman was actually a marketable character, so they just tried to make Batman Begins again.

I honestly completely missed the Batman vs. Superman movie, out of a sense, from Man of Steel that I was going to watch, dark, stoic Batman butting heads with a dark, stoic Superman. Contrast makes interesting conflict and I just didn’t see there being any.

And yet, I nevertheless was intrigued by the next installment after that, Suicide Squad. There’s no counterpart in the Marvel Universe that I know of, where you have an ensemble of villain protagonists. It promised to bring forward some more colourful and clashing characters than DC had managed up to now.

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Oddly enough Joker probably has the least screentime of anyone, but are you going to tell him different?

In the wake of the events of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, the United States government is reeling from the rising threat of aggressive ‘metahumans.’

Amanda Waller, a covert ops planning specialist, gains leverage on a group of metahumans and criminal masterminds and forms them into a secret task force to throw at extraordinary, high risk situations. In exchange for considerations like reduced sentences and nicer cells, they undertake nearly-suicidal black ops with government deniability. Included among them are the master assassin Deadshot, the ex-gangster pacifist pyrokinetic El Diablo, eccentric Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang (seriously), and Harley Quinn, the deranged counterpart to the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker.

Under special ops soldier Flagg, they must go in against a former member of Waller’s team, the Enchantress, an ancient magical entity which, regrettably, has possessed Flagg’s beloved.

The overwhelming impression you have with Suicide Squad is that it’s a rush job. The members of the squad – and there are seven of them altogether – are introduced in a montage over Waller describing them to some generals, except for Katana, who appears out of nowhere at the end of the first act. In practice, Flagg, Deadshot and Harley are the only ones who get more than a simple backstory. The Joker, in pursuit of Harley, comes and goes as if the writers periodically forget that he’s there. I’m certainly intrigued by the new interpretation of him by Jared Leto. I remember when I first saw his picture in character, I thought it was a Marilyn Manson album cover. But he isn’t characterized deeply enough to have either the bleakly funny quality that Mark Hamill or Heath Ledger provide, nor the airs of a figure that even other villains are terrified of.

The characters are fun but shallow. Will Smith makes Deadshot the heart of the piece, but his backstory is your old family-man-with-an-evil-job cliche; Harley’s insanity doesn’t seem real, just a quirky weirdo who switches occasionally from insightful to broken to just random. Her characterization in the 90s Batman Animated Series was certainly quirky, but somehow the tragedy of her character doesn’t come across as much as I might prefer. But then again, I’m a sucker for Harley Quinn redemption fanfiction, to the point of having written one myself. The tone wavers, as if a gritty, humanizing story was the plan but the writers couldn’t quite believe in comic book characters as anything other than silly. Batman’s brief appearances in particular have a subtle element of the absurd, which, when the bar is set by the Dark Knight trilogy at him being a force of shadowy dread, makes him fall flat.

It also falls victim to the same misstep I observed in Man of Steel. X-Men Apocalypse did something similar as well, and it again speaks to rushing things: the heroes confront the bad guy and save the world…except they kind of don’t. See, something the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty good at is creating the sense that our heroes triumph by preventing terrible things from happening, containing the carnage as much as possible. In the DC movies (and Apocalypse), they try to big up the scariness of the villain by having them defeated after the carnage is already underway! Sure, Enchantress is foiled but then again, she covered half the world with her power for a while, amongst other things, slicing an aircraft carrier in half! The city she’s operating in is evacuated and trashed. As with the damage to Metropolis in Man of Steel, or Cairo and the world in Apocalypse, by the time the villain is defeated, it feels like it’s too late. What’s the point of a deniable Suicide Squad if what’s going on is that blisteringly obvious?

Despite all of the above, I feel very much as if the movie has been treated more harshly than necessary. It has many of the hallmarks of the ensemble heist film – an old favourite genre of mine – and however artless the plotting may be, the dialogue is actually quite good. The action is perfectly enjoyable and Deadshot, Flagg and Harley between them really carry the story with their performances. Aptly, since this is another Zack Snyder production, the emotive characters, sense of character bonding, surreal aesthetic and exciting action bits successfully evoke my old friend Sucker Punch. The whole production has a certain je ne se quois that maintains its charm. Set and costume design are top notch, and the choice of licensed music certainly beats Guardians of the Galaxy. The comic relief actually did make me laugh, and as I alluded to earlier, whatever failures in the presentation, the acting closes much of the gap. I look forward to the exploits of the new Batman in particular.

So, on balance, I rate Suicide Squad as a Fun Movie. It isn’t up to the MCU or the Dark Knight Trilogy’s standards, but I think it has potential. My main advice to DC would be: take a deep breath, don’t worry about playing catch-up to Marvel and focus on the story you want to tell. But given how much ground Suicide Squad managed to skim over, I think that possibility is very real. So I’ll stay tuned for now.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Movie

 

Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Star Wars

Well, the time has come at last. I’ve said before that there is a trinity of franchises that set the style for popular science fiction today. First, in 1963, there was Doctor Who. In 1966 came Star Trek. And in 1977…

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Star Wars, now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was the brainchild of special effects wizard George Lucas. He made it as an homage to pulp sci-fi of his childhood, and it was a classic revisitation of the Hero’s Journey, arguably the oldest trope in existence.

Of the three great franchises I’ve done the history of, Star Wars is probably the one whose behind-the-scenes history I know the least. That said, I’ve gleaned a certain amount of lore from my parents, who remember seeing them when they first came out.

Star Wars’ saga of the Skywalker family’s quest to master the ways of the mystical Force that permeates the the galaxy and overthrow the evil Galactic Empire and its ruler Palpatine is a perfect illustration of the idea that there’s no such thing as an original story, only fresh versions of old ones. The Hero’s Journey is so basic, and yet in the cladding of Star Wars became one of the biggest deals in pop culture in the last half-century.

If you have infinite time to waste, you can check out the fascinating ‘History of Hollywood‘ series of articles on the TV Tropes wiki. From that, the Star Wars movies were one of the cutting-edge contributors to the concept of the blockbuster film, along with the work of Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg of the same period. It was a massive hit for all ages (per that wiki, family entertainment had been the exclusive preserve of Disney before then) that seemed to come completely out of nowhere.

Probably the most talked about innovation of the Star Wars movies is in the area of special effects. In space movies prior to this, you moved a model spaceship across a background in a way that made it very obvious that they were subject to Earth gravity and made of plywood – see the old Doctor Who series. Lucas was the first one to keep the model in place and move the camera, resulting in much smoother motion. This innovation was the launching pad for one of Lucas’ many companies, Industrial Light and Magic, still the name in special effects. Only Weta Workshop has, to my knowledge, approached it in prestige since.

Star Wars was and remains a visual feast, from the locations, to the ships, to the aliens, to the action. It runs on raw emotions of exhiliration, awe and suspense. For the more intellectual viewer, it was rife with callbacks to classics like Flash Gordon and echoes of things like samurai legends. Thematically, it’s so universal that people all over the world have gotten into it.

Actually, despite its standing in pop culture and in relation to Doctor Who or Star Trek, there’s an argument to be made that Star Wars isn’t actually science fiction, but like Saga, is fantasy that just happens to take place in outer space. Science fiction is sometimes defined as being about what might happen, but Star Wars is clearly in another galaxy far, far away. That said, the aesthetic, if not the concept, had a big impact on science fiction from that day forward.

The 1977 epic was followed up with the Empire Strikes Back, a significant change in tone that included one of the most famous twists in movie history and, unusually, a situation where the bad guys kind of win.

Return of the Jedi rounded out the trilogy with a resolution of the threads laid in the previous movie and massive all-round epic conclusion that would stand the test of time for twenty years.

It must be said that all of this took a lot out of Lucas, and he defied a lot of convention in doing it, becoming a free agent auteur in the process.

Star Wars was also a pioneer of another, arguably less awesome area: merchandising. Star Wars doesn’t just make money from ticket sales, or video and DVD sales. It spun itself out into a huge market of collectibles like models, toys, posters and so on.

In addition, Star Wars has (or had, at least) something unique in its time: the Expanded Universe. With an entire galaxy to play in, the franchise ballooned into spinoff books and comics, covering the events after Return of the Jedi, before A New Hope, and spaces between, and following the exploits of our heroes and even the most briefly-glimpsed side characters.

This is what set Star Wars apart, I think, from Trek fandom or Whovianism: more than the other two, being a Star Wars fan became a lifestyle unto itself. Star Trek licensed materials were never as cohesive or interconnected, and Star Trek merchandise, in my experience, is harder to find and a lot more downmarket. Doctor Who is moving more in the Star Wars direction since the 2005 reboot, but it has a lot of catching up to do. Besides which, Star Wars, similarly to Warhammer 40K which came after, is a universe so big you can just about live in it full-time, and it’s an ideal breeding ground for Ensemble Darkhorse-type characters like Boba Fett.

It was something only possible because Lucas, having broken away from the Hollywood establishment, had pretty much total oversight of the franchise. In contrast, Gene Roddenberry, for better and worse, was still answerable to a studio. Until the sale to Disney, you could depend on one guy signing off on every little thing.

Which, it must be said, did backfire in numerous ways. Personally, I could never see myself getting into the EU because what little I gleaned always came across as overstuffed. Whether that’s fair or not I don’t know, but what I do know is that after a while Lucas’ creative monopoly started to show its drawbacks.

The most obvious one, and the one even Lucas himself has been known to joke about, is that Star Wars dialogue is as campy as it comes. Everybody gave him hell for that, from Harrison Ford to Sir Alec Guinness, and it’s been a part of the franchise from the word go. Coupled with this is the way he gives characters names that either sound like the babblings of toddlers, or that are hit-you-over-the-head goofy sounding, like the obviously sinister pseudonyms used by Sith or (and this is the one that makes me want to throw something at the screen every time) the portly X-Wing pilot in Episode IV named ‘Porkins.’ The Force Awakens is, for some reason, continuing this tradition in the person of Supreme Leader Snoke.

Before I go on, I should make this clear as it is a point on which I might diverge from a lot of readers. I watch campy franchises like this in spite of their cheesiness, not because of it. I will never understand the logic of watching something to enjoy its flaws. For me, camp is sometimes an historical relic that is acceptable in that context, like the original Star Wars, or something I tolerate because the story is worthwhile anyway, as in the case of something like Tomorrowland. It’s why I never watch things like the Family Guy Star Wars parody (well, that and a general dislike for Seth MacFarlane) or, on the Trek front, Galaxy Quest, because the conversation is going to be them saying, “Hey! Star Wars did something stupid and cheesy!” And me replying, “Yes, I know. Now will you shut up, I’m trying to enjoy it over here!”

Which is why, like a lot of people, my favourite Star Wars movie was Empire Strikes Back, because Lucas merely took general charge of the production and left the dialogue and other fine details up to colleagues. Didn’t improve the Imperial Stormtrooper’s aim much though.

Star Wars was ambitious in having a saga across multiple movies – grabbing us early on by inexplicably calling his first movie “Episode IV” – but it’s clear that Lucas was playing things a little more seat-of-the-trousers than he might have wished us to believe. I particularly remember watching Empire Strikes Back with my Dad as a kid. In one scene Leia kisses Luke – mainly just to tick Han off – and my Dad remarked, “She’s gonna to feel funny about that later.” Leia also discusses in Return of the Jedi what little she remembers of her birth mother, but Padme dies in childbirth in Revenge of the Sith. And there are little early oddities like Vader shouting at Leia in Episode IV, whereas, ever after, his calm stoicism is one of his best assets as a villain.

Another thing Dad pointed out to me over the years is that oftentimes Lucas couldn’t seem to make up his mind who his target audience was. The violence and crises of the movies are pretty mature stuff – I remember being quite shocked as a child by how many of the good guys get shot down in Episode IV. And it was many years before I could get through Return of the Jedi because despite the cute kid-friendly Ewoks this movie also contained the Emperor himself – who I will remind you, looked like this:

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Bit much for a seven-year-old to take, really.

Which brings me neatly to the Prequel Triology. I’m probably the oldest generation for whom this was a part of my growing up: the new trilogy of Episodes I, II, and III, beginning in 1999 with the Phantom Menace. This trilogy follows the rise of Anakin Skywalker through the Jedi ranks and his eventually succumbing to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader. And, at this point, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of twelve willing to defend it.

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Lucas was back in the driver’s seat for this one, as he had been for Return of the Jedi, and unfortunately, due in part, seemingly, to tribulations in his private life, his worst bad habits seemed to get the best of him.

Now, there are legions of articles, comment threads and videos discussing the shortcomings of the Prequel trilogy. In general, another of Star Wars’ dubious distinctions is being one of the first franchises to exhibit a voracious yet unpleasable fan community. If you can stand his interminable videos and obnoxious voice, then the YouTube critic Confused Matthew probably does as thorough a job as anyone of dissecting them.

Among the most common ones were the sloppy and vague background to the conflict – taxation of trade routes, etc. – making it seem arbitrary and hollow; making one’s Jedi potential based more on a blood test than on the content of your character; a plot that barrels ahead leaving hole after hole in its wake; a lot of prophecy and Chosen One talk in a franchise that has never used it; accusations of racist stereotyping; enemies that flip-flop between being funny and scary and failing at both; and of course the most ham-fisted love story ever seen on screen.

That’s not to say that they had no virtues: Episodes I and II in particular had great action, visuals, music and casting, and the fight at the end of Episode I was a masterpiece of choreography. But then Anakin took centre stage and it went downhill fast.

Anakin Skywalker is so arrogant and abrasive you’d think he’d already fallen to the Dark Side! His come-ons to Padme in Attack of the Clones were my younger self’s master class in how never to treat a woman, and he regarded the world through what I’ve since dubbed the ‘Anakin Skywalker Serial Killer Glare’ (see also Jace in City of Bones and the teen big brother in Jurassic World). Beyond that, Lucas’ dialogue got worse and worse, and the battle droids and Jar-Jar stood for Star Wars’ inability to keep a consistent tone.

What always gets me about the Prequel Trilogy is that it contains a terrific story about Anakin’s downfall, but that Lucas doesn’t appear to have noticed it. A lot of aspects of the story that exist as plot holes would have worked if strung together differently. I thought, during Attack of the Clones, Anakin was going to be given legitimate reasons to be disillusioned by the Jedi; the fact that the ‘guardians of peace and justice’ do nothing about slavery in Episode I, their callous attitude toward Anakin’s mother in Episode II, the inflexibility of their code, and the implication in Episode II that there were corrupt Jedi masters involved in instigating the Clone Wars, were, I assumed, setting up the Jedi Order as being in decline, and Anakin’s frustration turning him to a side that promised decisive action. The Seperatist movement could have been a group with legitimate grivances that got coopted by evil. Instead, we get this.

Part of the problem is that worldbuilding in Star Wars has always been a little slapdash: the sheer size and openness of the universe also results in it being quite vague. Sometimes this helps imply a larger world, like C-3PO’s brief line in Episode IV about the Spice Mines of Kessel. But sometimes it undermines the story: at no point does anyone explain in the Prequels what a Sith is or what they want revenge for. What the Seperatists want, their ‘demands’ as Count Dooku puts it, are never shown. The specific remit of the Jedi is never clarified. Most frustrating of all, as I said in my article on the Force Awakens, the Force is never given clear rules as to what you should be able to do with it, at what stage of your training, so that characters tend to find new powers and forget old ones when the plot requires it.

George Lucas’ talents lie squarely in high concept, special effects and production oversight. Despite everything above, though, I don’t mean that as damning with faint praise. Lucas is really, really good at those things. Despite what he makes his characters say sometimes, I’ll also credit that his casting is never less than spectacular. His first ‘Special Edition’ of the first trilogy also made the most of new developments – and more money – and for all the subsquent remasters have contained some questionable decisions, you have to respect Lucas for going outside the system and trying new things. Pity more people in Hollywood don’t try that.

Star Wars is flawed – badly flawed – in myriad little ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s a write-off. It still stirs real emotions in its fans, and taps into very basic elements of storytelling that speak to anyone and everyone. It didn’t become the massive phenomenon it is because of hipster-ironic snarking at its expense. The trappings are strikingly original, the action is exhilirating, and it will be a dark time for the Rebel Alliance indeed when composer John Williams is no longer around to write the stunning scores for these movies. When the hamminess does work, it really works, too – there’s just something about the phrase “you are in command now, Admiral Piett!” The Force Awakens is showing some signs of upping Star Wars’ game in the diversity department – in which it was already fairly strong – and shaking off a bit of the camp, while still retaining its Rule of Cool ethos. As enthralling as Star Trek, as timeless as the Lord of the Rings, and almost as quotable as the Princess Bride, it well deserves its place as one of the cornerstones of geek culture.

May the Force be with you.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2016 in Movie, Saturday Supplemental

 

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The Force Awakens: So it Begins

Well, this holiday season was the big one all of geek culture was waiting for: Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens has come!

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It was probably inevitable in what I grouchily refer to as the Age of the Remake, where Hollywood et al can barely seem to make anything that isn’t an adaptation, a remake or a sequel of something that came out twenty-plus years ago.

This particular instance was made more than usually unpalatable for me because the man at the helm is the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams. Apart from a general feeling that this is too much power for one nerd to hold, I’m still ticked off at him for building his resume for this job by running roughshod over my favourite franchise and effectively turning into a mindless Star Wars knockoff.

Let it not be said, however, that I buy into the age old Star Trek vs. Star Wars rivalry. I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan; Empire Strikes Back has been one of my favourite movies since before I was school-age. That said, I’ve never had the kind of personal loyalty to the franchise that I have to Star Trek. Not because there’s anything wrong with Star Wars. It’s just that Star Wars doesn’t have the mission or message that Trek does. Star Trek was here to tell us something really important about our potential for the future, albeit I’m beginning to think I’m the only one who noticed. Star Wars invited us on an epic and soulful whiz-bang space adventure, simple as that. And if that’s the bar they want to set, then I will concede that the Force Awakens more than delivers.

As the new plan came to light, mixed feelings arose in the fandom. The one that ticked off a lot of people is that, to develop a story for a new wave of Star Wars, they decided to chuck out the entire post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe canon and start from scratch. People who have invested themselves in experiencing the licensed comics and books were understandably left with a feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them. As someone who is only broadly aware of it, it seems to me that the EU has grown so vast, complex and detailed, that to successfully integrate all of it would be impractical.

Thirty years after the downfall of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, the new Republic is engaged in a proxy struggle against the First Order, what remains of the Galactic Empire. Rey, an orphaned battlefield scavenger, is pulled into an urgent mission by Finn, a Stormtrooper of the First Order who has deserted. Joining forces with heroes of the semi-legendary battle against the Empire, they have to evade capture by the fanatical disciple of the Dark Side Kylo Ren to bring the Resistance a droid, BB-8, who carries a map that will show them their great hope: the whereabouts of the missing Jedi Luke Skywalker. At the same time, the First Order have built yet another planet-destroying superweapon that must be destroyed for the Republic to survive and preserve the ancient Jedi ways.

A few people I know complained that the plot is basically just a retread of the very first Star Wars movie, and there is something in that. The fact that their opposition is basically an Even More Powerful version of the Death Star is certainly a clue. A lost droid with a secret mission is another one. The desert planet setting (oddly not Tatooine as I assumed) and the fact that our heroine – who even dresses a bit like Luke Skywalker in his farm boy days – meets a mentor figure are all very clearly revisiting the basic plot of Episode IV. All that said, it never crosses the line into straight-up ripoff territory in the same way that Star Trek: Into Darkness did.

Thorough worldbuilding has never been a strong point of Star Wars. George Lucas’ judgement about when to explain things and when to leave them ambiguous was shaky at best. This movie is no different, though at the stronger end of normal for the franchise. We see an inhabited planet get blown up, but it isn’t clear which one, nor is it dwelt on much, rather like Alderaan back in the day. The exact political or strategic situation is really fuzzy: is the Republic in direct conflict with the First Order? And if so why do you need a Resistance? And why does the Resistance include people who became top generals in the Rebel Alliance? Shouldn’t they be in the regular military? Star Wars allows a lot of latitude to not worry about this sort of thing, but it still makes the story universe seem a bit unpolished. The movie has a very interesting set of scenes where we see what it’s like to view the world when you’re sensitive to the Force, but the actual rules of the Force, what it makes you capable of and how much of your ability is talent and how much is training remain eternally ill-defined.

More irritating to me is that there are so many incidental encounters, supporting characters and other elements that, I am forced to assume are going to be significant in the movie-a-year Marvel-style cinematic saga that Star Wars is apparently now to become. Knowing that and seeing all these possible hints makes this movie feel less like an experience to be had and more like homework for an experience that hasn’t happened yet. This was the thing about Lost that always got on my nerves: the whole story seems to be trading on the promise of something awesome coming later rather than focusing on its own merits.

And merits the story does indeed have. I’d agree that the movie is a retread of Episode IV, but it is one in the same way that Star Trek: the Next Generation is a retread of the Original Star Trek, or that BioShock: Infinite is of BioShock, or that the Second World War was of the First. It’s a generational echo, a chance for a new group of people to undertake a similar cause in their own way.

The story pulls a bit of fast one by setting up a main character who it turns out isn’t actually the main character; he’s a bit more analogous Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy. The characters have personal struggles and traumas of various sorts, and it’s fascinating how we have two Hero’s Journey stories running together and mutually supporting. Finn and Rey’s refusal of the call phase is a bit more than just a formality as it is for Luke in Episode IV. Rey’s loner lifestyle gives way to her becoming part of a team and a circle of friends without her losing her personal indepedence or a turning into a cookie-cutter love interest.

Finn’s defection to free agency is probably going to transition into his joining the Resistance in a later movie, but oddly for playing the long game, his arc seems more rushed even than the others, and they all feel rushed. His defection seems to come with no particular precedent – it’s even noted he never had a single discipline problem prior to that – and he goes through the opening steps of the Hero’s Journey at an especially breakneck pace. He clearly has a lot to do later in the series. He’s a good guy with a good heart and although he’s somewhat the comic relief, it’s never to the point of disrespecting him, because he’s honestly out of his depth, being neither an ace pilot nor a potential Jedi like most Star Wars protagonists.

Abrams has proven that he’s really good at building a character arc in the context of television series, like Lost and Fringe. But it feels like he panics and rushes things when he’s limited to the runtime of a movie. It can be done: Joss Whedon’s Avengers can stand on its own as a character piece even if you haven’t seen Thor or Iron Man. It might even have been worthwile for Abrams to go full Peter Jackson and make a three hour mega-movie if it allowed a bit more modest pacing.

Overall, the new crop of heroes are perhaps my favourite thing in the movie: they aren’t supermen – or even all men – or aces or destined saviours – although there’s an element of Arthurian imagery with Rey. They’re regular people with complimentary skills and talents, and there’s less of a sense of living up to a pre-ordained destiny, as in the other two trilogies, than of just trying to be a good person and make your way in the world. Er, galaxy.

As for the returning champions like Han Solo and Leia, contrary to what I feared given Abrams’ history with Star Trek, the movie honours their contribution to the franchise. Although Solo’s character seems to have had a bit of the old reset button, and the way he enters the story’s a tad contrived, the old guard have arcs of their own. They don’t take over the story and turn it into fanfiction, nor are they in there just as a fanservice bribe, nor as comic relief to make fun of the franchise. To Rey and Finn, these people are practically folk legends, and yet they relate to them as people and learn and grow from their influence.

All this is set neatly against the villain Kylo Ren. It kept occurring to me that Rey and Ren are like opposite sides of a fandom argument on a comment thread. While Rey is enriched by her encounter with history and yet remains her own person, Ren is consumed by it. He’s basically the worst gatekeeper-type fanboy. He’s obssessed with being a Dark Side badass. He worships Darth Vader’s memory as the ultimate master of the Dark Side, to the point of wearing a ripoff of Vader’s mask for no other apparent reason. His lightsabre appears to be both oversized and overpowered – it gives off heatwaves and deals a lot more damage than normal – and punches his own open wounds to show off how tough he is. Despite all these trappings, the untrained Rey gives him a run for his money; he lacks Vader’s imposing stoicism – indeed he has almost no self-control at all – and doesn’t appear to know how to use the old Sith standby of Force Lightning. It all goes to make him both scary and loathsome. The fact that he’s pitted against a group of gender and race-diverse protagonists of the kind that the whitebread macho fanboys railed against gives it a rather grimly satisfying symbolism. Really, every franchise should do something like this, just to sort out the Reys and Finns from the Kylos in their midst…

Overall, I really enjoyed the Force Awakens. It walks a fine line between doing something new and riffing on the classic that gives you a reasonable amount of both. It’s cheesy and maybe shallow, but Star Wars was always cheesy and shallow, and it was epic regardless. The characters are really fascinating, the special effects are awesome, the connection with the original trilogy is touching, the music is superb and the dialogue, the butt of many a joke at Star Wars’ expense, has improved a good deal. Abrams has also reined in his lens flare fetish a bit. My main concern is whether the revived franchise will be able to maintain a sense of momentum going forward. We’ve already escalated to a Mega-Badass-Super-Death Star™, and I’m not sure where we can go from here.

However, for the first time in a while, I can honestly say, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Happy New Year, and may the Force be with you.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2015 in Movie

 

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Ant-Man: More Brainless Than Any Insect

You’ve got to hand it to Marvel for playing the long game. Nobody’s ever tried what they’re doing with their Cinematic Universe. DC had their Animated Universe in the 90s, but those were half-hour cartoons, not massive blockbuster movies running parallel but interconnected narratives.

Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, plus the rest of the Avengers pile up to a significant confluence of awesome, especially with Joss Whedon somewhere in the equation.

But as I said when Guardians of the Galaxy came out, I’m beginning to think they were a little too ambitious; now with even more ensembles joining the franchise, it’s hard to believe that they can evenly distribute funding and talent in effects, acting and particularly writing across the whole franchise.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a first warning sign. It’s fun enough but undeniably a B-Movie against the Avengers.

And when I looked and saw that the next movie in the offing for the MCU was called ‘Ant-Man’ I half-expected somebody to shout “April Fools” because that’s the dorkiest name for a superhero I think I’ve ever heard. And, as it turns out, the movie lives up to its title. Or maybe, down to it.

Our hero is Scott Something-Something, a professional burglar who has just been released from prison. He can’t hold even a nothing job, and is stuck in a crappy apartment with his three gangster bros. His ex-wife, now married to a Javert-esque cop won’t let him see his daughter until he gets back on the straight and narrow and pays child support. Driven to desperation, he is recruited by supergenius Hank Pym and his Ice Queen daughter Hope to operate an incredible shrinking suit to break into Pym’s old company and steal the prototype for a weaponized shrinking suit before it can be put on the market to the highest bidder and oh, ye gods and little demons, does this movie have a single original thought in its head?

Well, no. No it does not.

When the dorky guy who can’t hold a job and longs to be reunited with his daughter thing came up, plus the ex now married to a big manly-man jerk for good measure, I thought, “Has anyone at Marvel seen a movie since 1997?” Because this is essentially Marvel doing the plot of Liar, Liar or Mrs. Doubtfire. They only barely managed to restrain themselves from having the ex dump the big manly jerk and go back to our dorky protagonist.

Speaking of whom, if Chris Pratt in Jurassic World was generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18445, then the most you can say of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man is that he’s…generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18446. He has a few clever lines and is generally pretty intelligent, but at the end of the day there’s nothing distinguished about him. He’s the standard redemption-arc action guy with a dry wit, designer stubble and who always gets the girl.

His bland white-guyness would not be so glaring were it not for the three racist stereotypes he trails around with him. His roommates – I persist in thinking of them of them as his ‘bros’ because of the way they are always hanging out in their apartment playing videogames, making waffles and giving each other braindead platitudes – are a Hispanic guy with lots of cousins who give him tips in gangster-speak about crimes to commit, an Eastern European with broken English and a dread of gypsy curses suffered by nobody since the fall of the House of Romanov, and a black guy who…is a black guy. That’s about the most you can say about him. And they drive around in a van that plays ‘La Cucaracha’ when you hit the horn.

I won’t say too much about this because I’m not learned enough in racial stereotyping to know whether, when I ask for characters to act less stereotypical, what I’m actually doing is not asking them to act more like middle-class Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, every minute these guys were on screen made you feel like you were about to weep blood. Their function as comic relief not only isn’t funny, but it clashes completely with the dramatic, principled side of the story. You can either have an uplifiting story about redemption and taking a stand or a madcap buddy comedy. Not both. Not this way, anyway.

Michael Douglas as Hank Pym is the only performance that doesn’t feel like a performance. He’s actually acting and is quite an interesting character – the anti-Tony Stark in many ways. But at the same time he’s a vehicle for more stupidity. His relationship with his daughter is so tiresome it feels like it came out of 19th Century literature. Despite her obvious skill and courage, he insists she not take up the suit, and has never opened up about the risks of the suit and the death of her mother because, in his exact words, “I was trying to protect you.” They have a tearful reconciliation moment which is then broken comically by Scott in a very Whedonesque way. Or it would have been if it weren’t for the fact that up until then the writers appeared to mean it and then their alternate personalities took over and switched back to the buddy comedy thing.

Hope demonstrates repeatedly that she doesn’t need protecting, but she still steps quiescently aside at last to let the men take charge. And then she and Scott get together, despite never having had a conversation that wasn’t a tactical briefing. She’s the girl, he’s the hero, she’s his prize. Murders have been committed by guys who’ve internalized this idiotic trope, and here it is yet again, without a trace of irony or subversion. Honestly…

After the reconciliation of father and daughter, the movie ends with Pym and Hope going to work on a prototype suit Pym and Hope’s mother hadn’t finished, clearing the path for Hope to become Wasp, her mother’s old mantle, to which she responds, “about damn time.” No, writers, ‘about damn time’ would have been at the other end of this movie, before you steamrollered it into a committee-designed dramatic plateau!

When DC started getting pigheaded about a Wonder Woman movie and let fly their sexist cover art, I thought that Marvel, replete with superheroines as it is, would show us the way. Black Widow in Avengers looked like a promising start, to say nothing of Joss Whedon being in charge. However, my faith in that has deteriorated badly. I suspect that the execs aren’t letting Whedon get away with doing what he’s best at, and that the MCU at large is now so big an investment that they don’t want to risk doing anything daring, going back to ticking the same old boxes. Black Panther and Captain Marvel, two more unconventional additions to the franchise, are still a long way off and if Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are any indication, then they will have to be pretty amazing to have been worth the wait.

Despite my skepticism, I wanted to give Ant-Man a fair go, but there is nothing in it. I have seldom seen a movie so undistinguished in its every slightest aspect. You could have made it twenty years ago and the only thing that would stand out would be the visual effects. The onus is on Marvel to make me want to stick with this, but if this is where they decide the gripping new direction lies, then I’m out.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Movie

 

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Tomorrowland: Not a Moment Too Soon

The benefit of having low expectations is that when they are defied, the feeling is of being greatly uplifted.

It doesn’t happen to me often; it did with Sucker Punch, and with Mad Max: Fury Road, and I was lucky enough for it to happen again this past week.

I went into the local cinema to see the movie Tomorrowland yesterday. I was curious but not optimistic: the trailer looked cool but it also seemed to consist of the entire first half of the movie. Spread pretty thin, then? It’s based on a Disney fairground ride, which doesn’t seem like a promising start. Then again, so is Pirates of the Caribbean and that turned out alright. And it had George Clooney in it – an excellent actor but noticeably willing to go way down market from time to time. In all honesty, my main interest was in going to see a movie that isn’t a ripoff of something I watched when I was six.

In the near future, idealistic young Casey Newton is feeling ground down by the doom and gloom attitudes of those around her. All she ever learns about at school is the imminent menaces of climate change, nuclear war, and dystopia-style politics. Then she goes home to face the closing down of her father’s job, as an engineer on the decomissioned NASA launch platform at Cape Canaveral.

After having gone the rebellious teenaged genius route of sabotaging the demolition of the platform, she’s caught. But in collecting her effects after being bailed out, she’s presented with a pin, ostensibly a relic from the famous 1964 World’s Fair. But when she touches it, she’s shown a vision of a city, a remarkable new world where all the potential of science and human imagination has been let loose, a utopia of achievement and idealism. Stricken by this vision, she goes on the road to track down its meaning, and finds Frank Walker. Not budging in the face of his bitterness and reticence, she begins a quest to learn the nature of Tomorrwland, and of the threat that inextricably links this world and that one. A threat which Casey may be able to prevent.

So it’s a standard pro-idealism semi-messianic story as far as you go. The wild carnival-ride sequences betray the priorities of the source material, and result in a lot of action. The dieselpunk aesthetic and the travelling to idealized other-worlds makes it seem like fluffy-happy BioShock as much as anything else.

Sounds great, but not unconditionally so: the high action level comes at the expense of time that might have been better spent on worldbuilding. As it is, the plot breezes past so quickly that we occasionally find certain questions unanswered: why, precisely, did Walker leave Tomorrowland? What is society there actually like? We don’t actually get a good look at what it’s like to live there, and how the shared threat affected Tomorrowland and its society. The implication is that it has gone from utopia to dystopia, but we don’t actually see that this is the case. Likewise, antagonists and story elements come and go in the race to reach Tomorrowland, so that the tone of the movie and the general plot type seems to change a couple of times.

The design itself sometimes doesn’t seem like it was thought through beyond ‘let’s do something cool.’ If it had been, some more imaginative and less over-the-top scenarios might have arisen, affording more unity to the narrative. It might also have spared us the obliviously, hilariously phallic imagery in the Eiffel Tower sequence.

The ride Tomorrowland is the main inspiration, as are the rides of the 1964 World’s Fair, as mentioned above. The unconditional optimism of that era is inspiration for Casey, for Frank, and for the writers.

Probably the biggest stumbling block of the movie is that the dialogue, particularly Casey’s, is so painfully saccharine and pretentious that her idealism and optimism come right around and starts sounding goofy. There are certain other aspects of this: Frank in his childhood flashbacks, Athena, the serious, perceptive and mysterious little girl – although she’s young enough that she’s probably not an experienced actress; kind of reminds me of Emma Watson in the first Harry Potter movie. The final sequence where a series of new ‘dreamers’ are shown from around the world is so relentlessly multicultural that it seems slightly frantic, reminding me of the thoroughly but artlessly inclusionary spirit of Captain Planet.

Obviously, including people from all cultures and countries is entirely correct for them to do, especially as a counterbalance to the dark side of the upbeat 1960s we started with – this was, after all, also the era of ‘No Colored’ signs in business front windows. It occurs to me that really what they should have done is cast Casey as a woman of colour, but that’s Hollywood for you: willing to send any message as long as they don’t have to actually exert their imagination meaningfully to do it. As it is the fact that she bears a suspicious resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence shows that Hollywood is still better at talking the talk than anything substantial.

Fundamentally, the movie has a positive message and wants to push optimism and activism in a cynical age, but it can’t quite get away from the long-standing stereotype that you can’t have those things without making them look foolish and silly to at least some extent.

You know what, though? For all its disappointing and disjointed tone and pacing, this was the movie I really, really needed it to be. I’d just been reading over at a neighbouring blog an articulation of my own feelings of how pop and geek culture seems to revel in unrelenting bleakness and misery – Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, the Hunger Games. Geek culture, the birthplace of Star Trek and the mad man with a blue box, where Bilbo Baggins found his courage and Queen Lucy’s belief saved Narnia, has sunk into a state where anything less than a freaking nightmare isn’t considered believable or seemingly, even desirable.

But Tomorrowland cloaks itself in the old ways. The sky’s-the-limit optimism of the Sixties – birthplace of Star Trek – is hearkened back to from the word go. There a lot of visual gags and other classic geeky references in the movie. The soundtrack is trying – a touch desperately – to be a continual homage to Star Wars. It struck me that Tomorrowland itself bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘city of the future’ portrayed briefly in the episode ‘the World Set Free’ from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series – a connection which would have been a non-white protagonist all the more on point, incidentally.

When the script afforded Hugh Laurie’s character a chance to call out the cynical culture of geeks and people in general, I very nearly cheered, because he eloquently calls out the very thing that gives this movie applicability. Subtle it ain’t, but then again Hugh Laurie could make your credit card statement sound like the most important thing you’ve ever heard.

So Tomorrowland is a bit graceless and most definitely a B-movie. But it’s a Fun Movie and has the virtue of taking a big ball of symbolism and subtext and blasting it into our faces like a reviving bucket of cold water. The soundtrack is superb, the special effects and design first-rate, the acting really above the call of duty for the script, and if it’s a bit slapdash, it at least did a slapdash job of something worth doing.

We can still make it, people!

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2015 in Movie

 

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Jurassic World: Extinction of a Classic

I was six years old when Jurassic Park came out. As a young Dinosaur buff, this was a remarkable experience: iconic creatures of the ancient past brought to life in a way that totally blew away the lumbering, ungainly stop-motion lizards and puppets of productions past. It was a movie that helped define a generation, redefined the popular image of Dinosaurs and set a new standard for special effects. Given that stunning contribution, the very last thing we needed was another one… I admit, the raptor/Chris Pratt stuff was pretty cool. Just a pity this was the movie it was in…

Twenty years after the disaster on Isla Nublar, the original Jurassic Park has been replaced by Jurassic World, a massive and incredibly popular theme park. Eager to maintain their spectacular profits, they’ve taken things to the next level and created a new Dinosaur from scratch, Indominus rex, a super-dinosaur hybrid with the viciousness, size and cunning turned up to eleven. Owen Grady, an ex-serviceman and now Velociraptor trainer is forced into drastic action to protect the head administrator of Jurassic World, his sometime girlfriend, her nephews and all the innocent visitors from a gory doom, while opposing both the hubristic scientist Henry Wu, one of the masterminds of the original Jurassic Park project, and the bombastic corporate man who wants to militarize the Dinosaurs.

And it was with that last point that I realized why, in particular, this Jurassic Park sequel bugged me so much. Because it isn’t Jurassic Park, it’s Aliens. The Velociraptors are the Aliens, the Indominus is the Queen, the military/corporate guy is the military/corporate guy, and the strung-out, terrified business lady is…I dunno, the one Marine who starts crying and saying ‘this can’t be happening’ partway through? But instead of having memorable heroes played by the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Lance Henriksen, we’ve got Chris Pratt, generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18445 and that neckbeard in the control room. And instead of Newt, the traumatized yet brave little girl, we have generic brothers-who-don’t-get-along set #11233.

A lot of people who share my interests were rolling our eyes at the fact that the franchise that once pioneered a new image for Dinosaurs has now gotten so attached to that image that they refuse to take a step beyond it by, for example, remembering to put feathers on the raptors. But that was by far the least of it. As a friend of mine mentioned after we’d left the cinema, a good marketing move would be to release a special cut of the movie that removes all the humans. Because the human characters are almost to the last individual rage-inducingly obnoxious.

Actually, Pratt’s character is alright if only because he’s the only one who acts like he has a brain and realizes how totally absurd everyone else’s behaviour is. The leading lady is that kind of headstrong (read: shrill) corporate-lady archetype with a cellphone always on the go, an inability to keep her word to children and a sense of dignity and poise about as firm and unwavering as a block of silky tofu. Although credit where it’s due, not many people can sprint or forge through the rainforest in stiletto heels. The CEO tries to act like he has principles and ethics but just comes across as a hotshot and a Modern Major General of the business world. When things start coming unravelled the military/corporate guy, already a blowhard, spends all his screentime gazing at the carnage like he’s trying desperately not to masturbate at the sight. Control-room-neckbeard-guy is only slightly above-average for the pathetic parody of milennials that we’re all routinely called upon to somehow find funny these days, and the kids are the stereotypes from every teen-with-a-kid-brother set from every movie ever.

What’s particularly bizarre is how the human characters keep stealing screen time from the Dinosaurs. In particular the kids: they’re there to spend time with their aunt (the shrill corporate lady) and doing their best to have fun while coping with the unspoken knowledge that their parents are finalizing a divorce in their absence. And my question is, why the hell is this even here? Do you think I showed up to a movie about genetically engineered Dinosaurs to listen to an angsty preteen and his indifferent big brother trying to bond? Their presence sort of serves the plot, in the same way that the two kids in the first movie did, but we didn’t require a lot of background on their home life for them to have character development in a situation that involved wilderness survival and Dinosaurs!

As for the Dinosaurs themselves, the raptors and the fictional Indominus are the only ones that spend the movie as more than window-dressing. It’s kind of funny how the T-Rex doesn’t really show up until the very end in a way that suggests the writers going, “Oh, crap, we just remembered this is a Jurassic Park movie!” The CGI is alright but very obvious compared to the animatronics of the original. The cinematography is of the Michael Bay cameraman-with-epilepsy school of not letting you get a really good look at the action or the CG creatures – which might explain why one character gets a howl of “IT CAN CAMOUFLAAAAGE” as his last words because it isn’t completely obvious at first that this is the case.

What gets me is that the first two Jurassic Park movies managed to drive a dramatic plot of being chased by Dinosaurs while still paying lip service to actual animal behaviour. In this movie – and this is also part of where the Aliens reference comes from – the Dinosaurs aren’t dangerous and extraordinary creatures, they’re just kind of…monsters. Even to the point of seeming evil at times. For example, when the pterosaurs (which are, admittedly, not Dinosaurs) get out of their enclosure, they immediately swoop, Hitchcock-esque, onto the public and start massacring them, because…reasons, I guess.

The first Jurassic Park movie (and arguably the second one) had a theme of wondering at these iconic animals from long ago whilst at the same time tragic in our inability to share a world with them, a doom brought back to life by corporate greed and hubris. At hardly any point in the movie are we invited to marvel at these creatures. The theme-park ambience removes any sense of discovering these animals in a natural state, something that again you get from the first two movies. Personally, I think a day at Jurassic World looks like it would be more exhausting and stressful than fun. And as for a theme against corporate greed and immorality? They seem to be trying for that (again aping Aliens) but it might have been a little more palatable if it wasn’t for the demented amount of product placement sharing the screen with it!

I’ve been saying for ages now that Hollywood seems determined to rehash, cheapen and homogenize every unique or outstanding thing they’ve ever created, and Jurassic World was exactly the committee-designed, money-grubbing piece of tripe I expected it to be. Jurassic Park was great because it was unique, cutting-edge and evoked a range of emotions. Jurassic World makes a ton of references, hangs them on a framework that is fundamentally identical to every action movie ever created (except Mad Max: Fury Road, of course) and doesn’t care if it actually achieves anything special or memorable or unique as long as the money rolls in. And if it doesn’t care, then why should I?

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2015 in Movie

 

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